To See the Brain Through the Forest

Dr. Shimi Kang bends to tie the laces on her runners. She’s lit by the sun streaming through the tall emerald tapestry of century-old Douglas fir. The moist air hangs heavy from plant membrane breath, and there is an inaudible chemical conversation—the forest system’s nerves are talking.

Walking through this ancient grove in Vancouver is one way she moves into a play mindset, which is an area she specializes in. Her feet meet moss and mud as she steps over the reach of tree root dendrites, while bacteria follow the water in movements so slow, they are minutiae.

Her journey through this organic Earth system echoes her voyage through the complexities of the control centres of humankind. She seeks new paths through the woods, just as she explores fresh methods to understand and optimize the human brain. She explains her strides in this elder network of meandering pathways are what, in part, she needs to remain on-course to find out more about the trails in our cerebral cortex. 

“The human brain, which has 100 million neurons, all of them interconnected to form more than a billion connections, is the most complex thing in the whole universe. It's also the most intimate thing, right? It's our thoughts, it's our feelings, it's our relationships, who we are, our identity.” She’s been captivated by its workings since medical school. “There was nothing I wanted to do more than spend a lifetime learning about it.”

Dr. Kang’s been studying psychiatry and neuroscience for the past two decades, using her knowledge to develop science-based methods for optimizing the brain’s power. After her three children presented with types of neurodiversity, it occurred to her that she was likely also neurodivergent, positing that perhaps it’s her own brain she’s been trying all these years to understand.

As a keynote speaker at the APEGA Nexus Conference on June 7–8, Dr. Kang will teach attendees how to harness the power of play to adapt and thrive, based on the latest research on the development of our prefrontal cortex, a region of our brain that directs our highest levels of thinking and functioning. “Our need to play is so important that the impulse is just as fundamental as the drive to sleep or eat.” Aligning with the conference theme, she’ll connect attendees with their own possibilities by sharing how to use play to improve your professional and personal life by becoming more innovative, connected, and resilient.

A playful nature

She teaches about a whole life diet, which includes not only the foods we consume, but also our experiences and their impact on us and our physiology. Almost 80 per cent of the Canadian population is chronically sleep deprived and chronically dehydrated, Dr. Kang explains. “It’s pretty common sense to sleep and drink water, yet common sense has become uncommon practice.” Her recommendations oftentimes relay things our own intuition is telling us.

Part of living intuitively is intertwining play into our lives, she teaches, and play is not just recreational activities—it’s a mindset. “It’s being comfortable with uncertainty, without knowing a predictable pattern. It’s being comfortable with mistakes and learning through trial and error.” Dr. Kang explains the opposite of play is perfectionism—the inability to make mistakes. Due to many factors, including social media and overvaluation in our school system, perfectionism is on the rise, especially in younger generations. Dr. Kang is opposing this trend with a push to retrain our mental frameworks to be more flexible.

“Humans’ innate nature is to play, explore, be curious, and be comfortable with mistakes and learn from trial and error. For anybody who thinks they don’t know how to play, the message is yes, you do.” Dr. Kang explains one must shed perfectionism like the layers of an onion and shed the parts of culture or society that obscure this more limber mindset.

“It’s up to us to recognize that, especially now, in our world that is rapidly changing, is highly disruptive, and has exponential growth, there is no roadmap or manual for things like the pandemic or social justice issues. We need to bring a mindset of adaptability more than ever."

Chardi Kala, a synative salve

Dr. Kang shares she’s always wanted to save the world—and she’s changing brainwaves with her knowledge sharing. In 2022, she was named one of Canada’s 100 Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network. “We all want to be superheroes, deep, deep down. We all want to have an impact on the world—that was instilled in me.” Her background is Sikh, which she credits with ensuring contribution and service are large aspects of her life.

The women closest to her modelled Chardi Kala, a Punjabi term for the Sikh ideal of maintaining optimism and positivity despite adversity. Seeing a link between this social concept and her research on the human brain, she found what she denotes a perfect connection. “There’s a neuroscience concept called ‘where focus goes, neurons grow.’ When you focus on the positive, you pull yourself to your cortex, your top brain, your thinking brain, your problem-solving brain. When you do this with a greater sense of good, you get a flood of oxytocin and these really powerful molecules like brain-derived growth factor. This one concept captures so much of the human essence.”

In the current unique environment of cultural shifts promoting mental well-being and diversity, as well as technological advancement, there’s no better time than right now to shift our thinking to align with concepts such as the Chardi Kala, Dr. Kang explains. “We are at a moment of profound challenges in our world and profound opportunities. There’s exponential disruption everywhere. We’re seeing unprecedented levels of burnout, stress, anxiety, disconnection, polarization, hate, and even perfectionism. All of those are at odds with innovation, adaptability, and creative solutions. I call it the two opposing realities of our 21st-century world. The solution here is people—ultimately the exchange of ideas.”

An axon for adaptation

She explains the solution she sees and seeks is adaptability and diversity—bringing diverse people to exchange ideas to solve big challenges in innovative ways. “We need points of reference from the entire fabric of humanity to make solutions. It’s the spirit of collaboration we want to move forward, together, shoulder to shoulder.” Or as Dr. Kang further asserts, shoulder to shoulder, and bit by bit, saying the next step in human evolution is a relationship with technology, at a very intimate level. “I call it the fire of our time,” she says, likening it to when humankind’s ancestors learned to harness the power of fire.

“Those who did, went further and farther than ever before, and those who didn’t, got burnt and burned down the village. If we use it well, just imagine the possibilities.” Dr. Kang has no doubt technology is changing our bodies and our brains, not to mention our society, which is why it’s important to reflect on what kind of message your use sends across your axons—stress, cortisol hits of pleasure, or learning, connection, and creativity.

Meanwhile, she unplugs from blogging, from researching, from teaching, and admires the myelin sheath of bark coating the layered insides of the age-old trees, each with rings of growth recording sustenance and environmental trial. The forest, like our society, is a heaving, sighing network, sharing impulses of intertwining information. Fungi source nutrients, and branches grip one another in affable handshakes to protect the forest floor ecosystem. Dr. Kang’s roots of knowledge extend to show us where we, too, can find the sustenance to be our best selves.

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