Neuroplasticity: Seeing Thunder and Hearing LightningIt was largely accepted until fairly recently that the human adult brain was essentially fixed. This concept was illustrated in full-color diagrams confidently mapping the regions of and structures in the brain responsible for moving the left pinkie or for processing the feelings of biting your tongue.  Every bit of neural real estate was zoned and assigned a specific function. So, it had to be true, right?

So, it had to be true, right?


Research in recent decades has overwhelmingly proven this not to be the case. Numerous scientific studies have confirmed that the brain is plastic, meaning it’s not fixed and not hard-wired. The human brain is malleable, dynamic, and capable of physical change from birth until death.

Your Brain Is Constantly Changing

I like to think of our brain like a blob of Play-Doh. (See bog: The Play-Doh In Your Head) Every second of every day, we are shaping the mound with our behaviors, feelings, thoughts, and our environments, experiences, and the demands we repeatedly place on our brains are physically sculpting it. This process, called neuroplasticity, works both for us and against us.  (See blog:  Your Plastic Brain: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly)

Plasticity was first demonstrated in an experiment with ferrets, who have identical wiring to the auditory cortex and visual cortex as humans except for one important factor, the timing. The basic human wiring exists at birth while ferrets grow this circuit after birth. Scientists interrupted the pathway in the ferrets so that nerves from the eye grew into the auditory cortex. The ferrets were then trained to respond to sounds and lights and “heard” the lights with parts of the brain that would normally process sound.

Brain Change Can Be Fast

In a later experiment by Pascal-Leone, sighted adults were blindfolded twenty-four hours a day for five days. The subjects spent their time learning Braille and performing various tactile and auditory activities and had their brains scanned before and at the end of the experiment. In the earlier scans, their auditory cortex showed normal activity upon hearing a sound, and as expected, their visual cortices lit up when seeing and their somatosensory cortices buzzed when fingering Braille symbols.

After just 5 days of being blindfolded, their visual cortex became active when doing all of these things. In their brains, the cortical real estate that had been dedicated to seeing was now hearing and feeling. With no signals coming from the eyes, their brains reorganized to utilize the newly dormant areas for other functions.

A plastic brain causes the phantom limb experience because people who have lost a limb experience a brain reorganization. The part of their brain that formerly received input from the missing limb is taken over by neighbors on the homunculus, the portion of the brain responsible for the movement and exchange of sensory and motor information of the body. Because the face and hand are side by side on the homunculus, one man missing a hand learned where to scratch his face to satisfy an itch on the missing hand.

In many cases, phantom pain has been shown to be caused by the last signal the brain received from the lost limb being in a confused endless loop in the brain. This phenomenon has miraculously been alleviated using mirrors that visually replace the lost limb and neuroplasticity to trick the brain into changing signals going to the brain.

Neuroplasticity Can Change Your Life

There is a catch to neuroplasticity though. It only occurs when a person is paying attention and focusing on the input whether it be intentional or not. Hence, with directed consciousness, a person has the ability to change their brain and their life for the better. However, unfortunately, neuroplasticity is most often accomplished unconsciously etching bad habits and patterns into the brain. (See blog:  Your Plastic Brain: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly)

The science of neuroplasticity is new with the limits unknown, but having a malleable brain opens up a world of possibilities. In a very personal sense, each individual has the power to change their life. On a broader scale, the same brains that now practice prejudice, hatred, and warfare have the potential to be kinder, more compassionate, and less aggressive.

It can happen one brain at a time.

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  1. Debbie,
    I find this so fascinating – really to think about how quickly our brains can change. And the idea of our brains as play-dough…I love that! To me, this really does say that we have the ability to form our brain…and that IS pretty awesome news!

  2. Penn Martin Reply

    testing, 1..2..3..

    I just wish my stubborn hard-headed attitude could change as well as my brain 🙂

  3. Tony Piparo Reply

    The old adage, "use it or lose it", is so true. If we stop focusing on something harmful or negative, the neurons and synapses die in time and we can create new connections. And all we have to do is learn how to connect the brain to the heart and we change everything in what feels instantly. As people obeserve us in our "new" heart, they are changed. That's why we only have to become the change that we want the world to be without trying to change it. Yea for neuroplasticity!!!

  4. Debbie Hampton Reply

    Penn, your attitude CAN change. You can change whatever you decide to do so. You have to consciously make the decision to do so, affirm it often and recognize and challenge the thoughts or behaviors that are contrary to how you want to be -the old pattern, then transition to the thought/behaviors you wish to live and implement…with regularity this WILL change your brain and become the default for you. It is within your power. Your brain, in particular, is magnificent and so powerful. Put it to work FOR you! Luv ya!

    Tony, you are so right. We can lose the things we don't want by not using them and focusing on them. Voila! Kinda neato! Nature has equipped us all with a magical power to not only change ourselves, but the world as a whole. As witnessed by humanity,it is much easier said than done, but we can do it starting with ourselves.

  5. Debbie Hampton Reply

    Lance, can't forget you! Thanks for the kind words. Yes, our brains give us a truly remarkable ability here. The trick is to get people to use it!

  6. Debbie Hampton Reply

    Thanks for sharing that amazing video clip. I think I have seen it before, but good to see again. He is my hero. So great. Makes me feel like anything is possible. Neuropasticity is so empowering, I think, because it tells us definitively that we can really effect anything we want to by changing our own brain. It is a super power we all have. We just have to start using it! I am and I am loving it. Hope you are putting it to good use in your own life. Now, for the rest of humanity…we can just keep spreading the word.

  7. Had to click on this when I saw it in your Twitter stream because I was sure you must be the only other person in the world who remembered that old Family Circle cartoon, with the little boy asking his mom, “How come you can see lightening but you can’t hear it, and you can hear thunder but you can’t see it?” That always struck me as one of the more profound questions a child could ask. Thank you for your good work.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Thanks for checking this out. I am not familiar with that particular comic, but I do remember Family Circus. I grew up reading them in the Sunday paper!

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