We are the only species who are aware we are a species! We are the only ones who are aware of ourselves, and who knows that we can think and believe. We know we can make choices and make new choices when the old ones don’t work. In fact, as humans, we have the capability to mold ourselves into what or who we wish to become. While this is more challenging for some than for others, for the most part we do hold our destiny in our hands. That is both scary and wonderful.
Up until the 1950s scientists believed none of this was really possible; that the human brain was formed during gestation and infancy and remained pretty much unchanged from childhood on. They believed we were limited to a given number of brain cells in specific places in the brain and while the number might vary from person to person, once you went into adolescence, your brain connections were already established and the learning and growing changing period of your brain was over.
However, beginning in 1950s, neurologists began dismantling this entrenched viewpoint piece by piece. We now know that thinking, learning and acting actually change our brain’s anatomy from top to bottom. This is called neuroplasticity.
What Is Neuroplasticity?
“Plastic” is associated with a material that has the ability to change. It can be molded into different shapes. In the same way, neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to do all sorts of things:
It can alter its physical structure:
• It can repair damaged regions
• It can grow new neurons
• It can get rid of old neurons
• It can rezone regions that performed one task and have them assume a new task,
And it can change the circuitry that weaves neurons into the networks that allow us to remember, feel, suffer, think, imagine and dream.
Canadian psychiatrist Norman Doidge has called neuroplasticity one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the twentieth century.
According to Teresa Aubele Ph.D. in the August 5, 2011 edition of “Psychology Today,” scientists now believe that most of us have the capability to:
Reactivate long-dormant circuitry. The expression “it’s like riding a bike” is very true when it comes to your brain. Often, you never completely forget a skill once learned, though you might need a short period of practice to kick your neurons back into gear.
Create new circuitry. For instance, the neurons in your nose responsible for smell are made new and replaced every few weeks and new neurons are made in other parts of your brain as well. Also, whenever you learn something new, your brain can strengthen existing neuronal connections and create new synapses that allow you to maximize new skills.
Rewire circuitry. Parts of your brain that were used for one purpose can be re-tasked to other uses. This is often the case with stroke victims who relearn to use a limb or to speak after some neurons are destroyed. (An amazing book about this is “My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolt Taylor, a Harvard trained neurobiologist who had a massive stroke at the age of 38. Over the next seven years, her brain had to rewire itself and her book describes what happened.)
Quiet aberrant circuits and connections (such as those contributing to depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder(OCD), phobias and so on). Some parts of your brain (your prefrontal cortex, for example) can exert control over others (the amygdala, for example) and change how much they affect your mood, decision-making and thought processes.
An Important Note: The techniques I am discussing do not apply to those who are dealing with brain chemistry imbalances that require medication (such as schizophrenia, bipolar disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD, clinical depression and so on). No one should ever feel responsible for their chemical imbalances, or stop taking prescribed medication in hopes that they have the ability to alter their chemistry through thought control.
How Neuroplasticity Can Calm Your Mind
You can use your mind to foster neuroplasticity in the following ways:
You can change the way you think or react to certain situations. The actions you take can literally expand or contract different regions of the brain, firing up circuits or tamping them down. For example, if you worry excessively, you are activating certain types of pathways due to habit. You can learn, however, to retrain your brain to quiet these pathways and strengthen others, so it doesn’t automatically go down the “worry” highway.
You can choose activities that alter the structure of your brain. The more you ask your brain to do, the more space it sets up to handle the new tasks, often by shrinking or repurposing space that houses your ability to perform rarely used tasks. For example, if you typically go into a melancholy funk when you face problems, your brain will continue that habit. If, however, you instruct your brain to come up with creative solutions to your problems, you can shut down the melancholy pathways by making them less used and smaller, and instead open up and increase use of the creativity workshop in your brain.
You can use imagination to actually trick your brain. New brain-scanning technology has shown that conscious perception activates the same brain areas as imagination. In effect, you can neutralize the long-term effects of painful memories by rewriting (or more correctly, rewiring) the past that lives within your brain. The exciting part of this is that your brain believes these rewritten versions of your past, without question and when you lock onto them, they progressively become a part of how you think and then who you are.
Remember this! Your brain believes what you tell it. When you say, “I just cannot change my thinking,” your brain says “OK” and makes sure you can’t. However, when you say, “I can learn and grow and change!” your brain agrees just as quickly, and then becomes obsessed with finding ways you can!
Steven Campbell is the author of “Making Your Mind Magnificent” and conducts “The Winners Circle” every two months at Sonoma Mountain Village in RP. Contact Steven at 480-5007 or go his website at stevenrcampbell.com to ask about his one-day free monthly seminar.