How Neuroplasticity Hurts and Helps Your Mental Health Every Day

Your life shapes your brain. 

Because of neuroplasticity, the ability of your brain to change both form and function in response to your experiences, behaviors, and thinking, your habits, thought patterns, and ways of reacting to the world get etched into your brain.

Worrying about finances. Catastrophic thinking about a mistake at work. Having a drink to unwind at the end of the day. Replaying painful memories of your friend’s illness and death over and over in your head. Smoking cigarettes. All these things change the neuronal pathways of your brain. On the other hand, you can also imprint healthy habits in your brain, like exercising, meditating, thinking optimistically, or remaining calm when under stress.

What you do repeatedly – both good and bad – literally gets wired into the structure of your brain.

Neuroplasticity Is the Problem

It’s also because of neuroplasticity that some of the major brain illnesses and conditions show up in humans. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive and phobic behaviors, epilepsy, and more occur because of neuroplastic changes in the brain.

In his book, Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, Michael Merzenich explains:

Imagine a person is born with a brain that has an inherited a weakness that affects her ability to develop strong and reliable associations between the information about the real world and the ability to record things in her brain. This weakness in working memory and memory association degrades her ability to predict the next expected event. Compared to a normal individual, a very large number of events will be unexpected — surprises — for her brain.  As I described earlier, surprises in the brain get special treatment. We release noradrenaline when an unexpected experience occurs, and it alerts our brain in ways that assure we pay attention to it, to determine whether or not that surprise represents a danger or a potential reward for us.  If the surprise is interpreted to be neutral or positive, the brain also shoots out a pulse of dopamine. Dopamine release contributes to that little splash of curiosity or pleasure that is a frequent companion of the unexpected.

While measured amounts of these brain chemicals have necessary and positive effects in most people’s brains, an imbalance in modularity neurotransmitters like dopamine and noradrenaline can have severe consequences. If I were to artificially inject enough noradrenaline into your veins, you would become, intense, paranoid, and anxious. If I were to infuse enough dopamine into your brain, you would begin to hallucinate, become delusional, express your thoughts in a disordered way.  If that dopamine poisoning was elevated enough to reach a high constant level in your blood stream, it would have another insidious effect: it would amplify the difficulty that your brain has in controlling its memory associations and predictions. With its associative and predictive powers now fatally wounded, your brain would become a “surprise machine”; it would now be almost continuously dosing you with abnormally high levels of noradrenaline and dopamine.

We call this particular failure mode of a self-organizing plastic brain ‘schizophrenia.'”

Depression is a Neuroplastic Brain Pattern 

Barring a birth abnormality, we all have similar brain structure although the neuronal connections, determining the activation of and communication between brain circuits, are unique to an individual. A depressed brain usually starts out like most every other brain. The condition of depression develops over time and is the product of neuroplastic changes brought about by genetics, early childhood, life experiences, stress, social support, and a random factor we’ll call chance. (See: What Depression Looks Like in Your Brain)

At the most basic level, depression is merely a specific pattern of activated circuits in your brain and how they influence, interact, and impact each other.  The particular circuits excited over and over in your brain become the go-to default patterns for you.

In The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, Alex Korb Ph.D. explains:

In depression, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the brain. It’s simply that the particular tuning of neural circuits creates the tendency  toward a pattern of depression. It has to do with the way the brain deals with stress, planning, habits, decision making and a dozen other things — the dynamic interaction of all those circuits. And once a pattern starts to form, it causes dozens of tiny changes throughout the brain that create a downward spiral.

Plasticity Is Reversible and Is Also the Solution

In the 1980s, researchers at The University of California at San Franciso (UCSF) confirmed that the human brain remodels itself following the “Hebbian rule.” Donald Hebb was a Canadian psychologist who proposed that “Neurons that fire together, wire together” meaning that the brain reorganizes its circuitry based on experience. In other words, brain activities which occur together, strengthen their connections to increase their “teamwork” which is responsible for all learning and improvement. This morphing ability of the brain came to be known as neuroplasticity.

Showing that neuroplasticity followed Hebb’s law was important because it meant that brain plasticity was fundamentally reversible in the same way. The scientists at UCSF, of which Dr. Michael Merzenich was a member, conducted subsequent experiments confirming this. What this means to you is that you can improve your brain’s function – through the same neuroplastic processes.

It is possible to overcome a mental health condition,  for example, a phobia, depression, schizophrenia, by driving a brain back towards normal operation through neuroplastic change. Merzenich writes:

…we know that treating these disorders with drugs is simply not good enough. A dysfunctional brain is not a chemical stew that is missing a key spice. Brain chemistry is extremely complicated….The notion that a single drug can provide the sole basis of treatment for all that fouled up machinery in a complex condition like schizophrenia is patently absurd. There is a far greater prospect for achieving neurological recovery through brain training designed to reverse many distorting changes that are part of the illness – and through that training renormalizing the brain physically and chemically.”

Studies on brain plasticity conducted by Merzenich and his colleagues and many other scientists around the world have collectively demonstrated that many aspects of your brain power, intelligence, or control – in normal and neurologically impaired individuals – can be improved by intense and appropriately targeted behavioral training.

My Neuroplastic Road to Recovery

I leveraged neuroplasticity to recover from a serious brain injury, the result of a suicide attempt. (Read my story) Over years, I rewired my brain, through exercisemental health toolsmeditationvisualization, and mindfulness practices, to think more positively, be more resilient, and stay consistently calm and happy.

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.

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  1. Fascinating Debbie- Wow I had serious head injury back when I was 16, 12 hour op to release pressure on my brain , which 6 months later was replaced with something called German Keel bone and it was only last week when I was out walking that i again felt the pain that has had me not able to scuba dive, swim in cold water, and go out unprotected in extreme winds. that It all came back to be. I have never thought about in this sense before.Thanks for sharing your story- I feel very blessed that I do what you do to keep my brain healthy xxx.

    • Wow! Suzie, I’m glad things worked out. Your head injury does sound serious. You are the expert on you, and I’m sure you know what is advisable for you to do and not do. I would encourage you to live a brain healthy life. When our brains are compromised, as mine is too, it’s even more important than normal. Blessings to you.

  2. This is a very informative article, Debbie. It is reassuring to know that our brain can heal and that we have the ability to change our thinking. For me to learn to live in the present moment was huge. Letting go of reacting and worrying about the future has been life changing. Thanks for this informative article.

    • Thanks, Cathy. I’m glad you found it helpful. I find neuroplasticity so empowering. It’s the ability we all have to change our lives and brains. We just have to use it.

  3. Very interesting read, Debbie, especially when we believe that our brain shapes our lives, rather than what you mentioned: Your life shapes your brain. As humans, we are so powerful and have the solution to just about any problem. The issue is in the willingness to work towards making the change. Thank you for this post– I have learned something new today.

    • Vidya, you are so right.The main issue is us being willing to work towards a solution and make it happen and not seek a quick fix in a medication. Glad you learned something! I wish everyone would know that they possess the power to change their brains and lives.

  4. It’s so fascinating to learn more about this area. I feel like there is so much we will continue to learn about the power of our brains as research progresses – who knows what else we will learn. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks, Ellen. I find it fascinating too …and so empowering! No doubt, we will see much advancement in this area.

  5. A fascinating read Debbie. I’m always interested in the intersection that we see more and more between science and the spiritual…which makes perfect sense to me. I love the idea that what has been done can also be undone by basically creating new tracks for the brain to move along. 🙂

  6. Liz Wheaton Reply

    Fascinating and enlightening reading, Debbie. As a lifelong migraine sufferer I wonder if you have seen any connection to this debilitating condition in your research?

    • Liz,

      I am not familiar with research specific to migraines. However, neuroplasticity has been proven effective in reducing chronic pain, which you might find applicable in migraines. Read more about the work of Dr. Mascowitz with that in this blog: Pain Is in Your Brain (and can end there) I would also think visualization would be very helpful with migraines. More info on that here: Get the Picture Visualization physically changes your brain too. I used it daily when healing from my brain injury. It worked!

      Try different things. You can harness the power of neuroplasticity to help you. I would encourage to read Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself.

  7. John Scott Reply

    If i may pipe in Debbie and Liz on migraines. I used to get migraines with aura, increasingly frequent and severe. I had very major change to be very infrequent much less severe. I would attribute magnesium supplements (check out the right type, I’m not a doc), better sleep, breathing better and a regular mindfulness practice. I saw a regular doc once abut it who said, “yep, that’s a migraine, not much known about cures but you could take these pills when one comes on.” Oh was he wrong. Hope this lends some encouragement.

    • By all means, John. Thanks for the additional info. Glad you figured out how to help yourself.

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