Every second of your life, every single thing of which you are aware – sounds, sights, thoughts, feelings – and even that of which you’re not aware – unconscious mental and physical processes – can be directly mapped to what’s happening in your brain. Over time, patterns emerge and actually shape your brain’s form and function. What you do, experience, think, hope, and imagine physically changes your brain through what’s called experience-dependent neuroplasticity.
Every minute of every day, you are literally shaping your brain.
In the article, What Stress Does to Your Brain, Jo Marchant, PHd in genetics and medical microbiology and author of Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body, explains:
Your brain reflects the way that you think throughout your life. You kind of shape it by your thoughts and your behaviors. If you play violin for eight hours a day, then the parts of the brain responsible for helping you to play the violin will get larger. If you’re thinking stressful thoughts for the whole day then those parts of the brain are going to get larger and other parts of the brain will deteriorate.
In his book, Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, Rick Hanson, PHd and psychologist, writes:
There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes the shape it rests upon; the modern update is that the brain takes the shape the mind rests upon. For instance, if you regularly rest your mind upon worries, self criticism, and anger, then your brain will gradually take that shape – will develop neural structures and dynamics of anxiety, low sense of worth, and prickly reactivity to others. On the other hand, if you regularly rest your mind upon, for example noticing you’re all right right now, seeing the good in yourself and letting go…then your brain will gradually take the shape of calm strength, self confidence, and inner peace.
How Neuroplasticity Physically Happens
What you pay attention to, think, feel, and want, and how you react and behave contribute to shaping your brain because of the specific ways your brain is activated over and over again in each activity. Neuroplasticity is physically accomplished as follows:
- Active brain regions get more blood flow, since they need more oxygen and glucose.
- The genes inside neurons get more or less active depending on the frequency with which the neuron fires.
- Neural connections that aren’t active weaken and wither. Use it or lose it.
- The synapses, connections between neurons, get more sensitive when routinely activated simultaneously, and new neurons are formed, producing thicker neural layers, in busy regions. Neurons that fire together, wire together.
The same principles that apply to physical exercise modifying your body work for neuroplasticity. A single yoga class or running three miles one time isn’t going to get noticeable results – except some brutal soreness. But months of practicing yoga or lacing up your running shoes will gradually have lasting effects on your body.
How To Turn On Neuroplasticity
Twenty years ago, it was believed that the brain was only capable of change during critical periods in childhood. Now, we know that, while plastic change occurs much easier in adolescence, your brain is capable of making alterations until the day you die. Harnessing the process of neuroplasticity isn’t quite as simple in adulthood as some of the neuro-hype would have you believe, but it can be encouraged under specific circumstances.
In the article, What Actually IS Neuroplasticity?, Dr. Sarah McKay, neuroscientist, explains it like this:
Plasticity dials back ‘ON’ in adulthood when specific conditions that enable or trigger plasticity are met. ‘What recent research has shown is that under the right circumstances, the power of brain plasticity can help adults minds grow. Although certain brain machinery tends to decline with age, there are steps people can take to tap into plasticity and reinvigorate that machinery,’ explains (Dr. Michael) Merzenich. These circumstances include focused attention, determination, hard work and maintaining overall brain health.
I leveraged neuroplasticity to recover from a serious brain injury, the result of a suicide attempt, by performing targeted exercises to direct neuroplastic change, both cognitive and physical, daily for years. (Read more here.) While remarkable stories of healing, like mine and the ones Norman Doidge shares in his book, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, demonstrate the common ingredient of “unusual willpower,” they also hint at what’s possible with focus, time, determination, hard work, and neuroplasticity.
In the article Norman Doidge: the man teaching us to change our minds, when asked, “The people you focus on in the book seem to share an unusual willpower. Do neuroplastic techniques require a particular cast of mind?” Doidge replies:
When you are going against paradigm, whether you are a clinician or a patient who is willing to try something, you are going to get someone who is quite high on openness psychologically and very conscientious, because to do a lot of these interventions you have to apply yourself diligently. High openness and extreme conscientiousness don’t often go together, but when they do it’s a killer combination.
Putting Neuroplasticity To Work For You
Neuroplasticity has allowed people who have had strokes and brain trauma to recover amazing functionality. It allowed me to recover from a serious brain injury. Because of neuroplasticity, congenitally blind people’s brains have figured out new ways to see, and children with cerebral palsy have learned to move more fluidly. People with autism have made huge cognitive strides, because of the ability of their brains to rewire themselves. Experience-based neuroplasticity has also been used successfully to ease chronic pain. The examples go on and on.
Neuroplasticity makes your brain amazingly resilient. However, it also makes it very vulnerable to outside and internal, usually unconscious, influences. Norman Doidge calls this duality the “plastic paradox” in The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.
Also because of neuroplasticity, habits, thought patterns, and ways of reacting to the world – good and bad – get etched into your brain. Worrying about money. Catastrophizing about a mistake at work. Fixing a cocktail to unwind at the end of the day. Replaying painful memories over and over. Smoking cigarettes. Getting an internet porn fix. Whether you want to call them habits or addictions, your regular activities literally get wired into your brain.
Addiction happens because of neuroplastic change. Unlearning a habit involves weakening the connections between neurons through disuse and is just as plastic a process. You can utilize neuroplasticity to replace entrenched, unhealthy behaviors and patterns in your life with better ones. With focus and determined effort to consistently practice new ways of reacting, thinking, or behaving over time, your brain will respond by making permanent changes to reinforce the new habits.
When you change your habits, you change your brain. In the piece, Your Thoughts Can Change Your Life, Patricia Faust, Gerontologist and Brain Health Specialist, writes:
What if you stepped out of that fear response and decided to go all in for that new challenging, opportunity. Your brain has the ability to restructure gray matter in reaction to this change of stimulus. When you change what you think, say or do, you change your emotional state. Emotions actually change what will ‘be fired together to wire together’. You are creating new neural pathways to support your new way of thinking (neuroplasticity).
In the years following my suicide attempt, I rewired my brain, through mental health tools, meditation, and mindfulness practices, to think more positively, be more resilient, and stay consistently calm and happy.
Neuroplasticity has substantial 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 your 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. We have grossly underestimated how our minds and brains can help us and the huge role they play in shaping our lives and realities.
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