Neuroplasticity is a concept referring to the idea that the brain is capable of changing its function in response to your environment, thinking, emotions, behaviour, as well as injury. Science has moved on leaps and bounds since it was once thought that the brain was “fixed” in the way that it functioned after childhood. It was also thought that teenage years were the final stage of development. The latest scientific findings report that Neuroplasticity happens when the brain continues to develop new neural pathways in response to our behaviours, thoughts and beliefs. This phenomenon can continue for life as is evidenced by meta-analysis from research in the field. In essence, you are not fixed and unchanging. You are capable of evolving in a way you probably never thought possible.
What is self-directed neuroplasticity?
So science has indicated that the brain remains neuroplastic for life. Self-directed neuroplasticity is a concept that allows you to consciously control how you want your brain to work. Diligent practices and exercises can impact the very structure and functioning of the brain. Knowing this can enable great personal change to take place.
Everything begins with a thought. The higher order regions of the brain (i.e. prefrontal cortex) as far as science understands, are responsible for controlling lower order ones; giving you self-control. The higher order areas allow you to refocus your attention and utilize willpower to alter your behaviour, which in turn creates changes within your brain (i.e. neuroplasticity). How many of you can say that you can control your thoughts or even notice what you are thinking?
How Self-Directed Neuroplasticity Works…
Firstly, it does require personal effort. Here is an example; if you are challenged by having difficult conversations at work, you can be coached on how to have difficult conversations, by looking at your thoughts, beliefs and reactions to difficult conversations. Your body is a place where tremendous knowledge about your actions and reactions reside. How is what you are telling yourself impacting your physical self? One aspect would be to help you to notice your responses, your thoughts around it. What are you telling your brain to believe? What thoughts are you investing in? A thought with no one to believe it has no power. AT ALL! Once you have mastered sifting through what you think you believe and choose a different belief, new neural pathways begin to form. This creates different sensations in your body reinforcing the belief. All of this work is self-directed neuroplasticity.
Anytime you learn a new skill or a different way of dealing with an ongoing challenge, your brain functioning changes and adapts to whatever you have learned.
The concept of self-directed neuroplasticity involves:
1. Attention: Any object can catch your attention at any given moment in time, that’s just the by-product of exposing your brain to various stimuli. However, you have full control over the amount of attention to which you give a particular object, thought, or behaviour. You could have a depressing thought and give it a lot of attention (further magnifying it), or you could choose to let it pass and refocus on something else. Essentially, whatever you focus on lights up a particular region of the brain and your attentional muscle gets strong in that area. The goal is to pay attention to the stuff you want in order to make your brain “light up” and rewire the way you want.
2. Volition (willpower): Simply paying attention is great, but attention alone won’t really change anything. You need to actually go down in the trenches and put in some work. If you are trying to change a particular behaviour such as fear of difficult conversations, come up with a plan to refocus your attention, and partake in a different activity to change the way your brain is firing. With consistent practice, your brain will begin to fire up the circuits associated with the new activity rather than the unwanted one. Affirmations can help with this.
3. Brain activation: The brain activation that occurs is in part a result of how you choose to focus your attention and guide your willpower. If you choose to feel happy and focus on gratitude, a different region of your brain will light up than that of feeling depressed. With practice (not overnight), the region of your brain associated with gratitude will overpower the region associated with feeling depressed because you use it more. Mindfulness meditation can help with this.
4. Consistency (“Use It or Lose It”): Regions within your brain are constantly in competition for carrying out various functions. Whichever regions that you use more often, will effectively overpower the other regions and get more neural real-estate. The regions and neural pathways that you use less frequently will get less real-estate and may get minimized and/or eventually die down. Your daily habits make a big impact on your brain functioning because the neural pathways required to carry out those habits become strengthened in time, and those used less often get weaker. Self-awareness exercises can help with this.
How to use Self-directed Neuroplasticity
There are innumerable factors which impact how the brain functions; your behaviours, environment, social group, sleep cycle, thoughts, nutrition and more. Being aware of the influences over your brain, allows you to consciously change the ones that may be causing more detriment than harm. Below are some steps that AnExaminedLife can guide you to harness the power of self-directed brain change.
1. Awareness: Become aware of what you’d like to change. You may be aware of a variety of things that you’re unhappy with and/or things in your life that you dislike. Pick one thing at a time and become aware of the particular habit, mood, belief etc. that you’d like to change.
2. Attention: Instead of letting your attention drift to something else, focus all of your attention on implementing a healthy thought pattern and behaviour. This will require effort, but whatever you focus your attention on will become reality. If you choose to attend to feeling depressed, it magnifies the feeling. If you choose to focus on gratitude, it amplifies your happiness.
3. Volition: Realize that at the beginning of attempting to change your brain and build new neural pathways, it’s going to be uncomfortable and possibly challenging. Most individuals are set in their ways and the neuroplasticity is not meant to be comfortable, it’s meant to be effective. Think of it like returning to the gym to work on your fitness after a 5-year hiatus. That first workout may leave you stunned. Your body will react, having become unused to the treadmill or a body pump class. Over the next few days you will ache in places you forgot existed. I call it the all over fever from working out. But the more you go to class or hit the treadmill, the more your body gets used to it and your brain adapts. You no longer find yourself praying 10 minutes into the workout for it to be over. Instead you realise you have the lung power to go the distance. Not only that, but your body no longer aches after a visit to the gym. It is the same with changing your behaviour. You will encounter resistance, but with the appropriate level of willpower and focus your brain will adapt.
4. Consistency: Understand that with consistency, your brain will adapt to the new neural patterns that you present. Try to engage the new neural pathways for at least 30 minutes throughout the day, in order to build your attentional muscle. This helps to shift focus away from the unwanted, and onto the wanted, leading to permanent brain changes over time. Just like going back to the gym after a long time away, consistent effort is key to making the change whether it’s at the gym or with your thoughts and beliefs.
Brain changes: With consistent focused effort (or mental force), you can change the way your brain works. Over time, the brain changes become more solidified – the more you maintain the healthy behaviour, the easier it is to maintain. This is why monks who practice mindful compassion tend to rarely experience depression – their brains become so “wired” to feel positive emotions after years of practice. Let me tell you about a Tibetan monk called Matthieu Ricard, whose life has been dedicated to Mindfulness and Compassion. Research published by neuroscientists in the 1990s found that, while undergoing meditation, Ricard’s brain showed a degree of stimulation in areas associated with positive emotions and impulses that was previously unrecorded in scientific literature. Meditating for a long period of time, the University of Wisconsin research suggested, had the potential capacity to alter the brain, a finding which was interpreted more widely as an ability to train oneself in happiness. And so Matthieu Ricard became known as the happiest human on earth. Focussed mental attention then, can change the way your brain works.
Who can benefit from self-directed neuroplasticity?
Virtually anyone can benefit from understanding and implementing the concept of self-directed neuroplasticity in their lives. It is an empowering perspective that is clearly backed by science (brain scans prove that it works). The degree to which you experience improvement will be based on the degree to which you are able to: focus your attention and engage in new behaviours to make your brain adapt to the reality to which it is presented.
Along the way it may feel highly uncomfortable, but with the help of a certified practitioner from AnExaminedLife, you can deliberately train your brain to “light up” and function the way you want.
Could you be the one to benefit?