Your brain is literally changing its physical form and function every day in response to your experiences, behaviors, and even your thoughts through neuroplasticity. You can learn to guide this process to help you. An easily accessible way to do that is by practicing mindfulness.
What Exactly Is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is an umbrella term referring to the ability of your brain to reorganize itself, both physically and functionally, throughout your life in response to your environment, behavior, thinking, and emotions. Science used to believe that the brain only changed significantly during critical periods in childhood. While it’s true that the brain is much more plastic in youth and capacity declines with age, plasticity happens from birth until death. Harnessing neuroplasticity as an adult does require extra effort under specific conditions, but it can be accomplished. What you pay attention to, what you think, feel, and want, and how you react and behave physically shape your brain.
Unfortunately, a lot of the time neuroplastic change is happening below your conscious awareness in ways that don’t benefit you. It’s because of neuroplasticity that addictions and some common brain conditions show up in humans. Schizophrenia, anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, epilepsy, obsessive-compulsive and phobic behaviors, and more occur because of neuroplastic changes that happen over time in the brain. This is often referred to as negative neuroplasticity.
On the other hand, neuroplasticity also allows all learning and memory to happen as well as recovery from brain injury and damage, addictions, and various mental health conditions. Fortunately for all of us, neuroplasticity works both ways. You can improve your brain’s function through the same neuroplastic process. It’s possible to overcome a mental health condition by driving a brain back towards normal operation through neuroplastic change. Studies on brain plasticity have demonstrated that many aspects of your brain power, intelligence, or control, in healthy and neurologically impaired people, can be improved by appropriately targeted behavioral training.
Neuroplasticity has possible positive applications in many areas, 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 of neuroplasticity, you are not stuck with the brain you’re born with or that you have at any given time in your 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 own life.
If you make the effort to intentionally guide neuroplastic change, you can improve your brain and mental health. For a thorough explanation of how plasticity physically happens in your brain, see Masterpiece Or Mess. You are changing your brain every day anyway. Why not intentionally guide neuroplasticity to help you? One way to do that is mindfulness.
What Exactly Is Mindfulness?
At the most basic level, mindfulness is being aware of what’s happening as it’s happening. It means that you notice the workings of your mind in the present moment. When practicing mindfulness, you deliberately direct your attention into the now and focus your conscious mind there. It’s paying attention on purpose. It’s learning to direct your focus to what is happening in your experience right then. This includes your mind, body, and environment.
Research shows that about half of our waking lives we’re doing one thing, but thinking about something else. That’s the opposite of being mindful. Rick Hanson Ph.D., author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom in his Living Wisdom podcast explains mindfulness like this:
Mindfulness is an innate ability. It is your natural ability to guide your attention to a chosen part of your present moment experience. While mindfulness is naturally present as an ability or capacity it is underdeveloped, and we spend nearly half of our life lost in thought. Mindfulness has the qualities of being both a flashlight and a vacuum cleaner. It illuminates our present moment experience clearly and even enables us to see beyond internal biases and assumptions — which is crucial if we want to know ourselves and our lives clearly and fully.”
Mindfulness Changes Your Brain
In terms of using your physical brain, mindfulness asks that you deliberately shift control of your thoughts and actions from your limbic system — the emotional, fear-driven part of your brain — to the conscious awareness of your frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is essentially your higher-level “humanness.” Mindfulness repeatedly activates your thinking brain. Because of neuroplasticity, the two regions become more connected and pathways better established in your brain. This allows your frontal lobe more control over the limbic system. With regular mindfulness practice, frontal lobe activation becomes the go-to default for your emotional responses, and your brain becomes calmer, less reactive and anxious, and more resilient.
Studies have shown mindfulness to significantly improve a variety of conditions including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mindfulness has also proven successful in preventing relapse of chronic depression and substance abuse.
Mindfulness Is Self-Directed Neuroplasticity
You can encourage neuroplasticity in your own life in two primary ways: internally and externally. Mindfulness is one internal way to do that. When you are mindful, you’re intentionally guiding your brain activity, awareness, and attention. Directing your attention mindfully can calm an anxious brain jumping around from one worrisome thought to another. Bringing your attention back into the present alters the part of your brain in control. It immediately stops your brain from ruminating about painful memories or panicking about the future.
Your subconscious brain largely determines your happiness, baseline mood, how you respond to the world, interact in relationships, and think of and talk to yourself. The subconscious material is primarily made up of implicit memories from your childhood and past — mostly wounds and painful experiences. And this subconscious chatter carves the default brain patterns which largely determine your happiness and can contribute to psychological disorders like anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
In order to change your baseline subconscious chatter, you have to change your brain’s default pattern of operation. Luckily, you already have everything you need to do that. Research shows self-directed neuroplasticity can make positive changes in your brain and mental health. And you can sculpt your brain with mindfulness.