I grew up in the age of record players. If you did too, you know that sometimes records would skip. If you were familiar with a song, and your record would skip in a certain place, you’d start to hear that song in your head with the skip. The skip would get carved into your brain – potentially forever. It would overwrite the original song.
If you ever had that experience, you experienced neuroplasticity. Even if you haven’t, you’re experiencing neuroplasticity all the time.
Today's post is all about neuroplasticity, and how it can help you transform yourself, and your life - really!
What is Neuroplasticity?
Simply put, neuroplasticity is the term that describes how your brain changes based on your experiences.
I find the metaphor of pathways and trails in the woods to be useful when explaining neuroplasticity. Your brain and body are controlled by nerve cells. Every thought you have, sensation you feel, emotion you experience, and action you take happens because those nerve cells are firing away. Based on your behavior, your nerve cells carve out new pathways, while unused connections weaken, like a neglected trail in the woods gets overgrown.
The more you do “something”, the more you create a pathway for that “something” into your amazing brain. Anytime you get better at something with practice or lose some skill from disuse, you’re experiencing neuroplasticity.
The Most Important Thing to Know about Neuroplasticity
I think the most important thing to know about neuroplasticity is that it exists!
You don’t need to know brain anatomy or physiology; the existence of neuroplasticity means that change is possible, and that it’s happening all the time.
I used to believe that old dogs couldn’t learn new tricks, but I was wrong. Research into neuroplasticity proves that brains remain plastic throughout life. That means that by taking conscious control of the changes you want to make, you can change your own brain – and life!
There’s Good News and Bad News
The idea of neuroplasticity is great, but the impact of neuroplasticity can be good or bad for you. You can use it to improve your life, but it can also reinforce unhelpful habits and patterns.
Here’s an example of how neuroplasticity can cause trouble: Many of us tend to be self-critical; we have an inner critic. Let’s assume you have one (since I don’t know anyone who doesn’t). Your inner critic isn’t real; it may feel real, but it’s essentially an unhelpful and unwanted neural pathway, and the more it gets used, the deeper and wider that pathway gets.
Each time you criticize yourself, your inner critic gets more powerful. This is a serious problem because your inner critic can wreak havoc on your self-esteem, and can stop you from taking risks, taking action, and living fully. Simply knowing that your inner critic is not real, it's just a "neural pathway" that you strengthen each time you criticize yourself, you may think twice about believing it. Imagine having freedom from self-criticism!
As an aside, in a future post, I'll offer you some more specific suggestions for taming your inner critic.
The bottom line is that our brains are always building connections, and if we allow this to happen without our consciousness, we may be wiring in connections that don’t serve us.
What Kinds of Changes Can You Make?
In Normal Doidge’s fascinating book, The Brain that Changes Itself, Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, the author describes case studies of people overcoming tremendous brain injuries and disabilities because of neuroplasticity. He even described a woman born with half a brain whose brain modified itself so that she was able to function like she had a full brain!
So, I’m sure there are limits, but if Dr. Doidge’s book documents people reversing brain damage, restoring their senses, and functioning fully with only half a brain, I’m not here to set any limits on you.
We all know that we can improve skills with practice – that’s not big news. But neuroplasticity teaches us that we can improve them throughout our lives, and we can improve more than just skills like guitar playing and our chess game.
You can overcome challenges and change your thinking patterns, emotions, and traits. You can develop optimism, improve your social skills and relationships, build resilience, confidence, and willpower, and eliminate unhelpful habits like avoidance and procrastination. You can essentially re-sculpt yourself and your life!
People think I’m a “positive person” and I am. But I wasn’t always a positive person. Years ago I was pessimistic, painfully shy, my inner critic was gargantuan, and I was prone to depression and anxiety. And after a difficult divorce, I added “bitter” to my list of attributes for a while. But in 1998, at the convention of the American Psychological Association, I was inspired to change my ways when I discovered what was at the time the brand new science of building happiness – Positive Psychology.
I didn’t transform myself overnight, but over time I learned optimism, cultivated gratitude, and allowed bitterness to wither away. I learned to be kind to myself, and that tamed my inner critic and helped me to replace “painful shyness” with “gentle introversion”. I find that I am no longer prone to depression. I’m still kind of an anxious type, but anxiety doesn’t own me. I’ve been sculpting myself for the past 23 years, and am thrilled to remain a work in progress!
My hope for you is that knowing about neuroplasticity will inspire you to choose to build on your strengths and even build new strengths, and to understand that you can break unhelpful habits.
So, for today, remember that:
- Neuroplasticity is happening all the time; your thoughts and actions are constantly shaping your brain. Be aware of this, especially, of places where you may be strengthening habits and patterns that are not helping you.
- “Decide what to be and go be it”. That’s a line from a song by the Avett Brothers that captures the promise of neuroplasticity. Take this opportunity to think about some changes you’d like to make or skills or strengths you’d like to build.
In my next post, I’ll give you some tips on how to make neuroplasticity work for you.
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