People used to believe that the brain became fixed at a certain age, essentially hardwired with unchangeable circuitry. More recent research, however, has revealed that the brain never stops changing in response to thoughts, learning and new experiences we encounter. This ability of the brain to change itself is referred to as neural plasticity, and it is a gift on par with neurogenesis, our ability to generate new brain cells throughout our lifetimes.
neural plasticity – what exactly is it?
A quick dictionary definition – neural plasticity is the ability of the brain to change continuously throughout an individual’s life. Brain activity associated with a given function can be transferred to a different location. The proportion of grey matter can change and synapses may strengthen or weaken over time. OK, dictionary explanation done.
Recent studies in neuroscience demonstrate that our brain has the natural capacity to rewire and create new neural circuits at any age. To make these changes we have to change how the brain automatically and habitually works. Our brains possess elasticity, an ability to shut down old pathways and form new ones, at any age and at any time.
Both genetics and experiences are encoded as wired connections in the brain. If we rely solely on our inherited circuits, we develop the habit of being our genetics (Dr Joe Dispenza).
Our alternative is learning since this allows change. Every time we learn something new, the brain processes the information and makes new circuits that encode the memory of what has been learnt and hence the relationship between neurons is changed.
Learning is the new relationship between neurons and remembering is keeping that relationship socially alive. Natural neural networks develop as a result of continuous neural activation.
According to Dr Joe Dispenza, author of Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind, he states that there are two key aspects of neural plasticity:
- “What fires together wires together“ – when gangs of neurons are repeatedly stimulated they will build stronger, more enriched connections between each other. Continuously thinking about and doing the same things will stimulate and strengthen certain neural connections and reinforce associated behaviour and responses. Learning to juggle, as an example, requires new neural connections to fire together. The more you practice, the stronger these neurons that fire together wire together, and in time you are able to juggle without thinking about it. Just like driving a car.
- “Use it or lose it” – not reinforcing certain thoughts and behaviours will result in the loss of the behaviour since neural connections will be lost due to loss of use. Of course, as in our juggling example, should you stop firing those neurons together, over time the lack of use will result in the loss of expert juggling ability. By following the “use it or lose it” principle, limiting habits can be broken and enabling habits can be established.
Your entire brain contains around 100 billion neurons, each one a fraction of a millimetre in size. If you could stack 100 billion pieces of paper, the stack would be 5,000 miles high – the distance from Los Angeles to London. You have an abundance of material to work with to re-wire your life.
Why does it matter?
Adaptability is the ability to change and the truth is that we are marvels of flexibility with far more power to alter our own behaviour, personality and ultimately our reality than previously thought possible.
Our thoughts have a chemical effect on the dance going on in our brains and we have the power to decide which dance we wish to participate in. Unfortunately, people often operate as if they have only one option for behaviour; only one set of dance steps they know. You all know those people that dance one way, irrespective of the music playing, the moves remain the same.
As one ages the risk of becoming a victim of your habits increases since you tend to stick to what you know and experiencing or learning new things starts to diminish.
Don’t do this. Never allow this, since not using it will mean losing it, and no one wants to lose any neural activity unnecessarily. Keep surprising yourself by doing different things. Go sky diving, dance under the moonlight, celebrate each and every neuron you have been gifted with.
The reality is that with conscious effort and determined intention you can learn the steps to any dance, allowing you the freedom of choice.
There are two ways we can develop new connections in the brain (1) learning new things and (2) having new experiences. Every time we learn new information or embrace novel experiences, the brain changes, recording new patterns of neurological circuits.
This topic is vast, and there is an abundance of exciting research and books available for anyone interested in learning more about just how powerful we are when it comes to the habits we form, often becoming slaves to them, and how we can change these habits. I would highly recommend Dr Dispenza’s books because he has a traumatic personal experience backing up much of his research.
The future will require flexibility, the ability to dance to a different rhythm and our willingness to learn new moves quickly will determine our effectiveness and relevance in the world of tomorrow.
“Remember that we are the ones responsible for the habit we have formed of being ourselves” – Dr Joe Dispenza.