Neuroplasticity is the key to creating a new mind.
Everything we know, everything we do, everything we think, feel, and remember begins in the brain. The brain is able to do so much for us by laying down circuits for nervous system signals to follow over and over again, making these pathways automatic to the brain—this is the essence of neuroplasticity. Every time the same conditions present themselves, we are likely to follow the same path. Learning, choosing who we want to be in this world, and refining skills that bring us pleasure and productivity are all supported by this inherent design of the brain.
Neuroplasticity ~ What do you mean when you say I have a plastic brain?
- Neuro refers to the brain and nerve cells
- Plastic refers to the brain’s nature to be adaptive, changeable, moldable, retrainable, transformable
Why is it so hard to change?
If the brain is so neuroplastic, why is it so hard to change unwanted behaviors?
What we experience is the struggle between the brain’s capacity for change and the brain’s reliance on established neural pathways.
Repetitive patterns developed over time are built on well-traveled paths, and the more times the brain travels down a path, the more likely it will go down it again. The longer these paths are followed, the more refined they become. This can mean a negative thought, a poor lifestyle choice, or a recurrent emotion tied to a previous life experience become ingrained responses. Old behaviors are the artifacts of earlier neuroplasticity. This is how the brain habituates itself to life strategies that sabotage our health and happiness.
Building healthier new pathways, a neuroplastic event, demands focused repetition of a new pattern. It demands more than just a desire to change; there is work that must be done. With every practice of a new habit or skill, it becomes stronger. At some point, this choice will predominate over the old pathway. This is what it takes to create a new mind.
The reality of neuroplasticity is this: we get to choose to create and reinforce the brain pathways that determine the quality of our life.
© Dr. Ruth Buckzynski
Where does neuroplasticity take place?
We know the brain as the soft padded organ inside the skull where actions, thoughts, and emotions spontaneously originate, and where we store a whole lot of information gathered over a lifetime. The brain is a hotbed of nervous system activity most of the time. Electrical impulses are generated through chemical reactions, sparking a flow of energetic signals sent along neural pathways to and from the brain to the rest of the body, telling it what to do and how to think and feel. Consider these nerve pathways not as straight, rigid lines such as stiff wires, but rather as winding flexible yet sturdy tubes which turn and bend as needed to avoid obstacles. They carry messages quickly to and from the rest of the body.
The potential to create neuroplasticity is everywhere in your body. Nerves travel throughout the body, starting in the brain and traveling through the central nervous system along the spine, branching out along peripheral pathways to the farthest reaches of your body. There are more than 86 billion neurons in the human brain and more than 100 billion neurons in the entire human body, with signals traveling over 90,000 miles of nervous system pathways. By comparison, the chimpanzee, which might be considered the closest mammalian relative to humans, has a mere 7 billion neurons and a far smaller structure for nerve signals to travel across. As a result of our expanded neural capacity, human behavior is less instinctual and more willful, requiring intentional actions to achieve a desired result. The choice is ours to make. Healing requires change.
Once we’ve identified how a new habit can improve our health, it takes deliberate intention to make the change.
How do we access our capacity for neuroplasticity?
Our brains are constantly shaped by experience. Every repetition of a thought, emotion, or focused intentional behavior reinforces a nerve signal pathway. We create habitual experiences from which we learn and adapt. Everyone remembers the moment he/she learned to balance on a bicycle, or mastered a new dance step, or a spoke a full sentence in a foreign language. These are all significant positive neuroplastic events that are life enhancing. However, we also create negative neuro pathways by repeating negative self-talk, relying on an addictive substance or behavior for gratification, or avoiding the hard work involved in making changes in your life.
Accessing our capacity for neuroplasticity takes the will to change, focused practice of that change, and repetition. The neural pathway used most will become the preferred pathway used by the brain; this is how neuroplasticity functions. Every time we practice our new behaviors, the easier it gets. Positive new brain patterns begin to degrade the negative neuroplasticity. (See weakened synapses below.)
How the brain changes
© Dr. Ruth Buckzynski
Just how does the brain change in response to a new stimulus or experience? Throughout our lives, specific regions of the brain maintain a continuous production of new nerve cells (neurons) in a process called neurogenesis. All these newly generated nerve cells contribute to an increased ability to create new neural pathways. Every time you incorporate a new habit or experience into your life, new neural connections (synapses) develop between neurons. The repetition of new habits and ways of living strengthen these connections (strengthened synapses).
Neural connections from old habits that don’t serve you well will weaken over time with less use (weakened synapses), making it easier to let those behaviors go and embrace more positive changes toward living the healthy life you wish to lead.
Tales of neuroplasticity
The water shrew is a famously myopic insectivore that orients itself spatially by memory. When making its way in an unfamiliar environment, it moves very slowly, nosing and whiskering its way between two points. The next time it attempts to travel between those two points, it follows the same route that got it there the first time. Each successive passage its speed increases until it is traveling at breakneck speed. The route is by no means the most efficient, often crisscrossing back and forth needlessly. Nevertheless, this path-habit allows the nearly blind shew to travel very fast in familiar environments. If the existing path is changed and causes the shrew to crash, the nosing and whiskering begins anew, and the process is repeated.
Like our neuroplasticity mascot, the water shrew, imagine you are responsible for building new pathways in a forest connecting two communities—it takes effort to cut through the brush and brambles the first time, but each trip out and back along that pathway gets easier to travel. Now imagine walking through that forest on the path you’ve traveled hundreds of times so you no longer even need to watch your step. You can make this journey with your eyes closed. Each trip along the path you’ll see the same trees, though you may still enjoy a unique journey every time when you choose to find a new experience along the way.
Consider learning a new skill such as using a new software system at work. At first, the keystrokes and sequence of entries needed to complete a report seem like a foreign language, and it can be stressful to get to the end of the sequence only to find an error message. You get frustrated because you need the report right away for the afternoon meeting and have to start the sequence all over again. However, the more often you repeat the sequence, correcting previous mistakes along the way, the faster you work through the steps toward the successful preparation of the report you need.
Who needs to know about neuroplasticity?
© Dr. Ruth Buckzynski
Anyone who is interested in steering their life (at least one hand on the wheel) needs to understand neuroplasticity. If you struggle with chronic anxiety or depression, if you have difficulty focusing your attention or experience brain fog, if you are stuck in a pattern of sleepless nights, or if you just don’t feel as vibrant as you’d like, consider again that you have a choice. You can employ new habits to change your brain. The opportunity to create neuroplasticity to support healthier habits, leading to a higher-quality life, is yours for the taking.