Our brains are plastic in the sense of the dictionary definition: “capable of being shaped or formed”. In biology, plasticity refers to the capacity of living things to mould themselves to new conditions.
Neuroplasticity implies that you have the ability to change your brain; its structure and the way it functions based on your life experiences and repeated behaviours, emotions, and thoughts. Research has proved that we can play an active part in this process. And the good news is that you can facilitate this change at any age.
The Brain is the most powerful engine in the world and you are your brains driver as well as the mechanic. So, we all have a say in what thoughts we choose to think and what emotions we give our attention to; What we choose to learn or unlearn and how perseverant we are at it.
The Human brain is capable of producing anything from a profound superior experience to being triggered into a senseless fit of rage, fear or depression.
Neuroplasticity can lead to positive experiences, like for example you learned something new and refined a motor skill or it can even lead to negative experiences such as forgetting something you once knew or becoming addicted to smoking, alcohol, drugs etc or being in chronic pain.
This can be explained by understanding the 2 main principles of Neuroplasticity, being:
- Neurons that fire together, wire together and
- If you don’t use it, you lose it.
Neurons that fire together, wire together:
The human brain is made of 100 billion neurons. Every-time we think, do or experience something we are shooting a thousand signals in our brain which is sent across nerve cells (neurons). They begin firing and transmitting signals, communicating with one another and creating thoughts. So the more you keep doing something, or the more you keep feeling something, it becomes more and more hardwired in your brain, forming strong neural pathways. If we repeat this thought or action a few times, it becomes a habit. Habit is any behaviour you repeat. Every single habit we acquire, whether big or small, good or bad; is thanks to Neuroplasticity.
Anything you do, over and over a period of time will go from the conscious deliberate effort (willpower or persistence) to automatic responses/ behaviour.
For example, if you are stressed and you reach for a cigarette, it’s a way to feel good in a not so good moment. If you do that again, or a third time, it can turn into a habit. Even something as simple as hitting the snooze button on your alarm every morning is creating a habit.
To state another example, supposing your trying to fire a new thought called Compassion towards a particular person you dislike, but remember, you have already wired other circuits based on your past experiences with this person. So, when your beginning to fire this new thought all the other thoughts are saying, “you don’t really like her”, “don’t bother to look her way”, “she insulted you”, “try another day”, “this is not a good time”, etc. However, if you persist with a certain amount of determination the compassionate voice becomes the loudest voice in your head. When that voice becomes the loudest voice in your head, the brain seals that circuit more permanently. It’s like a glue called the neuro growth factor. There is only a certain amount of this that can go around in the brain so it starts to steal the glue from the neighbouring circuits. Thus, the negative memories about the person you have been holding for years begin to disappear. The intolerance towards the person no longer stays and the only feeling you begin to feel is Compassion.
Thus if we bring a conscious awareness to our response, we can shift how we respond. We can move from a positive thought to a positive action before our brain kicks into full gear and sabotages any change of behaviour. The brain is wired to stop us from doing things we are uncomfortable doing, or uncertain or scary. It wants to stay in the comfort zone. It is our job to use neuroplasticity to our advantage. Limit time dwelling on negative thoughts and maximise time endorsing positive ones.
Destroying bad connections in the brain and strengthening empowering ones by firing positive thoughts is the answer to opening yourself up to new experiences and a better state of consciousness. A simple change in our beliefs can have a profound impact on how our brain processes data.
If you don’t use it, you lose it:
If you don’t use your ability to keep learning, not only are you not developing it, but you are also losing the possibility of doing so. In other words, not only would you stop adding potential, but you’d also take away some potential for the future.
Just as the muscles in your body need some form of exercise to stay fit and healthy, likewise for the muscles in your brain.
As people grow older, they unknowingly contribute to their brain’s decline by not using and challenging it as much. Stress, depression and the responsibilities an adult faces in life also adds to this decline. The body cannot build new neurons or replace dead neurons when it is in a constant state of stress.
But, if you are constantly learning something, the nerve cells in your brain are growing with mental exercise and these neurons are developing greater connectivity.
Children acquire new knowledge in vast quantities and their brain changes significantly at these times of intensive new learning. The increase of new neurons is astounding, but as we get older, this capacity decreases. Nevertheless, neurons being produced in the brain (neurogenesis) continues even when we get older. So the good news is that you can continue the learning process successfully no matter how old you are. This is the gift of Neuroplasticity.
Adults who regularly engage in hobbies, work, intellectual endeavours, exercise, social activity and engagement in life, have stronger reserves and more neuron connections on which to lean as aging (both dementia and just plain old normal aging) occur.
Ways to keep the neurons firing in the brain and take advantage of Neuroplasticity:
- Learn something new every day. It could be a new word, a new language, a new instrument or a new dance form. Anything. Regular learning changes the brain’s structure, improves our speed of thought, decision-making abilities and comprehension of events as they occur around us.
- Playing a musical instrument is an intense, multi-sensory experience. The association of motor actions with specific sounds and visual patterns leads to the formation of new neural networks.
- Engaging in the art also strengthens the neural pathway that controls attention and focus.
- Dancing increases neural connectivity because it forces you to integrate several brain functions at once —kinaesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional.
- Adding moderate exercise to our routine improves not only our physical condition but benefits our brains as well. Exercise improves circulation and reduces stress, thereby improving blood flow and oxygen to the brain. Even just walking for 30-45 minutes will improve blood and oxygen flow to the brain, aiding neuroplasticity.
- Try and focus on single activities, rather than multitask. Multitasking can increase stress and have a negative impact of neuroplasticity on the brain. A human brain is not designed to multitask. It has to slow down to switch between tasks and this will only make it less efficient.
- Traveling promotes neurogenesis by exposing your brain to new, novel, and complex environments.
- Engage in memory training; start working on remembering names, scriptures, or poems.
- Switch hands with simple tasks to give your brain a workout.
- As we age, we tend to seek out those things we are familiar with, including friends. One of the more enjoyable tasks in improving neuroplasticity is making new stimulating friendships.
- Eat healthily. One of the hardest parts of improving your brain function with better nutrition is eating fewer meats and consuming more fruits and vegetables. And while you may not be able to convert to a vegetarian lifestyle, making a few better choices here and there can improve mental outlook, physical well-being, and brain function as well as your waistline.
- Meditation is a great stress reliever and it has many interesting beneficial effects on the actual brain’s structure. It increases the thickness and strength of the frontal cortex of the brain. As we age the frontal cortex decreases in size; studies show that those who meditate experience less of this decrease in the frontal cortex.
- Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night. Sleep helps to improve retention.
Ultimately, you are the architect of your brain. When you change your beliefs, learn something new or become mindful of your habitual reactions to unpleasant emotions, you actually alter the neurochemistry and the structure of your brain. So…