Neuroplasticity has become a buzzword in psychology and scientific circles, as well as outside of them, promising that you can “re-wire” your brain to improve everything from health and mental wellbeing to quality of life. There’s a lot of conflicting, misleading, and erroneous information out there.
So, exactly how does it work?
What Is Neuroplasticity
Just in case you’ve managed to miss all the hype, neuroplasticity is an umbrella term referring to the ability of your brain to reorganize itself, both physically and functionally, throughout your life due to your environment, behavior, thinking, and emotions. The concept of neuroplasticity is not new and mentions of a malleable brain go all of the way back to the 1800s, but with the relatively recent capability to visually “see” into the brain allowed by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), science has confirmed this incredible morphing ability of the brain beyond a doubt.
The concept of a changing brain has replaced the formerly held belief that the adult brain was pretty much a physiologically static organ or hard-wired after critical developmental periods in childhood. While it’s true that your brain is much more plastic during the early years and capacity declines with age, plasticity happens all throughout your life.
For a thorough explanation of how plasticity physically happens in your brain, see blog: “Masterpiece Or Mess.”
How Neuroplasticity Shows Up In Your Life
Neuroplasticity makes your brain extremely resilient and is the process by which all permanent learning takes place in your brain, such as playing a musical instrument or mastering a different language. Neuroplasticity also enables people to recover from stroke, injury, and birth abnormalities, overcome autism, ADD and ADHD, learning disabilities and other brain deficits, pull out of depression and addictions, and reverse obsessive compulsive patterns. (Read more: “You’re Not Stuck With The Brain You’re Born With.”)
Neuroplasticity has far-reaching implications and possibilities for almost every aspect of human life and culture from education to medicine. It’s limits are not yet known. However, this same characteristic, which makes your brain amazingly resilient, also makes it vulnerable to outside and internal, usually unconscious, influences. In his book The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, Norman Doidge calls this the “plastic paradox.” (Read more: “Your Plastic Brain: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.”)
I know the power of neuroplasticity first hand, as I devised and performed my own home-grown, experience-dependant neuroplasticity based exercises for years to recover from a brain injury, the result of a suicide attempt. Additionally, through extensive cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, and mindfulness practices, all of which encourage neuroplastic change, I overcame depression, anxiety, and totally revamped my mental health and life.
But it was because of neuroplastic change that I became entrenched in depressive, anxious, obsessive, and over-reactive patterns in the first place.
Ten Fundamentals Of Neuroplasticity
Science has confirmed that you can access neuroplasticity for positive change in your own life in many ways, but it’s not quite as easy as some of the neuro-hype would have you believe. In the article, “Neuroplasticity: can you rewire your brain?,” Dr. Sarah McKay, neuroscientist, says:
“Plasticity dials back ‘ON’ in adulthood when specific conditions that enable or trigger plasticity are met. ‘What recent research has shown is that under the right circumstances, the power of brain plasticity can help adults minds grow. Although certain brain machinery tends to decline with age, there are steps people can take to tap into plasticity and reinvigorate that machinery,’ explains Merzenich. These circumstances include focused attention, determination, hard work and maintaining overall brain health.”
In his book, Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, Dr. Michael Merzenich (which Dr. McKay cites above), a leading pioneer in brain plasticity research and co-founder of Posit Science, lists ten core principles necessary for the remodeling of your brain to take place:
1. Change is mostly limited to those situations in which the brain is in the mood for it. If you are alert, on the ball, engaged, motivated, ready for action, the brain releases the neurochemicals necessary to enable brain change. When disengaged, inattentive, distracted, or doing something without thinking that requires no real effort, your neuroplastic switches are “off.”
2. The harder you try, the more you’re motivated, the more alert you are, and the better (or worse) the potential outcome, the bigger the brain change. If you’re intensely focused on the task and really trying to master something for an important reason, the change experienced will be greater.
3. What actually changes in the brain are the strengths of the connections of neurons that are engaged together, moment by moment, in time. The more something is practiced, the more connections are changed and made to include all elements of the experience (sensory info, movement, cognitive patterns). You can think of it like a “master controller” being formed for that particular behavior, which allows it to be performed with remarkable facility and reliability over time.
4. Learning-driven changes in connections increase cell-to cell cooperation, which is crucial for increasing reliability. Merzenich explains this by asking you to imagine the sound of a football stadium full of fans all clapping at random versus the same people clapping in unison. He explains, “The more powerfully coordinated your [nerve cell] teams are, the more powerful and more reliable their behavioral productions.”
5. The brain also strengthens its connections between teams of neurons representing separate moments of successive things that reliably occur in serial time. This allows your brain to predict what happens next and have a continuous “associative flow.” Without this ability, your stream of consciousness would be reduced to “a series of separate, stagnating puddles,” explains Merzenich.
6. Initial changes are temporary. Your brain first records the change, then determines whether it should make the change permanent or not. It only becomes permanent if your brain judges the experience to be fascinating or novel enough or if the behavioral outcome is important, good or bad.
7. The brain is changed by internal mental rehearsal in the same ways and involving precisely the same processes that control changes achieved through interactions with the external world. According to Merzenich, “You don’t have to move an inch to drive positive plastic change in your brain. Your internal representations of things recalled from memory work just fine for progressive brain plasticity-based learning.”
8. Memory guides and controls most learning. As you learn a new skill, your brain takes note of and remembers the good attempts, while discarding the not-so-good trys. Then, it recalls the last good pass, makes incremental adjustments, and progressively improves.
9. Every movement of learning provides a moment of opportunity for the brain to stabilize — and reduce the disruptive power of — potentially interfering backgrounds or “noise.” Each time your brain strengthens a connection to advance your mastery of a skill, it also weakens other connections of neurons that weren’t used at that precise moment. This negative plastic brain change erases some of the irrelevant or interfering activity in the brain.
10. Brain plasticity is a two-way street; it is just as easy to generate negative changes as it is positive ones. You have a “use it or lose it” brain. It’s almost as easy to drive changes that impair memory and physical and mental abilities as it is to improve these things. Merzenich says that older people are absolute masters at encouraging plastic brain change in the wrong direction.