Neuroplasticity is, simply put, the brain’s (neuro) capacity for adaptation and change (plasticity), both physical change and functional change, in response to experience. Such experience includes healthy physical development, as well as thoughts, emotions, learning and memory, together with chemicals, substances, physical injury and brain damage.
For most of the twentieth century, neuroscientific consensus suggested that the brain became static and fixed after a critical developmental period during a child’s early years. Yet, as early as 1890, William James (1842-1910), a medical doctor from Harvard University, and a psychologist who is regularly referred to as the father of American psychology, proposed that the brain’s structure and functionality is not fixed, even throughout adulthood, and that it changes over time. James referred to this as ‘plasticity’. His view was largely ignored, but modern research now highlights that James’s proposal was factually correct. The significance of this cannot be underestimated. As psychiatrist and expert in the field of neuroplasticity, Dr Norman Doidge, has suggested, our newfound and widespread understanding of the brain’s plasticity is the most important change in our understanding of the brain in 400 years.
Brain change occurs as we walk the path of life experience. Your thoughts, inner experience, upbringing and physical experiences affect these changes. It is not the static, fixed organ it was previously thought to be. The brain is flexible and highly adaptable, and changes in response to the experiences one has in one’s life. A physical example of this is that of a person who is blindfolded. If, when alert and awake, a person is blindfolded, and this visual impediment remains for more than a two-hour period, the brain will begin to reorganise itself. In response to visual deprivation, the visual centres in the brain will begin to process signals of touch and sound. This adaptation is automatic and takes place without any conscious effort on the part of the person who is blindfolded. When the blindfold is removed, and sight is restored, the brain’s adaptation to visual loss is gradually reversed. On the other hand, should visual deprivation continue, so too will the brain’s adaptation to this physical change or experience.
This example highlights the ability of the brain to automatically adapt to physical change. The brain, however, is also constantly adapting to one’s thoughts and emotional responses too, to one’s inner experience. Through taking control of one’s inner experience one can, in fact, change the brain. Solid examples of this are found in mindfulness-based exercises and various forms of meditative practice.
Meditative practice is neuroplasticity in action and is linked to changes in both the structure of the brain and regional brain activity. Significantly, these changes, as the brain adapts to a particular meditative practice for example, give rise to positive shifts that are both psychological and physiological in nature. Positive psychological shifts include, amongst others, reduced fear and anxiety, lowered stress levels, a reduction in anger, a decrease in depression, an increase in positive emotions, improved memory and attention span, and increased resilience during difficult times. Positive physiological shifts include, by way of example, the strengthening of the immune system, an increase in energy levels, a decrease in pain that is being experienced, and reduced inflammation.
Neuroplasticity can be positively managed through becoming aware of one’s thoughts, perceptions and subjective experiences, and choosing to influence them for one’s benefit and well-being. With awareness and self-management, one can change not only the structure and function of the brain, but also one’s experience of the world and sense of self. This is something that was considered impossible in the 1970s. Now we know this is not only accurate, but also possible throughout one’s lifetime, health permitting.
The impact of neuroplasticity is perhaps well illustrated by anxiety. Should the anxiety response have become a constant feature in the way in which one responds to life events and experiences, one’s neural pathways become ‘wired’ to respond to events and experiences in this way. Anxiety becomes a habitual way of responding. This habitual response links to a series of interconnected pathways in the brain that become deeper, and develop further, as a ‘preferred route’. Think of it this way. A river (anxiety) may begin its life as a stream (of anxiety responses) that is shallow and narrow. However, as more rain falls (life experiences and events), the stream (anxiety responses) deepens and widens, moving rocks and other blockages (other responses) out of its path and creating a ‘preferred route’. With less resistance to the flow, options (alternative responses) become limited and a deepened and widened channel, or an increasingly dominant ‘preferred route’ becomes an automatic catchment. As more water is captured, the stream becomes a river. This makes the flow even faster, accelerating the deepening and widening effect. This reflects the way the anxiety response becomes increasingly habitual in one’s response pattern and more deeply embedded.
Neuroplasticity, however, illustrates that one has the power to create and adopt new ways of responding to anxiety-provoking thoughts and experiences, to sustain these new responses and, through so doing, to ultimately develop new neural pathways that are healthier and more beneficial to oneself. Through awareness of a dominant anxiety response mechanism; through purposeful intention to change this response; through adopting personally effective strategies to pursue calmer, more resilient and beneficial ways of responding; as well making a concerted effort to sustain this, one can ‘rewire’ the brain to respond accordingly. In doing so, the neural pathways that aided, abetted and promoted anxiety will diminish and new pathways that promote calmer, healthier responses, ones that enable a person to feel more tranquil in the face of life’s events and experiences for most of the time, will gradually develop and deepen. One’s efforts will result in a more beneficial response pattern linked to a newly created ‘preferred route’ in the brain. Gradually it is this new response pattern that becomes automatic, replacing the habitual response of anxiety. Neuroplasticity, therefore, can create long term benefits through healthier response patterns; patterns that become the norm.
Your thoughts change your brain and change your experience of life. It is possible to change the experience of life from one of anxiety to one that is calmer and more relaxed, both in general terms and in relation to specific events or experiences. Using the power of self-awareness, self-assessment, empowering thoughts, constructive choices, and a healthy dose of perseverance, one can positively influence the structure and function of the brain and enhance one’s quality of life.
• Dr Elaine L Finkelstein is a registered clinical psychologist and a registered occupational psychologist. She is a chartered psychologist (UK) and an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Elaine is also the founder of the Transformative End-of-Life Experiences Research Foundation. The author of this blog is not dispensing medical or psychological advice, or prescribing the use of any technique as a form of treatment for physical, medical or psychological problems. The advice of an independent physician or mental health professional, either directly or indirectly is required for this. The intent of the author is only to offer information of a general nature to help you in your quest for emotional and spiritual well-being. In the event that you use any of the information in this blog for yourself, which is your right, the author assumes no responsibility for your actions.
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