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N is for Neuroplasticity (You can teach an old dog new tricks)

Updated: Jan 25, 2022

“All the experiences in your life — from single conversations to your broader culture — shape the microscopic details of your brain. Neurally speaking, who you are depends on where you’ve been. Your brain is a relentless shape-shifter, constantly rewriting its own circuitry — and because your experiences are unique, so are the vast detailed patterns in your neural networks. Because they continue to change your whole life, your identity is a moving target; it never reaches an end point.” David Eagleman

What is the neuroplasticity of the brain?

“Our brains rewire themselves throughout life to an extent previously thought not possible “ Michael S Gazzaniga

Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, is the ability of the brain to adapt to changes in an individual’s environment. The brain can modify its connections or re-wire itself over time. Our brain's structure and capacity are not fixed and every experience is able to change our brain’s structure. With each different activity it performs, the brain perfects its circuits so it requires less energy and becomes more efficient in handling the task in hand. There is a saying ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’ to explain how when a circuit fires repeatedly, it can become a default setting.

We already accept that the brain is powerful, but think about this sentence for a few moments as it opens up so much potential and possibilities:

Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain”.

Santiago Ramon Y Cajal

Through our daily experiences we create new connections between our 86 billion brain cells (neurons). These neurons process and transmit information through electrical and chemical signals. Different pathways are created as we learn something new or by practice. Conversely connections are discarded and can become redundant through lack of use (hence the phrase 'use it or lose it').

Because of the power of neuroplasticity, you can, in fact, reframe your world and rewire your brain so that you are more objective. You have the power to see things as they are so that you can respond thoughtfully, deliberately, and effectively to everything you experience.” Elizabeth Thornton

The advantages and disadvantages of neuroplasticity

Our minds have the incredible capacity to both alter the strength of connections among neurons, essentially rewiring them, and create entirely new pathways. (It makes a computer, which cannot create new hardware when its system crashes, seem fixed and helpless).” Susannah Cahalan

The neuroplasticity of the brain can help it repair itself after a serious accident or illness. Neuroplasticity will not only help you recover from traumatic brain injury or a stroke, but it offers the prospect of new ways to improve physical rehabilitation, mental illnesses and addiction. It can also help you improve the overall quality of your life by rewiring your brain to establish better habits that contribute to your health and general well-being.

the brain has the power to recruit healthy neurons to perform the function of the damaged ones. Neuroplasticity enables the brain to reassign jobs.”

Richard J. Davidson

The plasticity of the brain works both ways however; bad habits can be ingrained as easily as helpful ones;

"plastic changes may not necessarily represent a behavioural gain for a given subject." (Pascual-Leone). In addition to being the mechanism for development and learning, plasticity can be "a cause of pathology.”

“Neuroplasticity has been linked to mental afflictions ranging from depression to obsessive-compulsive disorder to tinnitus. The more a sufferer concentrates on his symptoms, the deeper those symptoms are etched into his neural circuits. In the worst cases, the mind essentially trains itself to be sick”. Nicholas Carr

The way that we talk to ourselves is important; negative self-talk can have a long-lasting detrimental effect whereas positive affirmations will have a more beneficial effect.

“As you go through life, your brain undergoes extraordinary development. Your brain is the most adaptable, modifiable organ in your body, and it can change both positively and negatively by how you use it each day.” Sondra Bond Chapman

Essentially, what we practise or the thoughts we entertain we will cultivate. The way we think and feel determines the wiring and amount of chemicals that course through our brains but fortunately by simply responding to our thoughts differently we can change the neuronal circuitry of our brain.

Neuroplasticity contributes to both the constrained and unconstrained aspects of our nature. It renders our brains not only more resourceful, but also more vulnerable to outside influences.” Norman Doidge

It is clear that neuroplasticity can be used to further our journey positively towards our optimal selves by making conscious choices, action and through practice. By being proactive, neural networks will grow new connections, strengthen existing ones and build insulated pathways that will speed transmission of impulses. i.e. we can increase our neural growth by the actions we take, the questions we ask, practice and the development of good habits.

Alternatively, if we do nothing, apathy or negative choices will work against us. Our brain undergoes changes with or without our conscious knowledge so it is important that we control and set the direction for these changes.

… “the very structure of our brain — the relative size of different regions, the strength of connections between one area and another — reflects the lives we have led. Like sand on a beach, the brain bears the footprints of the decisions we have made , the skills we have learned, the actions we have taken.”

Sharon Begley

How do we change our brain neuroplasticity?

The key to transforming mental models is to interrupt the automatic responses that are driven by the old model and respond differently based on the new model. Each time you are able to do this, you are actually loosening the old circuit and creating new neural connections in your brain, often referred to as self-directed neuroplasticity.” Elizabeth Thornton

We need to take action and try new things to develop a growth mindset. Mental challenges cause an "adaptive response" to take place in the brain, just like a muscle. Passive activities e.g. watching television do not stimulate or build connections; we need to be actively involved rather than passive observers. This making, reinforcing or ‘unmaking’ of nerve cell connections also dictates how well our brain handles stress

“we can actually use the mind to change the brain . The simple truth is that how we focus our attention, how we intentionally direct the flow of energy and information through our neural circuits, can directly alter the brain’s activity and its structure. The key is to know the steps toward using our awareness in ways that promote well-being.” Rick Hanson

How can we increase and harness the power of neuroplasticity?

Make sure that we get enough quality sleep. A large percentage of our learning/brain changes happen when we are actually involved in learning a new skill, but the hippocampus needs sleep to consolidate and reinforce this learning and build memory which is what does when you are in deep sleep.

Sleeping: encourages learning retention through the growth of the dendritic spines that act as connections between neurons and help transfer information across cells” Nguyen

Practice self-care It is important to make sure that you make self-care a priority and seek support when needed. Don’t allow yourself to get over-tired, too hungry, too lonely or generally overwhelmed by your emotions.

Intermittent fasting Intermittent fasting increases synaptic adaptation, improves overall cognitive function, promotes neuron growth and decreases the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.

Develop a Growth Mindset through Lifelong Learning. The process of learning something new may increase connectivity between brain regions and help form new neural networks; whether it’s learning a new language, playing an instrument or developing a new skill

“The idea that the brain can change its own structure and function through thought and activity is, I believe, the most important alteration in our view of the brain since we first sketched out its basic anatomy and the workings of its basic component, the neuron”. Norman Doidge

Traveling When we travel it exposes our brain to new environments and stimuli which opens up new pathways and activity in our brain

Create artwork Being creative enhances the connectivity of the brain at rest (the “default mode network”), this in turn can boost attention, empathy, focus introspection and memory. It is immaterial what type of artwork you do from simple drawing/painting to mosaics, intricate jewellery making or pottery, the combination of motor and cognitive processing will promote better brain connectivity.

Dance Researchers compared the effectiveness of cognitive activities in warding off Alzheimer's and dementia and found that dancing had the greatest effect (more than twice that of reading) and also higher than doing crossword puzzles at least four + days a week. Dancing increases neural connectivity because it forces you to integrate kinaesthetic, rational, musical and emotional brain functions at the same time particularly when dancing with a partner

Exercise Cardiovascular exercises boost oxygen supply to the brain and increase brain volume. The weird thing about the brain is that if we simply visualise ourselves doing things it can also have an affect on our brain!!

We need to look to reduce stress. Stress is a silent killer and also diminishes the neuroplasticity of our brains. Sometimes it is difficult to reduce the sources of stress in our lives, but we can choose to change our responses to it by actively seeking to immerse ourselves in restorative natural environments or via meditation or mindfulness.

“Clearly, the brain can exert a powerful grip on one’s life — but only if you let it. The good news is that you can overcome the brain’s control and rewire your brain to work for you and by choosing to act in healthy, adaptive ways.”

Jeffrey M. Schwartz

Develop a sense of purpose for your learning. Changes in the brain will be more significant if we’re motivated and aware of the reason for learning, because we then tend to try harder and are able to focus more on the task.

Read fiction Researchers have found that reading fiction increases and heightens connectivity in the brain as well as providing a chance for us to relax.

Increase your vocabulary By expanding your vocabulary, it activates the visual and auditory processes of your brain as well as memory

Using mnemonic devices Memory training can enhance connectivity in the prefrontal parietal network and prevent some age-related memory loss

Non-dominant hand exercises: Practising doing simple tasks such as brushing your teeth, texting, or stirring your coffee/tea with your non-dominant can form new neural pathways and strengthen the connectivity between neurons. These cognitive exercises, also known as 'neurobics' help strengthen connectivity between your brain cells

These are just some of the ways that you can increase the plasticity of your brain for more research on how coffee drinking, video games etc can help see links below

“We know that what you do with your mind — how you focus your attention, intentionally shape your thoughts and calm your emotions — can directly change your brain. That’s the key to neuroplasticity — how our experiences, including what we do with our minds, change the activity and even the lifelong remodelling of our brains.” Daniel J. Siegel

There are implications for neuroplasticity in every aspect of human nature and culture but its most important potential is in our own lives. By learning to consciously control our thoughts, reactions, and behaviour, and being consciously mindful of the experiences we chose to have, we can direct our ongoing growth.

Among other things, neuroplasticity means that emotions such as happiness and compassion can be cultivated in much the same way that a person can learn through repetition to play golf and basketball or master a musical instrument, and that such practice changes the activity and physical aspects of specific brain areas.” Andrew Weil

Neuroplasticity is not hindered by any ‘genetic determinism’ as we can create healthy habits through practice. According to studies, only 25% of the way we age is dependent on our genes. The other 75% of the way that we age is in our control. Our environment, lifestyle and behaviour have a greater impact on the way that we age.

“We are in the early stages of a Brain Plasticity Revolution. That revolution begins with a clearer understanding that the brain’s machinery is being continually rewired and functionally revised , substantially under your control, throughout the course of your natural life. You have a remarkable built-in ability to strengthen and grow the person that you are, at any age.”

Michael Merzenich

Some questions to think about/or discuss below:

It is important to base our activities around our core values, so first spend time reflecting on what your core values are.

What goals can you set yourself to stimulate your motor, auditory and visual parts of your brain?

There are 4 core categories to life: social interaction, growth, giving back and health

Think about one of these areas. What do you want to change about this area of your life? What bad habits do you have? What good habits do you have?

What have you always wanted to learn or to do but fear or ‘busyness’ has stopped you so far?

What do you want to experience and accomplish so you have no regrets?

What step are you going to take today?

Meditation invokes that which is known in neuroscience as neuroplasticity; which is the loosening of the old nerve cells or hardwiring in the brain, to make space for the new to emerge.” Craig Krishna

If you want to explore this subject further, here are a few links to get you started:

**NB If you do only click on one link below, click on this one to see a brilliant visual infographic about neuroplasticity**

The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind - Michael S. Gazzaniga

Soft-Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life - Dr Michael Merzenich

You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life Jeffrey - M. Schwartz

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Fascinating subject! The brain is an amazing organ. It's very interesting how our brains are affected by certain activities.

I was particularly interested in how the brain can heal itself. This was definitely the case after Nige's accident. His memory was affected but through sheer determination and using his love of music to heal his brain his memory improved significantly.

I would like to get back into the habit of regularly practicing meditation. Apparently eight weeks of mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) was found to increase the cortical thickness of hippocampus the part of the brain that controls learning and memory and plays an important role in emotional regulation.

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