First off, what is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s amazing capacity to change and adapt. It refers to the physiological changes in the brain that happen as the result of our interactions with our environment. From the time the brain begins to develop in utero until the day we die, the connections among the cells in our brains reorganize in response to our changing needs. This dynamic process allows us to learn from and adapt to different experiences.
Neuroplasticity is definitely a factor in recovery from brain injury. In fact, it is the basis for much of our cognitive and physical rehabilitation practices. Part of rehabilitation is aimed at trying to rebuild connections among the nerve cells — or neurons. This “re-wiring” of the brain can make it possible for a function previously managed by a damaged area to be taken over by another undamaged area. The connections among the cells are infinitely receptive to this type of change and expansion.
In addition, we are now learning more about neurogenesis — the actual generation of new brain cells. Recent research has demonstrated that neurogenesis does indeed continue into and throughout adult life, although only in specific areas of the brain. Researchers are exploring ways to identify those areas of the brain where new cells are developing, to discover how to promote or inhibit neurogenesis, and to learn how new neurons may become part of the working brain. The hope is that this information will ultimately help people better recover from brain injury.
Two Primary Ways You Can Drive Neuroplasticity
Because neuroplasticity follows the Hebbian rule, it’s fundamentally reversible. Neurons that fire together wire together, but neurons that don’t, won’t. You’ve got a “use it or lose it” brain. Information rarely accessed and behaviors seldom practiced cause neural pathways to weaken until connections may be completely lost in a process called “synaptic pruning.” Neuroplastic change occurs in response to stimuli processed in the brain which can originate either internally or externally.
Primary Way Number One: Externally Driven Change
From childhood through adulthood, the events of your life shape your brain. As little people grow, interact with others, and explore the world, connections are wired in their brains based on their experiences. When you’re young, most of what happens is out of your control. As adults, our brains are reflections of our daily routines. Your habits, both good and bad, literally get wired into your brain. Ways to drive externally driven change would be:
- Try something new. This can be as involved as learning a different language, going back to school, taking dance classes, or mastering a musical instrument. It also can be as simple as trying out a new restaurant, reading a book out of your normal genre (especially fiction), or listening to an unfamiliar style of music.
- Mix things up. Use your nondominant leg to start up the stairs or your nondominant hand to eat or brush your teeth. Move the mouse to the other side of the keyboard. Sleep on a different side of the bed. Take a new route to work. Get your brain off of automatic.
- Turn off the GPS. Use a map and your brain. You could even get intentionally lost and try to find your way back without using your GPS or a map. (There’s a whole sport like this called orienteering.)
- Exercise in a new way. Try a whole new activity. If bicycling, vary your routes and terrains. If running or walking, get outside when possible, forget the headphones, and alter surfaces, paths, and scenery. The idea is to get your brain in the workout.
- Train your brain. There is a whole debate about whether brain training works or not. There is no doubt in our minds that EEG Neurofeedback, which we offer works. Keep in mind not all brain training is the same. Some phone games (like Lumosity) can only go so far.
- Take a trip. Travel to a new city, a new country or just down the road. A change of scenery wakes up your brain, sparks creativity, and can even boost happiness. A new environment challenges your brain and takes it off auto-pilot. You have to think about even small things when in an unfamiliar place.
- Be social. Talk to people face-to-face. Engage in conversations and really listen. Make new friends unlike any you already have. Higher social engagement is associated with higher cognitive functioning and reduced risks of cognitive decline.
Primary Way Number Two: Internally Driven Change
- Mindfulness The research about the positive impact of mindfulness on the brain and mental health points to neuroplasticity as the cause. In mindfulness, by intentionally directing attention inward and cultivating awareness of the breath or thoughts and feelings, you are becoming aware of your brain’s Default Mode Network (DFM) and exerting control over it. When you consciously guide your DFM, you’re interrupting habitual thought patterns and orienting your brain in the present moment.
- Meditation Along with the many scientifically proven benefits of meditation for your brain, it increases neuroplasticity. Meditation has been proven to decrease stress, anxiety, and depression, which have been shown to limit neurogenesis, the birth of new brain cells. And you don’t need to meditate for years on end to start reaping benefits either. One study showed brain changes after just eight weeks of regular meditation.
- Visualization Neurons fire and chemicals are released in your brain whether something is real or imagined. On brain scans, imaginative thoughts activate many identical brain areas, which directly influence you, physically and emotionally. From a neuroscientific perspective, imagining an act and doing it are not that different. Hence, visualization allows you to put your imagination to work for you to change your brain. Research has validated that the practice influences physical changes from muscle strength to brain pathways.
Videos on Neuroplasticity
The Sentis Brain Animation Series takes you on a tour of the brain through a series of short and sharp animations.
Michael Merzenich: Growing evidence of brain plasticity
Neuroscientist Michael Merzenich looks at one of the secrets of the brain’s incredible power: its ability to actively rewire itself. He’s researching ways to harness the brain’s plasticity to enhance our skills and recover lost function.
How brain plasticity can change your life with Michael Merzenich
Hear the latest on how the brain develops and how positive and negative brain plasticity remodels the brain across the lifespan. Learn how to evaluate your own brain and how to rejuvenate, remodel and reshape your brain at any age
After watching this, your brain will not be the same – Lara Boyd, TEDxVancouver
In a classic research-based TEDx Talk, Dr. Lara Boyd describes how neuroplasticity gives you the power to shape the brain you want. Recorded at TEDxVancouver at Rogers Arena on November 14, 2015.
The woman who changed her brain: Barbara Arrowsmith-Young at TEDxToronto
Barbara Arrowsmith-Young is the Creator and Director of Arrowsmith School and Arrowsmith Program. Here, she tells of being born with severe learning disabilities. Although she was obviously intelligent, she read and wrote backward, struggled to understand language and abstract concepts, was always getting lost, and was physically uncoordinated. By relying on memory and will, she made it to graduate school where she discovered research inspiring her to invent cognitive exercises to fix her own brain.
Tips for External and Internal Drivers, and Video Lineup were largely influenced from The Best Brain Possible with Debbie Hampton.Tags: brain health, brain mapping, clinical research, emotions, health, self development