Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change itself constantly by creating new neural pathways and losing those which are no longer used. Encouraging the brain’s neuroplasticity is the key to sustained adult learning and emotional intelligence, which will help the brain remain open-minded, intuitive and able to overcome biases throughout adulthood.
The brain creates new neural pathways and modifies existing ones in response to behavioral, environmental, and neural changes.This process of neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, continues throughout our lives, involves many processes and is influenced by new experiences.
Unfortunately, keeping your brain plastic and flexible isn’t as easy as simply doing a daily sudoku or crossword. For the brain to rewire itself it requires sustained practice of a new behavior which will sufficiently challenge the brain to think in a new way. Imagine how difficult it is to learn a new language or take up a new instrument – this is how hard your brain needs to work to stimulate growth and forge new neural pathways.
Neurons are the longest-living cells in our bodies and are responsible for carrying information throughout the brain and then on to the muscles and organs of the body.
Our brains have the extraordinary capacity to change both structurally and functionally.
Structural plasticity involves our brains changing its physical structure as we learn new things or form new memories.
Functional plasticity is the brain’s ability to move functions from a damaged area of the brain to other undamaged areas.
Most people’s brains can be described as having a fixed or a growth mindset. Someone with a fixed mindset avoids new challenges out of fear of failure, whilst someone with a growth mindset sees new everyday problems as opportunities to be seized and embraced as part of a wider learning experience.
Most successful people tend to have a growth mindset and an ongoing desire to learn and develop personally throughout their life.
Focusing all of our attention on the present moment and our own breathing in the act of mindfulness can have both long and short term physical benefits on the brain. Short term it will decrease our stress by reducing our levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood.
Longer term, if it is practiced regularly (around three times a week), it will lead to increased gyrification – the formation of more folds in the prefrontal cortex. This is important because the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain associated with our higher executive functions.
As we adapt to new environments, our brains dispose of unused or unnecessary neural connections while strengthening and preserving those that are used frequently.
This activity is called synaptic pruning.
For the brain to operate efficiently, synaptic pruning must maintain a proper balance. Researchers suggest that imbalanced brain pruning could be linked to some psychiatric and neurodegenerative issues.
If not enough pruning occurs, the brain remains hyperconnected, which studies observe occurs in many cases of autism.
Conversely, too much pruning disrupts communication between neurons, an abnormality found in Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.
The human brain has billions of neurons, some of which can than live more 100 years in humans.Unused neurons grow weak and die through a process called apoptosis, but can be regenerated by neurogenesis, the creation of new brain cells.With the support of other types of brain cells called glial, neurons can constantly repair, remodel and regenerate themselves.
If you practice something consistently, such as meditating, exercising or learning how to play an instrument, you’re likely to alter your brain to associate the relevant parts of its structure. Neuroplasticity involves a “fire together, wire together” principle.
Whether you are a child, adolescent or older adult, actions and thoughts (both positive and negative) that you repeat can form new neural pathways.
Neuroplasticity works both ways.. chronic pain for example is a really good example.
In people with persistent pain, central sensitization means the alarm ‘keeps on ringing’ and that pain ‘memories’ can persist long after the original cause of the pain has healed. This explains why people can experience pain when an x-ray or scan looks ‘normal’, or why a person with an amputated leg feels ‘phantom pain’.
Pain management is all about using helpful neuroplasticity to re-programme and reduce the over-active danger signals in the brain and nervous system.
What each individual needs for helpful re-programming may be different and researchers are currently exploring new treatments using plasticity.
Our bad habits are a function of the fact that our brains are plastic.The human brain is far, far more resilient than most people ever imagined.The brain can be changed by experiences for better or worse.
And when we develop bad habits, and we use our brain over and over in a bad way, it's not just that we are thinking the wrong thoughts, but we're actually changing the structure of our brains and altering the brain's reward system to some degree.
Once we understand that there are two sides to neuroplasticity, we can begin to take the right steps and practice the habits that will protect and rewire our brain for longevity and optimum health.
With love & gratitude