The Brain That Changes Itself

What if your thoughts could change your brain structure? What if mere imagination of an action worked just as well as the action itself? Wouldn’t that imply the mind-boggling power over one’s outer and inner world? Well, it would. And it does.

I first stumbled upon the topic of brain plasticity a year ago, when I started to read Rick Hanson‘s Buddha‘s Brain. I was travelling at the time, in the midst of Australian winter, and I would spend hours every day just by sitting on the nearly-deserted beach and reading until the wind would become unbearable. The ideas stated in the book were very much alive in my mind months after finishing it and that’s how another work on the topic — Norman Doidge‘s The Brain That Changes Itself — came to my attention and provided me with a number of cases and references to research papers, which described extraordinary and sometimes even counter-intuitive ideas.

“Everything your ‘immaterial’ mind imagines leaves material traces. Each thought alters the physical state of your brain synapses at a microscopic level.”

The basic idea here is that “when neurons fire together, they wire together” — mental activity creates and modifies neuronal structures, especially when it is sustained and attention is undivided. Therefore multitasking might not seem to be the best idea ever anymore since the attention is scattered and the activity which you might wish to reinforce is partly neglected in favour of the co-occuring ones — background music, thoughts of tomorrow’s meeting, checking the email absent-mindedly, you name it.

However, attention is needed not just for altering the mind-maps, but for establishing them in the first place. You might notice that it is considerably harder to learn another language once you left primary school (current research claims that the threshold of the sensitive period for language learning is about 7–10 years). It is harder, but certainly not impossible. And the sustained attention is one of the ways to facilitate the learning process. It is also crucial to mention that in this case the goal is not only the ability to chat jovially with your new Chinese neighbours, but the process of language learning itself since there is plenty of evidence that it keeps the brain active and plastic and as a result even might prevent such brain diseases as Alzheimer’s.

And yet, brain plasticity is a two-fold phenomenon. Not only can it enhance the brain and the mind function for that matter, it also reveals how easily negative habits can be developed and strengthened or how certain skills, if abandoned for a while, might be lost altogether.

“There is an endless war of nerves going on inside each of our brains. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead.”

Maybe the most fascinating part of the book was the research of piano playing exercise, when two groups were assigned a 2-hour daily session of playing piano for five days. One group would sit down at the instrument and play the piece over and over again. With practice their amount of errors decreased, the accuracy went up and the muscle groups responsible for playing became better and better represented in the cortex of the brain. Another group would sit down at the piano and merely imagine playing it. Believe it or not, the brain of the piano players from both groups was altered equally. And the implications of such findings are mind-blowing.

“Mental simulation of movements activates some of the same central neural structures required for the performance of the actual movements. In doing so, mental practice alone may be sufficient to promote the plastic modulation of neural circuits placing the subjects at an advantage for faster skill learning with minimal physical practice.”

So what does it all mean for you and me and our daily routines? There are tons of things to consider. The main underlying notion is that your thoughts matter way more than you might think. So it would make sense to invest more attention into our environment in order to promote enriching and uplifting experiences. The websites we visit, the books we read, the ideas we daydream, the people we hang out with, the places we go to, the thoughts we cling to — all of that does not dissapear as soon as it goes off the mind. The understanding of it brings the so-needed awareness, nudging not only to stop reinforcing the maladaptive thought patterns, but also to realise what a power lies within our minds and how much can be changed and created by mere effort to change or create.

“Because of all the ways your brain changes its structure, your experience matters beyond its momentary, subjective impact. It makes enduring changes in the physical tissues of your brain which affect your well-being, functioning, and relationships. Based on science, this is a fundamental reason for being kind to yourself, cultivating wholesome experiences, and taking them in.”
The photo belongs to my personal collection. (Italy, 2013)

Norman Doidge “The Brain That Changes Itself”
Pascual-Leone, A., Amedi A., Fregni F., Merabat, L. B. (2005). The Plastic Human Brain Cortex. Annual Review Neuroscience, 28, 377–401.
Rick Hanson “Buddha’s Brain”

Originally published at on April 11, 2015.