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The benefits of neuroplasticity mean – you can teach an old dog new tricks!

Neuroplasticity is something to be excited about! And if you’re here reading this, you’ve probably got an inkling that this is the case!

Chances are you’re interested in bettering your mind, and growing better and stronger and happier with every additional year you spend on the planet. I know I am!

Often when we look around us, at those older than us – “our elders and betters” – we see a decline in interest in life. We see people ready to finish work and retire with a sense that the next phase is preparation for old age and doing less. I’ve been saddened to hear people say they will not get another pet, for fear it would outlive them.  And they were barely seventy years old!

It’s certainly wise to approach our mature years with a backup plan for health issues and changes in circumstances.  For example, the loss of loved ones and perhaps the addition of dependants. This is just like at any time in life!

The Benefits of Neuroplasticity means There is Much to be Excited About

I propose that our middle and our advancing years can be a time of greater joy and achievement than ever before, as we learn more about ourselves and grow into our own person. Much of our younger years are spent establishing our foundations and raising a family. Also, many of these years are spent dealing with stress, anxiety and a variety of challenges and troubles delivered by our society, our way of life, the circumstances of our upbringing. So it follows that as we mature, learn more about ourselves and gather life experiences, we have the benefit of experience and hindsight. Because of this, we can reinvent ourselves.

It just so happens that the body is designed for this! Have you heard of neuroplasticity? It is simply the most exciting ability of the human brain to know about for those of us wanting to blossom – at any age.

What We Once Believed About the Brain

For many decades, it was thought that the brain was a “nonrenewable organ”. It was believed that a human had a set number of brain cells at birth and they came in a finite amount. Furthermore, it was assumed that they slowly die as we age, and it didn’t matter whether we took measures to preserve them, or not.

It was generally thought that brain development only occurred during our childhood and then stopped. So after our initial brain development, it was thought our brains became ‘fixed’ and hard-wired. It was believed that once our brains developed, they could not be changed or reorganized.

I have the sense that this was certainly the general consensus as I was growing up. It was only in recent years – within the past 10, I would say – that the discussion of neuroplasticity started to come up in general conversation. Of course, the researchers have been onto this for years.  Evidence suggests research goes back to the late 1940s, according to the literature I read.

What Current Research Shows

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to adapt. Neuropsychologist Dr Celeste Campbell puts it this way:

“It refers to the physiological changes in the brain that happen as the result of our interactions with our environment. From the time the brain begins to develop in utero until the day we die, the connections among the cells in our brains reorganize in response to our changing needs. This dynamic process allows us to learn from and adapt to different experiences”

The benefits of Neuroplasticity are certainly very exciting!

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form new connections between the nerve cells (called neurons). So, the brain can create new pathways and change how its circuits are wired. So, we can change habits, learn new concepts, develop new abilities.

(There is also a related concept – neurogenesis. Neurogenesis is the incredible ability of the brain to grow entirely new neurons (Bergland, 2017). Imagine the application of that to the likes of dementia and brain damage. But, one step at a time, here.)

An Example:

To liken our brain to a smart phone, like my old iPhone! Both my iPhone and my brain have hardware and software. My iPhone is built with set hardware and it gets a software update from time to time. The software gets updated, but the poor old iPhone has all the same bits on the inside. So inconvenient it is to renew bits of an iPhone, we tend to toss it out and get a new one. My brain, on the other hand, can actually receive hardware updates as well as software updates.

By practicing new habits, like relaxation techniques and consciously choosing how I respond to situations, I can rewire my brain to update the hardware. (In fact I have done so – rewiring my brain with more helpful neural pathways was the most powerful method I found to deal with anxiety!)  This is in addition to learning new concepts by reading and researching and watching TED Talks – this is the software!

So, neuroplasticity means that different pathways in our brain form or disconnect, are created or dropped, according to our experiences.

When we learn something new, our brain creates new connections. The brain does this in response to new experiences we have, actions we take, thoughts we think, situations we face. This happens naturally, by itself (and I’m sure you can understand it can be in a positive AND negative way), but significantly, we can choose to encourage connections that support us in a positive way. In other words, our brains can improve, change and adapt in our adult years.

Do you like where this is heading?

Why Neuroplasticity is Wonderful News

Firstly, if we go back to the concept of mindset, it’s clear there is a powerful connection between growth mindset and neuroplasticity.

A growth mindset is one where one’s natural skills, talents and abilities can be enhanced and developed with effort and a belief they can do so. Similarly, neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt and progress in adulthood. It’s a match made in heaven (for the person looking to live a great, happy, life.)
So, the bottom line is, the more we think a certain way, the more we reinforce how our brain is wired. How we constantly feel, think and act will sculpt our brain. “Imprinted on our Brain”, so to speak. Consequently, how we think affects our brains, and our brains, in turn, affect how we think. (Think, vicious cycle, if it’s a downward spiral!)

Experiencing happiness and uplifting emotions helps to create and reinforce good neural connections in our brains, which become stronger the more we repeat these experiences. Our brains will be shaped by what we expose ourselves to, and what we focus on.

If we focus on bad news, busy-ness, worry, self-loathing, anger, sad events and the like, we are moulding our brains to immerse themselves in and react more strongly to these types of feelings. “Wallowing in self-pity”, my Dad would have said!

On the other hand, if we seek out gratitude, positives, kindness, a focus on calm and happiness, our brains will respond accordingly.

“What we think about, we bring about” and any other number of uplifting phrases come to mind!

(But, I’m anxious/stressed/depressed so how can I think happy, you say? That’s a discussion for another day! )

How to Apply the Benefits of Neuroplasticity to Get What You Want

In a nutshell, we can shape our brain and thus choose our experience of life by deliberately choosing what we want to focus our minds on. If we focus on misery and negative aspects of the world around us, we will sink.  We’ll sink low, low, low, rarely to find happiness and fulfillment. If we focus on the good in life (and if you are reading this on a device with internet and electricity, I’m guessing you have plenty of good around you!), our experience of life will be the best it can be.

Our brain is affected by how we think and how we think is affected by our brain.

The old axioms of

  • sufficient rest and sleep,
  • exercise,
  • time to relax and rejuvenate,
  • healthy diet,

supplemented by

  • practicing gratitude (regularly and constantly noting what we’re grateful for),
  • arresting unhelpful, unproductive and negative thoughts, and
  • rolling affirmative statements around in our thoughts instead,

will go a very long way to making the most of our brilliant brains!