You may not have heard of “neuroplasticity,” but it’s a fascinating brain process that takes place within each of us, every single day. In fact, neuroplasticity is the complex system that allows your brain to learn, grow, and facilitate real change in your life.
We all want positive changes in our lives, like exercising more, eating better, being more efficient at work, and opening up to more meaningful relationships. But trying to make those changes often results in extremely inefficient and even counter-productive "loops," like we were following a map that leads us back close to where we started despite a long, arduous journey.
But the reason why it's so hard (or easy, once you know how!) to change is science, not subjective or nebulous. In fact, neuroplastic change can be accessed by anyone, and it's the field of cognitive growth that helps people with PTSD, Autism, learning disabilities, strokes, and even addictions start to "rewire" and permanently change their brains for the better.
I’ll talk a lot more about neuroplastic for making changes in your life, but first, I wanted to highlight ten fascinating facts about the process:
1. Your brain needs to be “in the mood” to make real changes.
When you’re in the proper mental, physical, and emotional state, i.e. rested, sharp, energized, and attentive, your brain releases certain neurochemicals that promote meaningful internal changes. However, if you’re too tired, stressed, or even disinterested or bored, your neuroplastic essentially switches off.
2. The preliminary changes you make may be fleeting.
Here’s an incredibly useful finding from researchers: when you initially make changes, your brain will document them but THEN decide whether that change should be permanent or just temporary. If your brain self-judges the change to be invigorating, remarkable, or clearly beneficial -- or even just profoundly significant if it’s negative experience – then it will make the change permanent.
3. Focus facilitates change.
The more intensely you concentrate and dedicate your full attention, alertness, and brain power, the more significant the change will be. Your neuroplasty essentially picks up on if an event or experience is important enough to warrant the change.
4. Memory dictates our learning process.
The neurological process of memory has a lot more to do with new learning and habit-forming than originally thought. In fact, as we learn any new language, information, skill, or activity, our brain selectively filters and retains the positive attempts while deleting the failed attempts, therefore establishing a positive track for us to grow upon. Fascinating!
5. Coordination and cooperation over chaos.
When it comes to learning to facilitate positive growth, our brains are much more effective when there is cell-to-cell cooperation and connections, as opposed to disjointed effort and chaos. In fact, preeminent neuroplasticity researcher, Dr. Michael Merzenich likens it to the power of a football stadium full of people clapping in unison versus at random. “The more powerfully coordinated your [nerve cell] teams are, the more powerful and more reliable their behavioral productions,” he says.
6. Your brain has a “use it or lose it” makeup.
Brain plasticity is a wheel that's constantly turning, and you need to drive that momentum with positive activity, thoughts, and changes so it doesn't start "turning" backward. From memory to mental cognition and the ability to learn ("You can't teach a new dog old tricks?"), your plastic brain demands practice, stimulation, and challenge on a daily basis for you to be able to continue growing.
7. So, what actually changes in your brain when we evolve?
When we learn, grow, and change, the physiological process actually sees the strengthening of connections of neurons. As we take in, retain, practice, and eventually master any new cognitive patterns, more of those connections and formed and strengthened, reinforcing the blueprint that we call "learning."
8. The brain is like an ever-flowing river.
Instead of singular and isolated functions, the brain can associate teams of neurons that represent separate experiences, functions, and memories, connecting them in a complex stream called “associative flow.” The aforementioned Dr. Merzenich explains that without that flow, conscious thoughts would just be “a series of separate, stagnating puddles,” explains Merzenich.
9. Our brains can actually “rehearse” internally to help change.
Those neurological connections aren’t just formed and strengthened by real-world experiences, but by mental rehearsal. That’s why positive mantras and visualization works so well for athletes or just about anyone looking to learn or improve performance. In fact, according to Dr. Merzenich, “You don’t have to move an inch to drive positive plastic change in your brain. Your internal representations of things recalled from memory work just fine for progressive brain plasticity-based learning.”
10. Change begets change in our brains.
The process of change becomes more efficient in our brains the more we do it. For instance, every time we learn something new, the correct teams of neurons are connected and strengthened. But, at the same time, negative, incorrect, or incomplete, or just plain unuseful connections are discarded.
In that way, our brains are sort of constantly trying to tune out the distracting fuzz like a TV screen, while clicking through for the channels we actually want. Therefore, your brain becomes more efficient, precise, and active the more you work towards change.