In fact, your brain is constantly altering synapses and neural pathways based on the input received. In Neuroplasticity: Are You Making A Masterpiece or Mess of Your Brain, I write: (There’s also a detailed explanation of how neuroplasticity physically happens, in case you’re interested.)
In every moment of your life, every single thing of which you are aware – sounds, sights, thoughts, feelings – and even that of which you are not aware – unconscious mental and physical processes – are based in and can be directly mapped to neural activity in your brain. What you do, experience, think, hope and imagine physically changes your brain through what is called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. The neurological explanation of how this happens is complicated, but the basic concept is simple: every minute of every day you are shaping your brain.
Neuroplasticity makes your brain extremely resilient and is the process by which all permanent learning takes place. Neuroplasticity has allowed people to recover from stroke, injury, and birth abnormalities, improve symptoms of autism, ADD and ADHD, learning disabilities and other brain deficits, ease chronic pain, pull out of depression and addictions, and reverse obsessive-compulsive patterns. (Read more: You’re Not Stuck With The Brain You’re Born With)
It used to be believed that neuroplasticity only occurred during critical periods in childhood. While it’s true that your brain changes much easier in childhood, your brain is capable of making alterations throughout your life. Harnessing the process of neuroplasticity in adulthood isn’t quite as simple as some of the neuro-hype would have you think, but it can be accomplished under specific circumstances.
However, this same characteristic, which makes your brain amazingly adaptable, also makes it very vulnerable to outside and internal, usually unconscious, influences. Because of neuroplasticity, bad habits and negative mental traits literally get wired into your brain.
Your brain also grows by creating new brain cells, a process called neurogenesis. Until fairly recently, it was believed that you were born with all the neurons you were going to have. It wasn’t until the 1990s that neurogenesis was confirmed in the brains of humans, other primates, and several species.
In Five Ways To Grow New Brain Cells, I explain:
The good news is that research indicates that new neurons are produced throughout adulthood. The bad news is that most of them don’t survive. More than half of the new cells die within just a few weeks of being born. It turns out that many of the neurons can be rescued from death by learning. Studies show that new neurons are kept alive by effortful learning, a process involving concentration in the present moment over an extended period of time and enriched environments.
If some kind of effortful learning happens when the cells are about a week old, the new cells become incorporated into brain circuits used for learning. The baby brain cells are then used to learn more efficiently in the future. This is a prime example of “use it or lose it.” In turn, some processes of learning and mental activity appear to depend on the presence of new brain cells.
Encouraging Neuroplasticity and Neurogenesis
Neuroplasticity has possible implications for every aspect of human nature and culture including medicine, psychiatry, psychology, relationships, education, and more. Where it stands to have the most potential is for the individual, in their own life. Because you can learn to consciously control your thinking, reactions, and behavior, and some of the experiences you have, you can oversee your own “self-directed neuroplasticity” and invite change and healing into your life.
I leveraged neuroplasticity to recover from a serious brain injury, the result of a suicide attempt. (Read my story here.) Over years, I rewired my brain, through exercise, mental health tools, meditation, visualization, and mindfulness practices, to think more positively, be more resilient, and stay consistently calm and happy.
Research also shows that there are definite ways to encourage neurogenesis in the adult brain, which supports greater plasticity and may have therapeutic potential, for example in improving memory or rehabilitating from brain injury.
This infographic illustrates how to encourage neuroplasticity and neurogenesis: