All of us are born with a nervous system that isn’t just capable of change but is designed to change. It is because of the incredible power of your brain known as neuroplasticity that:
- Your brain is not fixed or “hard-wired” at all.
- It changes in response to your experiences, thoughts, and actions.
- This physical and functional allows you to think differently.
- Neuroplasticity is how all learning takes place.
- Neuroplastic change allows you to recover from some mental conditions and heal from trauma.
- You can adapt and are resilient because of neuroplasticity.
Previously, it was believed that only the young brain was plastic during certain critical growth periods in childhood. But scientific research proved that wrong. The truth is:
The most widely accepted conclusion of current research in neuroscience is that of neuroplasticity: Our brains grow, change, and adapt at all times in our lives.
Virtually everyone who studies the brain is astounded at how plastic it is.” (Kurt Fischer, Harvard Medical School)
This Is How Neuroplasticity Works on A Neurological Level
Research shows that consistently repeating a feeling, thought, or behavior leads to physical changes in your brain. Billions upon billions of neurons are interconnected in your brain to form a complex set of neural pathways, and your experiences, memories, and all the stuff that makes you “you” is represented by the unique pattern of the quadrillion connections between your neurons. This pattern is called your “connectome”.
Every time you perform an action or think a thought or feel a feeling, electrical currents travel down the pathways in your brain, from neuron to neuron, delivering chemical messages. The more you perform that particular action, the stronger the connection grows between the neurons on the path, making the message travel faster. With time and repetition, a behavior or a thought becomes automatic and the default for you on this well-worn pathway. And the corresponding brain areas physically change size — growing and shrinking as connections are strengthened or lost.
Okay, that was a very quick, simplistic explanation. But I don’t believe it’s necessary to get any more technical for you to appreciate just how incredible this is.
To me, having this mental image of billions of neurons, frantically sending messages around all day, working on strengthening and weakening connections — has been enough to rethink how I view myself.
I have a completely new appreciation and fascination for my own body and brain. I now sincerely believe that I can change how I think, feel, react, and work. And not because of some empty, inspirational Instagram post. But because of real, peer-reviewed scientific research. I think that the concept of neuroplasticity is exciting and that more of us should be talking about this amazing ability of our brains to change and for us to be able to guide that change.
In my opinion, every self-development or productivity book should start with a chapter on neuroplasticity. You can’t talk about learning or habit formation without it.
Principles to Remember When Guiding Neuroplastic Change
There are a few nuances to keep in mind if you want to leverage this incredible feature of your nervous system to your advantage.
1. Neuroplasticity in itself is not the goal
Neuroplasticity in itself is not brain change. It’s a state of the brain and nervous system that allows for change. It’s the nervous system’s capacity to change in response to experience. The goal is to learn how to access this state — how to leverage this capacity— and intentionally direct it to achieve particular goals or changes.
It might sound like a small detail, but it’s an important nuance to keep in mind. When you’re in a state of neuroplasticity, your brain is changing from every experience at that moment. So you want to make sure you are making the most of the learning experience — more on that later.
Now, onto the more practical part.
2. You need to pay deliberate attention
Our brains don’t change with every single experience — 24/7. You need a cocktail of neurochemicals released into your brain to access a state of neuroplasticity. And the good news is that you can learn how to control the release of these neurochemicals subjectively. You do this through deliberate attention. If you want to learn as an adult, there needs to be a high level of engagement. You need to be curious. You need to be interested. Alertness and focus are key.
The three main chemicals in the neuroplasticity chemical cocktail are as follows:
- Epinephrine: aids alertness
- Acetylcholine: aids focus
- Dopamine: aids motivation and reward
Their job is to highlight the neural circuits that need to change, increasing the likelihood of long-term change. The best way to do this is by following this 4-step protocol, outlined in Episode 6 of Huberman Lab (How to Focus to Change Your Brain).
3. You Need Rest
Accessing the state of neuroplasticity happens during waking states. However, the actual rewiring and reconfiguration of your neural circuits happen during non-deep-sleep rest. That is great news because it basically means that there is no point in trying to engage your brain at maximum capacity at all times or sacrificing sleep to get stuff done.
So, consider this your permission to relax.
We think we’re getting more done by pushing ourselves, but we’re unknowingly hurting our long-term learning process. The discipline to stop is just as important as the motivation to start. Solid research shows that 90 minutes is about the longest period you can expect to maintain intense focus and effort toward learning. After 90 minutes, you need to give your brain a break.
Rest includes deep sleep, naps, relaxation, or any state where you’re not focused on learning (like a walk, but no podcast!). Also, it’s best to space intense learning bouts two to three hours apart. Most people’s brains can’t do more than 270 minutes of intense learning bouts per day.
4. Making Mistakes Is Optimal for Neuroplasticity
To access optimal plasticity, you need to create mismatches or errors in how you perform things. Your brain needs to take note that something is wrong; something is different; or something isn’t being achieved.
Now, there’s a lot of hype around flow states. You know…that feeling of something being effortless, losing track of time, and being completely immersed in a task. While being in a flow state can be hugely productive and enjoyable, it’s not an optimal mode for learning. Flow is an expression of nervous system capabilities already embedded in you, of something you already know how to do.
Real learning is meant to be chaotic. Mario Andretti, one of the most successful F1 race car drivers, famously said:
If you have everything under control, you’re not moving fast enough.”
Making errors is critical for learning because it cues up the forebrain. It makes the nervous system pay attention to what’s not working and adjust accordingly.
So, two things to keep in mind are:
1. Balance the difficulty level
It is important to balance the difficulty level when you are learning a new skill, whether a motor or a cognitive skill. When the task is too easy, your nervous system is not learning from trial-and-error feedback. When the task is too difficult, you’ll lose motivation and quit. Research shows that the proper ratio for success vs. errors is 85-15 percent. So when you are learning or teaching, you want the difficulty level so that there is around a 15 percent error rate.
Don’t worry too much about the specifics. (I have no idea how to get a ‘15 percent error rate’ either.) The important point is to keep in mind that errors are essential for learning, so you don’t want to avoid them.
2. Appreciate the feelings of frustration
I hope you made it this far because this one was Liiiife Chaaaaaanging for me. Most of us don’t like making errors. We get frustrated and annoyed. We feel like we’re wasting our time and are “just not cut out for this.”
But here’s the thing: this feedback loop when making errors automatically triggers the release of epinephrine and acetylcholine. (Remember the cocktail we talked about earlier?) It means our brain is simply paying attention. The negative response is meant to focus you — not necessarily make you feel uncomfortable or frustrated. Those are your cognitive interpretations of what’s happening. It’s just a feeling. You turned it into something negative. Something to avoid.
Instead, it can be a sign to you that this is exactly when you need to make the most of the increased alertness and focus to persevere and “embrace the suck” of learning something new. If you can find a way to leverage the frustration toward drilling deeper into what you’re doing, you are setting yourself up for terrific neuroplasticity and rapid learning. Even more, if you walk away frustrated, you are using the state of plasticity to rewire your brain according to the negative thoughts and feelings you’re having at that moment.
That’s what I did years ago after my first math tutoring session: I interpreted my frustration as a reason to quit. Unknowingly, by doing this, I was reinforcing my belief that I am not good at math and there is no point in trying. According to Huberman, this impatience in dealing with frustration is why most people fail to achieve their goals:
Errors are the basis for neuroplasticity and learning…Humans do not like this feeling of frustration and making errors. The few that do do exceedingly well…The ones that don’t generally don’t learn much.”
So, feel the frustration and interpret it as a good sign. Imagine it as the neurochemicals sloshing around in your head, setting you up for a phenomenal learning opportunity. I wrote in more detail about the importance of mistakes for rapid learning, all coming from Huberman Lab Episode 7 (Using Failures, Movement & Balance to Learn Faster).
Everything changed for me once I started learning about neuroplasticity. While it’s exciting, it’s not a magic potion. It still takes a basic understanding and effort to get the most out of this physiological tool. So, here are 4 things to keep in mind:
- Neuroplasticity is a state. Learn how to leverage this state to achieve your goals.
- The adult brain won’t change from every thought or action. To achieve a state of optimal neuroplasticity, you need to pay deliberate attention. Focus and alertness will release the necessary neurochemical cocktail.
- Real brain change happens during rest. Break up your workday into 90-minute learning sessions, and take regular breaks (real brain breaks!)
- Making mistakes is good for you. Lean into the feelings of frustration and recognize them for what they are: your brain working hard to adjust its circuitry.
Hi! I’m Charlotte Grysolle and here’s what I’m up to:
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I am 90 years young and still learning new skills. My wife did all the cooking. When she passed 6 years ago, I had to learn to cook. It was a steep learning curve . Now I enjoy cooking and baking, discovering new recipes all the time. Never stop learning no matter how old. It keeps me young.
Good for you and your brain, James. 🙂
Fascinating. I learned so many new things about neuroplasticity from this piece, for example, the importance for rest. Thank you so much.
Wonderful read Debbie. I think the information here is very well put out by Charlotte. Thank you for sharing!
Yes, I agree. It is important information.
What a great read. I’m so happy to learn that making mistakes is good for you, because I’m pretty good at that. Thank you both.
Me too, Elle! 🙂