In the 1980s, researchers at The University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) confirmed that the human brain remodels itself following the “Hebbian rule.” Donald Hebb, a Canadian psychologist, first proposed that “Neurons that fire together, wire together” meaning that the brain continually alters its physical form and function based on incoming stimuli.
In other words, brain activities which occur together, strengthen connections to increase their operational teamwork. This is a necessary component for all learning and improvement. This morphing ability of the brain came to be known as known as neuroplasticity.
What Is Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity is an umbrella term referring to the ability of your brain to reorganize itself, both physically and functionally, throughout your life due to your environment, behavior, thinking, and emotions. Science used to believe that the brain was only changeable during certain periods in childhood. While it is true that the brain is much more plastic in the early years and capacity declines with age, plasticity happens throughout your life.
Harnessing neuroplasticity as an adult does require extra effort and specific circumstances, but it can be done. What you pay attention to, what you think, feel, and want, and how you react and behave all physically shape your brain. The point is you can intentionally change your brain.
Two Primary Ways You Can Drive Neuroplasticity
Because neuroplasticity follows the Hebbian rule, it’s fundamentally reversible. Neurons that fire together wire together, but neurons that don’t, won’t. You’ve got a “use it or lose it” brain. Information rarely accessed and behaviors seldom practiced cause neural pathways to weaken until connections may be completely lost in a process called “synaptic pruning.”
Neuroplasticity can hurt or help your brain and your mental health. It’s just as easy to degrade your brain’s function as it is to improve it, intentionally or unintentionally. Dr. Michael Merzenich, one of the original UCSF scientists confirming neuroplasticity and author of Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life calls backward neuroplastic change “negative learning” and writes:
It is almost just as easy to drive changes that can impair one’s memory or slow down one’s mental or physical control as it is to improve one’s memory or speed up the brain’s actions.”
Neuroplastic change occurs in response to stimuli processed in the brain which can originate either internally or externally.
Externally Driven Change
From childhood through adulthood, the events of your life shape your brain. As little people grow, interact with others, and explore the world, connections are wired in their brains based on their experiences. When you’re young, most of what happens is out of your control. As adults, our brains are reflections of our daily routines. Your habits, both good and bad, literally get wired into your brain.
Whether you’re 22 or 72, Dr. Merzenich advises you to live in a manner that asks you to use your brain. Your brain likes to be efficient and to minimize the effort expended by staying in its routine. However, your routine habits may even be contributing to your brain’s decline. Your brain needs novelty and challenge to grow and change.
It’s important to kick your brain out of its comfort zone and into the enhancement zone by doing things that are unfamiliar and mentally taxing. You’ll want to push your brain beyond the norm.
Ways to Drive Neuroplastic Change Externally
- Try something new. This can be as involved as learning a different language, going back to school, taking dance classes, or mastering a musical instrument. It also can be as simple as trying out a new restaurant, reading a book out of your normal genre (especially fiction), or listening to an unfamiliar style of music.
- Mix things up. Use your nondominant leg to start up the stairs or your nondominant hand to eat or brush your teeth. Move the mouse to the other side of the keyboard. Sleep on a different side of the bed. Take a new route to work. Get your brain off of automatic.
- Turn off the GPS. Use a map and your brain. You could even get intentionally lost and try to find your way back without using your GPS or a map. (There’s a whole sport like this called orienteering.)
- Exercise in a new way. Try a whole new activity. If bicycling, vary your routes and terrains. If running or walking, get outside when possible, forget the headphones, and alter surfaces, paths, and scenery. The idea is to get your brain in the workout.
- Train your brain. I know there is a whole debate about whether brain training works or not. There is no doubt in my mind or Dr. Merzenich’s. It helped me recover from a brain injury. Dr. Merzenich went on to start Posit Science which offers brain training based on neuroplasticity and science (Brain HQ). Not all brain training is the same.
- Take a trip. Travel to a new city, a new country or just down the road. A change of scenery wakes up your brain, sparks creativity, and can even boost happiness. A new environment challenges your brain and takes it off auto-pilot. You have to think about even the small things when in an unfamiliar place.
- Be social. Talk to people face-to-face. Engage in conversations and really listen. Make new friends unlike any you already have. Higher social engagement is associated with higher cognitive functioning and reduced risks of cognitive decline.
Internally Driven Change
To encourage neuroplastic change internally means to influence the operations of your brain through working with your mind. According to Merzenich in the video Make Your Brain Smarter Every Day @ Any Age mental exercise drives plasticity just as much as outside activity does.
Your mind sculpts your brain. Everything you think, hope, feel, and imagine physically changes your brain – for better or worse. You can intentionally harness this process for your benefit. Daniel G. Amen, MD writes in You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life:
…we can actually use the mind to change the brain. The simple truth is that how we focus our attention, how we intentionally direct the flow of energy and information through our neural circuits, can directly alter the brain’s activity and its structure.”
Ways to Drive Neuroplastic Change Internally
The research about the positive impact of mindfulness on the brain and mental health points to neuroplasticity as the cause. In mindfulness, by intentionally directing attention inward and cultivating awareness of the breath or thoughts and feelings, you are becoming aware of your brain’s Default Mode Network (DFM) and exerting control over it. When you guide your DFM, you’re interrupting habitual thought patterns and orienting your brain in the present moment.
Along with the many scientifically proven benefits of meditation for your brain, it increases neuroplasticity. Meditation has been proven to decrease stress, anxiety, and depression, which have been shown to limit neurogenesis, the birth new brain cells. And you don’t need to meditate for years on end to start reaping benefits either. One study showed brain changes after just eight weeks of regular meditation.
Neurons fire and chemicals are released in your brain whether something is real or imagined. On brain scans, imaginative thoughts activate many identical brain areas, which directly influence you, physically and emotionally. From a neuroscientific perspective, imagining an act and doing it are not that different. Visualization allows you to put your imagination to work for you to change your brain. Research has validated that the practice influences physical changes from muscle strength to brain pathways.