Scientists once believed that the brain couldn’t change over time. We now know that neuroplasticity is possible. You can change your brain multiple times throughout your life. Both internal and external events can affect your brain. For example, after a trauma, you might notice that your brain reacts differently due to triggers. With therapy, you’ll be able to change your brain to a new state post-trauma that was even better than your pre-trauma brain. Neuroplasticity allows you to improve yourself and so much more. In this article, we’ll talk about what neuroplasticity is and how to rewire your brain for the better. So, let’s dive in!
What is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity is the inherent ability of the brain to adapt and change in reaction to internal and external stimuli. Your brain can change its functions and even its physical structure to react to inputs coming in from events, experiences, thoughts, and even human emotions. Previously, scientists assumed the brain itself was finite and that we were born with a set number of a few billion neurons that don’t regenerate. Scientists also believed that these brain cells slowly die over time, and since they don’t regenerate, we die too. Lucky for us, we now know that this isn’t true.
A few decades later, recent studies refuted these notions, and people learned that the brain was malleable and changeable.
Today, we now know that the brain can reorganize neural pathways, make new connections, and even regenerate neurons. Neurons are the nerve cells that serve as the building blocks of the brain and the whole nervous system. All these are naturally occurring, and it depends on what we do with the gray matter that we have as evolving beings. Neuroplasticity is quite remarkable when you think of all the possibilities and changes it can bring to your body and your life in general.
What is Neurogenesis?
The discovery of neurogenesis says that the brain can replace dead or damaged brain cells due to reasons like old age, trauma, and so forth. This concept excites the scientific community due to all the possibilities for rewiring the brain. It opens up the possibility of treatment and the prevention of previously thought of incurable conditions like dementia and other brain injuries.
Not only that, but the brain can actually heal itself.
If neurogenesis regenerates, neuroplasticity rearranges and recreates. As the owners of our brains, the good news is that we can influence how we recreate our neural pathways.
The History of Neuroplasticity
The name neuroplasticity was first coined in 1948 by Jerzy Konorski. He was a neuroscientist who lived in Poland. He used the name neuroplasticity to describe physical changes he observed in the neuronal structure within the brain itself.
Many decades later, additional research on the subject indicated that stress on the brain could change the processes and functions of the brain and change its physical structure.
Two Types of Neuroplasticity
1. Functional Plasticity
The brain can move its processes and other functions from a damaged area to other undamaged areas.
2. Structural Plasticity
Structural plasticity is the brain’s capacity to change and reshape its actual physical structure following a learning event. For example, if you learn new information or experience a trauma.
This ability to change and morph establishes the fact that the brain is adaptable and resilient. On the other hand, this also renders this magnificent organ susceptible to unconscious external and internal influences. Neuroplasticity is a process that can lean into pathways of either bad or good habits.
1. Age and Environment
Changes occur primarily in the early stages of life, where the brain is still developing and even growing. Younger brains tend to be more impressionable from outside inputs, mostly from their environment. However, this doesn’t mean older brains are no longer able to adapt. Neuroplasticity means that you can rewire your brain at any point in your life. So while you may have experienced many brain changes when you were a child, you can continue to experience some rewiring throughout your life.
2. Genetic Predisposition
The outcome of an individual’s neuroplasticity may also depend on genetic heredity. As genetic traits appear while the brain is growing, it also interacts with its environment as it changes accordingly with the genes as the starting premise. However, there’s an enormous amount you can do beyond your genetic makeup. So don’t falsely believe that your DNA is your most significant limit. People can go beyond their DNA to shape their brains and rewire new pathways.
Why is Neuroplasticity Important?
Neuroplasticity allows for healing and recovery in brain injury cases caused by direct physical trauma or possibly a brain disease. It does so by rearranging its neural function and pathways as well as the physical structure. It can mend and rewire itself.
Concussions are one of the biggest causes of brain injury. It’s essential to keep your brain physically safe to avoid negatively affecting your brain’s health and well-being.
However, remember that you can still take care of yourself – or your brain to reshape it to a new and better condition despite physical trauma, injury, or age. With the right concussion or brain specialist, you can learn how to improve your brain’s state post-trauma.
Habits and Its Relation to Neuroplasticity
By nature, your brain form neuronal connections basing on what you habitually do in your life. These connections form as you form habits and are constantly happening as you grow older. Examples of these habits are being a worrywart, choosing optimism over pessimism in most cases, meditation, or habitually scratching your head even if it doesn’t itch. As they eventually become actions and are being repeated over time, they become neural traits permanently etched in your brain.
Any change that you want to do with these habits, whether good or bad, you’ll have to learn how to harness these neuroplastic processes of your brain.
That’s why some habits are so hard to break. If you’ve been taking specific action for a long time, your brain has made it easy for that habit to form. It’ll be easy to develop good habits if you have good habits since your brain’s pathways form to make doing them easy. Yet, it’s hard to break if you start bad habits since the brain develops those pathways. But any habit, good or bad, is easy to construct and break.
How Your Habits Become Wired into Your Brain
- First, you do an action accompanied by feelings of physical or emotional pleasure (for example, smoking). Your brain releases dopamine. This feel-good neurotransmitter is released into your system.
- Dopamine gives you that reward of feelings of elation and pleasure associated with the action you just performed.
- As you continue to repeat the action to get the reward, dopamine gets released earlier and earlier until such time that even just by thinking about it, you get that high without having to act. This event is called anticipatory dopamine surge. You may notice this arises when you experience cravings for food, drugs, or other addictive substances.
- This premature dopamine surge causes you to repeat the behavior.
- As you keep on repeating the same action, your brain forms specific neural patterns that can stimulate and solidify these pathways. This solidifying happens regardless of whether it’s a good or bad habit. Your nervous system doesn’t know the difference. All it knows is that it’s pleasurable.
- In the case of bad habits, whenever situations occur where a reaction is required, these fortified neural patterns of bad habits in the brain become paths of least resistance that get repeated over and over regardless of consequences. This negative repetition is how addiction forms.
Using Neuroplasticity to Overcome Bad Habits
To change habits, you’ll have to change your brain. Changing outward behavior begins in the neural pathway of a person’s brain. You might’ve even heard the expression rewire the brain. Some call it “rewiring.”
Apart from the natural physical reaction of your brain to heal itself, there are specific steps that you can take to rewire or reinvent neural pathways. By rewiring and creating new neural pathways, you can experience better health, success, and overall feelings of well-being.
The science of neuroplasticity and our ability to redirect changes that are happening in our brain is currently being studied and are now applied in practical ways.
How to Create New Behavior Patterns Using Neuroplasticity
1. Identify your Triggers
Certain things and events can cause you to repeat the same unwanted behaviors you want to change. Know what they are, and reduce them. If you can, eliminate them. Once you remove a trigger, you prevent the anticipatory dopamine. And you no longer have the urge to repeat the same unwanted behavior. Although, please note that there are many other branches of science and procedures about dealing with addiction. In severe cases, please consult a professional.
2. Foster a Healthy Learning Environment
Learning environments may provide you with avenues to exercise focus and positive challenges that can stimulate good changes in the brain.
3. E-learning a new language
According to research, acquiring another language improves vocabulary, enhances creativity, and strengthens problem-solving skills, increasing the brain’s gray matter. Plus, it helps you build social relationships with people that speak that language.
4. Learn to Play a Musical Instrument
Playing music creates a better mood, boosts memory, improves concentration, as it may also slow down cognitive decline in older individuals. You can also go ahead and listen to positive songs regularly. That is, if you aren’t inclined to play an instrument. Music can help you rewire your brain.
Travel gives you a new perspective about things at home and in your own life. If traveling far is not possible at the moment, taking long walks in your neighborhood may help. Seeing new cultures, norms, sites, and more can help inspire you in new ways allowing for neuroplasticity to occur. New places can create experiences that broaden the mind and create new neural pathways in the brain.
6. Get Adequate Rest
Typically, sleep plays an essential role in the development of the physical body. There have been studies of the actual correlation between neuronal growth and sufficient deep sleep. Get enough quality sleep to give your brain a chance to reset itself. Seven to eight hours of sleep is recommended, though you may need more or less.
Regular physical activity has been known to prevent neuron losses in the brain. It also helps increase serotonin levels that can boost your mood. In addition, getting sunlight in the morning while exercising, walking is a good combination of daily physical activity to increase your brain’s neuroplasticity.
8. Reduce stress
Find ways to reduce stress through meditation, yoga, and healthy social interaction with other people.
9. Find Purpose
Finding a purpose may be too broad of a subject to cover in this article, but being purposeful in general motivates a person to expand his way of thinking and later will be more willing to change neural pathways to achieve a perceived purpose.
10. Celebrate Small Wins
Try to reward small achievements of goals by celebrating them to encourage dopamine production to realize your desired results. Celebrating small wins will likely create new neural patterns that will make you repeat that good habit which helped you achieve your goal, whether it be big or small.
11. Be with the Right People
As you start winning and improving, look for and socialize with people of the same level or higher than you are. This social group will encourage you to keep working and building new neural pathways in your brain that will later turn into good habits.
The science of self-improvement and neuroplasticity contains a lot more than we can discuss in this article. Still, it’s good to know that we can start doing things independently to improve our lives on a basic level. As you progress, however, consulting a professional and enlisting the support of your loved ones is highly recommend. This way, you can set yourself up for success.