The Brain That Changes Itself

Neuroplasticity is a fancy term for your brain’s ability to change. Scientists used to believe that most brain development stopped after early childhood, but now they know better.

More and more studies are revealing that our brains can and do change as we age, but how that happens is largely up to us. Dr. Norman Doidge wrote a book on this subject back in 2007 called The Brain That Changes Itself. Although it’s a bit dated and the writing can feel tedious at times, there were a few highlights I wanted to share with you.

First, let’s begin with a helpful analogy:

“The plastic brain is like a snowy hill in winter. Aspects of that hill — the slope, the rocks, the consistency of the snow — are, like our genes, a given. When we slide down on a sled, we can steer it and will end up at the bottom of the hill by following a path determined both by how we steer and the characteristics of the hill. Where exactly we end up is hard to predict because there are so many factors in play. But, what will definitely happen the second time you take the slope is that you will more likely than not find yourself somewhere or another that is related to the path you took the first time. It won’t be exactly that path, but it will be closer to that one than any other. And if you spend your entire afternoon sledding down, walking up, sledding down, at the end you will have some paths that have been used a lot, some that have been used very little…and there will be tracks that you have created, and it is very difficult now to get out of those tracks. And those tracks are not genetically determined anymore.” — Dr. Pascual-Leone

Dr. Doidge goes on to write,

“The mental ‘tracks’ that get laid down can lead to habits, good or bad. If we develop poor posture, it becomes hard to correct. If we develop good habits, they too can be solidified. Is it possible, once “tracks” or neural pathways have been laid down, to get out of those paths and onto different ones? Yes, according to Pascual-Leone, but it is difficult because, once we have created these tracks, they become ‘really speedy’ and very efficient at guiding the sled down the hill. To take a different path becomes increasingly difficult. A roadblock of some kind is necessary to help us change direction.”

Change is possible. The book goes on to cite numerous examples of individuals who have undergone remarkable transformations. But make no mistake, changing how you think, and hence how you behave, is real work.

Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, here are some big ideas for you to consider:

  • Everything you think and do is shaping your brain for better or worse. You essentially choose what kind of brain you have.
  • Your brain is like a muscle. If you’re weak in some particular area or skill set, you probably just need to exercise it more until it becomes stronger. Difficulty and resistance are confirmation that you’re on the right track.
  • Due to the nature of neural pathways, unlearning the old is much harder than learning the new, but it’s still possible. Over time you can learn to replace your bad habits with good ones.
  • Neurons that fire together, wire together. Neurons that fire apart, wire apart. The associations you make become stronger over time. The dissociations you make become weaker over time.
  • When you consistently neglect a certain part of your brain, it assumes that you must no longer need it and that area begins to diminish.
  • However, when it comes to the brain, it’s not just “Use it or lose it.” It’s also “Improve it or lose it” because the brain declines with age. True learning and mental development does not occur through the easy repetition of old facts and skills (i.e. doing crosswords or playing Sudoku every day); it occurs through the difficult acquisition of new facts and skills. If your brain health program isn’t getting you out of your comfort zone, it’s probably not working.
  • Anything you practice can improve. Anything you neglect can deteriorate.
  • Worry begets worry. Fear begets fear. Engaging in the wrong thought patterns only makes them stronger.
  • “With obsessions and compulsions, the more you do it, the more you want to do it; the less you do it, the less you want to do it.”
  • Visualization is powerful. Imagining something in vivid detail can have as much impact as actually doing the physical activity itself because through visualization the same neurons are firing and wiring and the same neural pathways are being forged or broken. “The faster you can imagine something, the faster you can do it.”
  • The ways you relate to yourself and others have been learned, which means they can be improved or unlearned.
  • Your brain makes new brain cells through a process called neurogenesis. There are some basic things you can do to promote this process, such as: online brain training, getting quality sleep, exercising regularly, eating well, listening to and/or playing music, being socially connected, traveling and experiencing new things, making art, enjoying nature, the list goes on. Basically, if it’s good for you, it’s good for your brain.

In conclusion, you have a huge say in how you think, how you behave, and who you become. When it comes to your brain, you are the driver, not the passenger. You get to decide how smart you are, how skilled you are, how calm and centered you are, etc.

No doubt this is just the tip of the iceberg. Think of where we might be in our understanding of neuroplasticity 20 years from now. Your brain is truly incredible. Take good care of it and make the most of it.


Originally published at davemierau.com on August 1, 2016.