Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change over time because of one’s life experiences and thinking patterns. Brain function is not fixed; it is both malleable and adaptable to change.
Huh, what does that mean?
For many years, scientists believed that our brains were wired very early in life and that as adults, we simply operated out of our initial wiring systems. The blossoming field of neuroscience has since debunked that theory, and science now understands that our brains are much more “plastic,” or pliable, than we initially imagined. Our brains’ physical structure actually changes throughout our lives.
What this means for us, is that whether we are consciously aware of it or not, our brain systems develop, expand, reconstruct, atrophy, and even “die” based on what we end up attending to in our thought life. Our brains have the capacity to:
- Reactivate circuitry that hasn’t been utilized in a while. This explains the phenomenon that we never really forget to ride a bike or play an instrument even if we haven’t utilized the skill in a while.
- Generate new neural connections. Whenever you learn or experience something for the first time, your brain has the ability to create new synapses that solidify your learning.
- Rewire its circuitry. Portions of the brain that were once used for other activities can be refashioned to perform other functions. For example, someone who has experienced brain trauma from a stroke or accident can learn to utilize other pathways to re-learn critical skills.
- Minimize the neural activity that no longer serves you. Even if one has experienced major trauma or significant suffering, the brain can work to diminish the activity in the part of the brain that was needed at the time of trauma to survive the stress. Once a person is able to develop new coping strategies, their brains can soften the activation of the neurons containing the stressful memory and instead activate new memories of safety.
How do I use this in my life?
Our brain’s neuroplasticity has great implications on the field of psychology, and if we allow it to, it can fundamentally alter how we navigate the arenas of our own minds. Take for example the pursuit of happiness. Hundreds of philosophers, psychologists, and religious leaders have offered commentary on this proverbial pursuit throughout the centuries. The field of neuroscience has thrown its metaphorical hat in the ring by stating that with informed and concentrated effort, one can “think” their way to a happier mind.
- Consider trying activities like meditation and mindfulness. Research has revealed that these practices increase one’s ability to be present and to develop awareness of thought patterns that one may want to target and change.
- Understand the value of visualization. The activity of just picturing yourself engaging in a satisfying activity is just as rewarding to your brain system as if you had actually engaged in the imagined event.
- Practice relaxation. Cortisol is a hormone that is released when the body is under stress. Small amounts of cortisol are useful to us when we have to navigate a stressor, but large amounts (like the amounts that are experienced during trauma or long periods of crisis) can actually eat away at important brain tissue, possibly even reducing the size of our hippocampus (the memory center of the brain).
- Do things that make you happy. When we engage in projects or hobbies that make us feel good, our brain is experiencing the effects of serotonin and dopamine (very simplistically known as the “happy” neurotransmitters). The more you participate in activities that increase the production of these important neurotransmitters, the happier you will feel.
- Stay connected to your breath. Taking conscious, even, and elongated breaths during times of stress can actually train your brain to relax when experiencing stress. Breathing in this manner, activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which can bring your body back to a calm equilibrium.
Aubele, T., Wenck, S., & Reynolds, S. (2011). Train your brain to get happy. Avon, Mass.: Adams Media.
Hanson, R., & Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.