Neuroplasticity, the ability of your brain to change both physical form and function in response to its environment, has become a buzzword promising that you can “rewire” your brain to improve almost everything. While there is some truth in these ideas, there’s also a lot of conflicting, misleading, and erroneous information out there.
The first thing you should know is that your brain is much more plastic in childhood, and plasticity declines with age. However, the good news is science has confirmed that you can access neuroplasticity for positive change in your life at any age, from birth until death. Harnessing neuroplasticity in adulthood requires intentional effort, but it can most definitely be accomplished. Here’s how.
What Exactly Is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is an umbrella term referring to the many capabilities of your brain to reorganize itself over your life in response to your environment, behavior, and internal experiences. The scientific truth of an adaptive brain was confirmed in the 1980s and replaced the formerly held belief that the adult brain was “hard-wired” after critical developmental periods in childhood.
The capability of your brain to change can be remarkably helpful. All learning and memory happen because of neuroplasticity. Having a neuroplastic brain has enabled people to recover from stroke, injury, and birth abnormalities, improve symptoms of autism, ADD and ADHD, learning disabilities and other brain deficits, recover from depression, anxiety, and addictions, reverse obsessive-compulsive patterns, and more.
However, this same characteristic, which makes your brain amazingly resilient, also makes it very vulnerable. It’s because of “negative neuroplasticity” that bad habits become ingrained in your brain, valuable skills are lost as your brain declines with age, and some major brain illnesses and conditions show up in humans. For example, depression is basically a brain pattern etched into a person’s brain over time through neuroplastic changes.
(To learn more about neuroplasticity, read 6 Basic Principles of Neuroplasticity.)
A Young Brain Is Always “On”
Your brain’s capacity for neuroplastic change diminishes over your lifetime. In the newborn brain, plasticity is always turned “on”. A baby’s brain has almost no ability to regulate brain change. Because of this, experiences in infancy have a long-lasting impact. As a baby begins to learn to control their attention, their brain also learns to regulate brain change and becomes more selective about what it allows to alter it. In other words, the “off” switch for neuroplasticity becomes more dominant.
The early “anything goes” and “always-on” plasticity period comes to an end. Permanent changes are then most often permitted only under certain conditions. This typically happens around the age of 25. The brain undergoes physical and chemical changes that increase the power of the plasticity “off” switch, and it begins to dominate. In other words, their brain increasingly only allows change to occur when it determines, according to its own standards, that it is important and wants to change. This is your chance to direct the process.
Encouraging Neuroplasticity as an Adult
In the adult brain, neuroplastic change is happening below conscious awareness most of the time. As explained above, this can help or hurt you. Harnessing and guiding neuroplasticity as an adult does require extra effort and specific circumstances, but science has undoubtedly proven that it can be done. The goal is for you to be able to access neuroplasticity to intentionally change your brain for the better.
Dr. Michael Merzenich, one of the original researchers confirming plasticity at UCSF, provides a wealth of science-based information about how to prime the adult brain for neuroplastic change. In his book, Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, he lists ten core principles necessary for the remodeling of your brain to take place. You can read my in-depth explanation of those here.
In this article, I want to cover some new information I came across by Dr. Andrew Huberman. Dr. Huberman is a tenured Professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine with a popular podcast. His laboratory studies neural regeneration, neuroplasticity, and brain states such as stress, focus, fear, and optimal performance.
How to Access Adult Plasticity
In one podcast, “Using Failures, Movement & Balance to Learn Faster,” Huberman suggests that extreme focus followed by rest is the key to making neuroplastic change. He covers how engaging in new physical behaviors can put the brain in a neuroplastic state that you can then apply to something else you want to learn or unlearn. He’s not specifically talking about only accessing neuroplasticity for physical skills requiring motor movements, like tennis or dancing. Although you certainly can use it that way if you want to. He’s talking about using physical movement as a gate to prime your mind and body to allow you to access plasticity for other things, such as learning or unlearning emotional and thinking patterns.
Extreme Focus and Making Mistakes
When learning something new, Huberman instructs us to focus for as long as we can and then just “a little bit more”. He says that in that “little bit more” period when your brain is experiencing the incongruity of making mistakes is what tells it “Something isn’t working. We need to make a change” He says that the making of errors over and over again is what cues your brain to change.
Specifically, he explains that the feedback from errors increases acetylcholine and epinephrine, which help to heighten focus. And then when you start getting it “a little bit right” or you can even take pleasure in the frustration of learning something new, your brain will reward you with dopamine which increases motivation and is necessary for plastic change.
The results from his lab and colleagues advise us that adults will benefit from shorter sessions of focus and learning with smaller increments of new information followed by “extreme rest”. He suggests one or two learning sessions per day lasting from seven to 30 minutes followed by 20 minutes of decompression.
Here’s the process:
- Pick times of day for learning when you naturally have high mental acuity. (For most people, this is going to be in the morning.)
- Practice something to the point that you are making errors. Keep making those errors for seven to 30 minutes. Getting frustrated is OK. The frustration can be the source of accelerated learning. Tell yourself the errors are a good thing. You’re learning. This view helps release dopamine. You’re trying to attach dopamine to the act of making mistakes.
- You’ve now created the optimal brain state for learning that one thing you are focusing on. But here’s the catch: your brain is also primed to make any other changes you may want to make.
- Exactly how long your brain is in a heightened learning state is variable. This depends on many individual things, like transporters and enzymes. Huberman posits that for around an hour your brain is in an optimal neuroplastic state. He suggests that this would be a good time to learn to play a musical instrument, speak another language, undertake a new physical skill, read a book or go to therapy, for example.
- Huberman encourages you to set a strong purpose for learning the new skill. How important the skill is to you personally factors into how fast you learn and how plastic your brain is. You want to access and encourage plasticity with a specific goal in mind.
Other Ways to Encourage Neuroplasticity
Science tells us there are many other ways to increase neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, the birth of new brain cells. The two are closely related. Basically, almost anything that introduces something new, promotes learning, and gets your brain out of its comfort zone, will encourage neuroplastic change. For example:
- intermittent fasting
- learning to play a musical instrument
- reading fiction
- playing video games
- learning a new language
- psychoactive substances
- reducing stress