Updated: Jan 12
Neuroplasticity gives your brain the ability to evolve over time
We can harness neuroplasticity to create a brain that defaults to productive thought and behaviour patterns
We are also able to influence the degree of plasticity in our brain and enhance its ability to change
An understanding of neuroplasticity allows us to take control of our unconscious habits and change our outcomes in life
We become what we continually focus on and what we repeatedly do. Our personality and character are the sum of the habitual patterns within our mind. Every thought we have and every action we take is shaping our brain and who we are. We can learn to direct our attention and our actions to control this process and conciously choose the ways we want our brain to evolve. Our brain is infinitely elastic and we have the power to influence how it is put together.
We are talking about a concept called neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the number one concept we need to understand to master our personal development. It is the brains ability to reorganize neural pathways, create new connections between brain regions, and even add new brain matter to areas of the brain.
We will explore this process in detail and analyse how an understanding of our changing brain allows us to intervein the brains rewiring. We will demonstrate that we are able to consciously choose which patterns of mind cultivate and which we will let atrophy. We will then detail the implications this has on our ability to take control of our thoughts, character, behaviour and life outcomes. We will also explore how to increase the brains level of plasticity and how this helps to speed up the process of change and enhances the potential we have to develop ourselves.
We will seek to understand our mind.
Then learn how to create a new one.
The type of neuroplasticity we will be addressing is structural plasticity. This is the brains ability to change its physical structure as a result of learning. This is the most practical form of plasticity as we are in the driver’s seat throughout the process. We are able to steer the brains wiring process towards a default state that produces productive thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
Neuroplasticity relies on the way our brain processes information with efficiency. All of our subjective experiences and consciousness is created by the neural connections firing in our head; they influence everything we think and do. The brain determines the importance of a throught we have or an action we perform based on how frequently they occur. Every time we act a particular way or engage with a thought, the connections between the neurons relevant to that thought or action grow stronger. This is how things become habitual. Anything that isn’t already a habit is difficult to start because we have not exercised the corresponding neural pathways. As we age the brain consolidates and strengthens our repeated patterns and prunes neurons and connections that aren’t being used.
The abilities and habits of mind we practice become easier to perform and those unpractised become more difficult, this is intuitive right? We don’t have trouble believing this when it comes to physical pursuits such as playing a sport. However, we fail to draw the same conclusion in other important realms of our lives. We often maintain a fixed mindset around so many aspects of our personality and abilities. For example, we fail to consider that we have an infinite ability to; mould our character as we choose, increase our confidence, bolster our self-esteem, become more proficient communicators, enhance our intelligence, lift our work ethic and achieve what we currently view as unachievable. Neuroplasticity changes all of this, anything is possible if we can reinvent ourselves mentally.
We also often view our mental states as fixed or out of our control. Neuroplasticity holds the key to helping manage excessive negative emotion as well. Anxiety and depression are associated with negative thought patterns within the brains default mode network. But who says we can’t replace these harmful thoughts with productive patterns? Science says we can and there are concrete methods to do so. If your interested in this process you may want to investigate the science behind cognitive behavioural therapy (we will write a blog on this practical method soon). You may also be interested in books on neuroplasticity based interventions such as- Rewire your Anxious Brain: by Catherine M. Pittman and Elizabeth M Karle.
As the diagram above explains, neuroplasticity relies on us becoming conscious of our current thoughts and behaviours and working hard to implement new ones. We work against our current wiring until the new thinking and actions are 'wired in' and become our default programming.
Not only can we change the patterns that run our lives daily, we can also grow entirely new brain regions that enhance existing functions. This occurs through a process known as neurogenesis. This is the growth of new neurons that occurs throughout life. The two major regions in the adult brain that create new neurons are the hippocampus (a brain region that is essential for our long term and spatial memory) and the cerebellum (the brain area responsible for muscle memory and our physical coordination) 1.
Neuroplasticity shows us that many things we consider to be fixed in our lives are in fact the opposite, they are fluid and constantly changing in response to the decisions we make. Almost everything is flexible if we take a long-term perspective. This represents the ultimate expression of how powerful a growth mindset is; we each have the ability to completely reprogram our mind over time through sustained focus and effort.
The best part about neuroplasticity is that we are not just in control of how this process works, we also influence how fast and effective the process is. There are countless science-based interventions that prove we can enhance our plasticity and open up the boundaries of change within the brain. The graph below shows that although neuroplasticity changes with age, through healthy living habits (what our WELL page focuses on) and the right approach to life (what the WISE page focuses on) we can actually lift our level of brain plasticity across time.
Who wants an upgraded mind?
We all do.
So how do we unlock the benefits of neuroplasticity?
There are a few key interventions which allow us to enhance our brains malleability.
1. Exposing yourself to new environments and experiences.
There are many regions in our brain which are lying dormant and untapped. In a quest for personal growth and an optimal brain, it is crucial to wake these sleeping neurons up and begin firing and wiring the new connections that unlock our unutilised brain power. Putting ourselves in novel situations in which we need to adapt to uncharted territory can enhance the survival of existing brain cells, encourage a greater number of connections between existing neurons (synaptogenesis), and create new synapses that provide the opportunity for new connections (dendritic branching).
There is a famous study comparing the brains of London cab drivers to London bus drivers. It found that the hippocampus of the bus drivers shrunk as they navigated the same route day after day. The hippocampus of the cab drivers however, was much larger and more functional. They continually encountered the unknown and, in the process, enhanced their memory and ability to be spatially aware 2. Our brains need variety to grow and thrive.
How do we incorporate what’s new into our daily lives, where so much is ruled by routine?
Travel is amazing exercise for neuroplasticity.
When we travel our brain is bombarded with new visual, auditory and cultural stimulus. The process of adapting to a new location can open us up to new ideas, expand our thinking, and widen our perspective.
Taking up new hobbies is essential.
Immersing yourself within complex learning environments enhances your mental flexibility.
Tasks that involve auditory, visual and motor functions are most effective; a combination of these factors is like a full body workout for the flexibility of the mind. Learning a new language, playing an instrument, and engaging in martial arts or other sports can create significant new connections within the brain. This includes increasing the connections between your left and right brain, this improves our proficiency in solving complex problems and increases physical coordination 4.
We must each think about this in relation to our own lives. Are we staying within the narrow tracks of our comfort zone and atrophying our brains full potential? Or are we proactively exploring new territory daily and switching on more of our brains and more of ourselves in the process? We must step out into the unknown.
Diet can play a significant role in enhancing the adaptation of our brain. We need to give the brain all the fuel it needs and more. Remember our brains’ love to be efficient and will reserve energy where possible. We must make sure it has enough energy to continue with regular activity and also wire new processes.
We need to make sure we are getting enough omega 3. Remember our brain is mostly fat and we need to fuel it with the right fats. Omega 3 is shown to increase neurogenesis, synaptic plasticity and even enhance our ability to form new habits by speeding up the rewiring process (omega 3 increases the potentiation of learned behaviours) 6. Natural fish oil is a great way to incorporate this into our diet.
We must focus on magnesium. Magnesium is key to neuroplasticity and hundreds of other beneficial physiological functions that support habit formation. To get enough magnesium make sure you consume green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Two more brain boosting substances to look out for are turmeric and choline (obtain choline from egg yolks and nuts).
Another major boost to our brain is obtained by altering the timing of our meals. Its not only what we eat, but also when we eat that is important. Intermittent fasting is proven to promote the production of our brains’ growth factor, enhance cell survival and speed up the adaptive response of synapses in the brain. 5. A simple way to conduct fasting is to simply eat within an 8 hour window and remain in a fasted state for the other 16 hours of the day. (A blog will appear in the well page soon on the topic of fasting)
A lack of sleep is associated with the atrophy of the brain. This means that when we miss our sleep we experience neural damage and death. Adequate sleep can have the opposite effect encouraging the growth of new brain cells 7. Sleep essentially organises your brain overnight, decluttering and sorting through the new connections you formed during that day and creating a clean slate for the next day so we can begin firing and wiring more useful connections when we wake up. A sleep deprived brain fails to integrate new information into your psyche and struggles to consolidate productive thought and action patterns. Sleep at least 7-8 hours a night, don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you don’t need that much sleep.
4. Life-long learning.
Engaging in mentally strenuous, intellectual activity is a method certain to upgrade your brain. Science shows that stretching ourselves to learn new, abstract information triggers plasticity changes in the brain. Studies within universities foud that the students who frequently stretched themselves to learn complex topics, experienced developemet within the parietal cortex and the posterior hippocampus 8. These are areas of the brain responsible for assimilating new information into our current understanding. This means, the more we practice learning, the more proficient we come at integrating new information into our mental software and operating system. We can all do this through the study of complex topics in our free time. We should try picking something that we usually wouldn’t choose for better results. Other methods proven to work are: Reading of fiction and non-fiction books, using memory training techniques, and expanding our vocabulary.
Physical exercise is outstanding for boosting our cognitive performance and enhancing plasticity. Cardiovascular exercise floods our brain with the oxygen it needs to fuel rewiring processes and also increases our brain volume. While this occurs, our body also produces Brain Derived Nootropic Factor (BDNF), once this chemical reaches our brain it increases cognition, positive mood and plasticity. Intensity during exercise is the key to release BDNF. Thus, weight lifting with shorter breaks in between sets or high intensity interval training will be most effective to enhance your changing brain.
To create new neural pathways, we first need to become aware of our current unproductive patterns. Once we have this level of self-awareness we can consciously build new habits through consistent practice. It is important to note that most of our habits are unconscious, this makes them extremely hard to measure and change. We must do what we can to make our thoughts and behaviours conscious. This puts us in control and we can then choose which patterns of thought and action we cultivate.
How do we firstly, train our self-awareness to recognise our unproductive habits
And secondly, develop practices that ensure we are repeating productive patterns and harnessing neuroplasticity to make these new habits automatic.
We need to create a routine that connects us to our most conscious states. Before we rush into our day, we need to take time to strategize and set intentions. Journaling is a fantastic tool that helps us to start living this kind of examined life. We are able to set our aims in a way that is measured, consistent and allows us to frequently reflect on progress. In a journal we can plan a series of actions for the day that will serve ourselves and others best. We can meditate on and connect with the mindset or attitude we wish to carry through life. We are able to analyse how we are operating every day and ask ourselves, what’s working well and what could be better? Giving time and attention to this process is crucial to ensure our priorities are set for the day and the neural connections that are necessary to change our minds and make our plans a reality are reinforced.
We also suggest practicing mindful meditation first thing in the morning and to remain as mindful as possible throughout the day. The neural pathways in the brain associated with introspection have been shown to be more pronounced in those who meditate in numerous studies. Meditation is key to glimpsing into your unconscious thoughts, automatic behaviours and patterns that are harmful to your wellbeing. Meditation brings what’s unconscious to the surface and allows us to make lasting changes as we learn to shift our awareness away from the mental activity that strengthens undesired habits.
YOUR NEW EXPERIENCE
At ALIVE we aim to give you the information that creates a more positive experience of life. Once we understand how neuroplasticity works we are given significant autonomy over the state of our lives.
We understand that the habits that lead us to negative outcomes are hard to stop but it is not impossible to replace them. Bad habits in our mind and life are only hard to stop due to the “mental grooves” they create. We know that if we can resist this mental activity and choose a positive thought or action, we begin to wire new neural connections and the old pathways begin to atrophy instantly. This process is at work weather we take conscious control of it or not. This means it can work in the negative direction if we are not careful.
With this knowledge we can see that each decision we make is never made in isolation. All decisions across time are connected in a deep, psychological way. Every decision you make in the present impacts your ability to make decisions in the future. At each decision point in our life we are at a fork in the road. Every time we take the path that is “good” for us, our brain wires this pattern stronger and it is easy to make similar decisions in the future. It works the same with the bad, if we make bad decisions its difficult to switch to suddenly making choices that are positive, there is an inertia to our behavior.
However, we have the power to intervein at any time and put the mind on our side with one decision. With each good decision we make, the need for willpower and discipline declines, as the behaviour becomes more automated and engrained in your psychology.
Habit experts consider 40% of our behaviours to be controlled by this unconscious process. What you repeatedly do determines the patterns in your mind and this dominates 40% of of who we are.
Let’s take control.
One decision at a time.
At ALIVE we love to explore concepts that put positive momentum on our side. The great thing about the concept of neuroplasticity is that many of the habits which we want to create through neuroplasticity, actually enhance our level of neuroplasticity and make good habbits easier to adopt.
For example, if we love the idea that we can change our level of confidence by changing our patterns of thinking. We can begin to make decisions that push us out of our comfort zone. As we attempt to make these uncomfortable activities comfortable, we are exposing ourselves to new experiences. As discussed previously, new experiences enhance our plasticity and this will allow us to form the neural connections necessary for confidence much faster. Habit formation provides a positive feedback loop. New habits create a brain that more easily cements new habits, thus the habit fuels itself after we decide to make the initial leap. Another example comes from nutrition. If we decide we need to change our eating habits, the process is difficult as we are resisting strong neural connections that create unhealthy cravings. However, as we resist this and nourish our bodies, good diet choices (omega 3, magnesium and fasting) improve plasticity and boost the formation of our new dietary patterns in our mind. We have momentum on our side right after step 1, it’s up to us to get this process started.
This is a concept of the mind but it is directly linked to our experience within the realms of wellness and wisdom.
As discussed before, the basics of developing healthy physiology comes down to habits- the decisions we make every day around exercise, nutrition, movement, posture and our breathing. We need to replace our negative habits with what is positive for our vitality and rewire our brains to crave healthy behaviours. This concept showcases the power of the mind body connection, if the mind contains better patterns the body performs better. As one aspect of our biology begins to function better, the rest is lifted up as well.
The quality of our thinking is the foundations of our life philosophy. We need neuroplasticity to shape our thoughts. Our philosophy needs to be built on the foundations of a strong & flexible mind. By understanding that we can rewire our brains we can begin to apply a concept known as psycho-cybernetics. This is a widely respected concept within psychology and is fundamental to the way we approach life. It that suggests;
Our beliefs create our thoughts and emotions,
Our thoughts and emotions create our actions,
These actions create our results,
The results we experience reinforce our beliefs.
The entirety of this cycle is who we are. It is our character, behaviour and the philosophy that we are manifesting in our life. Neuroplasticity demonstrates we have the power to intervein at the level of our beliefs, thoughts and behaviours to change the outcome of this cycle and re-new our philosophies.
Read: Book: Charles Duhigg- The power of habit
A book that will show you the importance of tackling our habitual neural pathways and also gives you tools to do so.
Listen: Podcast: The Psychology Podcast- The Neuroscience (and Neuroplasticity) of Intelligence, Creativity, and Genius
Great summary of how intelligence and creativity are fluid and can be cultivated over time
Watch: Sentis- Neuroplasticity
Awesome short video explaining the basics of neuroplasticity with impactful visuals.
3. Kempermann, G., Gast, D., & Gage, F. H. (2002). Neuroplasticity in old age: Sustained fivefold induction of hippocampal neurogenesis by long-term environmental enrichment. Annals of Neurology, 52, 135-143. doi:10.1002/ana.10262
5. Vasconcelos, A. R., Yshii, L. M., Viel, T. A., Buck, H. S., Mattson, M. P., Scavone, C., & Kawamoto, E. M. (2014). Intermittent fasting attenuates lipopolysaccharide-induced neuroinflammation and memory impairment. Journal of Neuroinflammation, 11, 85-98. doi:10.1186/1742-2094-11-85
7. Joo, E. Y., Kim, H., Suh, S., & Hong, S. B. (2014). Hippocampal substructural vulnerability to sleep disturbance and cognitive impairment in patients with chronic primary insomnia: Magnetic resonance imaging morphometry. Sleep, 37, 1189-1198. doi:10.5665/sleep.3836