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?

In a world where being super busy is glorified, Downtime is where you create your Power so you can live from that place.

First you must plant seeds that can form roots and grow.  If you take the example of planting a tree, you bury its seed in the soil so that it can germinate where it is dark, quiet and solitary.  The seed is nourished by the nutrients in the ground.  The time in the soil is vital for the growth and development of the tree to be; Yes?  Everything the tree to be requires, for its potential journey above ground is being put in place at the start of its growth.  Below ground, it is taking root, nourishing itself from the nutrients in the soil, absorbing the rain that falls and the sun that shines.  All of those things prepares the tree to experience life above ground with its rain, winds, frost and snow.

And so it is that when we put aside time to meditate, pray, contemplate and learn, we are creating the roots of our own personal Power so we can be emotionally, psychologically and spiritually nourished.  We stop glorifying Busy and spend time Being as opposed to Doing.  Stopping in order to BE, provides for fresh insights and revelations to happen, to still the mind and actually notice what is happening in our inner world.  Since our inner world shapes our outer world (thoughts happen first, before action), it makes sense to cultivate the roots of our Personal Power by just making time to stop.  I can promise you that whatever happens outside of you happened inside first.  Chaos without is very often an indication of chaos within.  In a world where there is so much pressure to stay informed and be in the know, make time to Know thyself first and foremost.

  

According to Stem Cell Biologist, Dr. Bruce Lipton, a prominent and highly respected cell researcher, “Stress is the cause of at least 95% of all disease.”

http://www.synergies-journal.com/synergies/2015/3/30/bruce-lipton-the-biology-of-belief

In a stressful situation, your body gets ready for emergency action, causing certain hormones to flood your system. This “fight or flight” reaction increases your blood pressure, breathing and heart rate.

Fight or flight literally squeezes the blood away from your vital organs to your arms and legs in readiness for action (usually ‘flight’).  A natural product of our evolution, this response was very important for our ancient ancestors who faced real “life or death” situations.

The problem is, modern man’s common relationship issues, job problems, and financial difficulties are unnecessarily eliciting this same chemical cocktail of harmful hormones.  Even worse, because these aren’t true fight or flight situations, we often “suck it up” and internalise the stress, making us feel helpless and powerless, surging our systems with even more nasty stuff.

Long-term stress (chronic) can exhaust your entire nervous system, releasing cortisol and adrenaline in a vicious cycle, eventually causing you to “burn out.” The result? You age faster, your immune system weakens, and your vital brain tissue shrinks.

Soon, anxiety and depression set in, causing you to seek out an escape mechanism (usually an addiction). Without an effective stress antidote, things can spiral further out of control, opening the door up to disease of all types.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBvIPxZmW_s

Meditation is the Key. From physically changing the structure of the brain (neuroplasticity), to releasing stress neutralising chemicals, to quieting the anxiety-creating mind-chatter, here’s how meditation can work as the very best stress-neutralising tool.

A swimmer who has trained himself to do 20 lengths of the pool is unphased by a now petty 3 lengths that seemed difficult in his first week. Likewise, practicing meditation regularly will also push your mental and emotional thresholds to higher limits. The stress that once left you anxious, depressed, and possibly reaching for your favourite escape mechanism (meds, alcohol) will simply not carry anywhere near the same weight as before.

In addition, all of the anxiety and depression, building up over your lifetime gets melted away, session by session, layer by layer – even if you have tried everything else without success. In the end, your “nerves of steel” will be impenetrable to stress and all of its nasty side effects.

 

Meditate for GREATER HEALTH.

“Don’t just do something, Sit there”!

Remember the Thai monk who taught the Wild Boars football team to meditate, when they were stuck in that Cave?

Here’s 9 Incredible things he did for those kids; in one hit!

  1. Quietened Busy, Anxious Thoughts
  2. Lessened anxiety
  3. Reduced worry
  4. Elevated feel-good endorphins
  5. No knee-jerk reactions
  6. Improved relaxation response
  7. Managed hunger pangs
  8. Conserved energy
  9. Lowered their respiratory rates

Meditation – “Don’t just do something, Sit There”

Contrary to the well-entrenched scientific dogma of decades ago, you have much more control over you may know.

For example, we may wonder how we “always” get sick on holiday, but hundreds of studies now conclude that our minds’ are the true supreme orchestrator of the mental, emotional, and physical wellness of the body.

Every thought, emotion, and feeling that we have forms a feedback loop with our neurochemistry. As we go about our daily routine, the stimuli we encounter creates within our brain lightning-fast neurotransmitters which then attach to ready and waiting receptor cells and neurons.  Combined with your emotional state, chemicals then get created either letting your body know it’s party time or “I’m unwell and it’s not happening” time.

Your emotional barometer also corresponds with positive neurochemicals like those linked to so called “runner’s high”, like endorphins, norepinephrine, antioxidants, and immune system boosters.

Your thoughts and emotions are like the trigger that makes things happen.  Being aware of what thoughts are present for you at any one time can make a huge difference wellness/unwellness, happy/sad.  How to control this?

Luckily, the highest solution exists within you – Self awareness. What is the key to achieving so called “Self- aware Mastery”? Meditation.

Meditation – Don’t just do something, Sit There!

Asked what quality distinguishes star performers in their respective fields, these individuals cited grit (or a close synonym) as often as talent. In fact, many were awed by the achievements of peers who did not (at first) seem as gifted as others but whose sustained commitment to their ambitions was exceptional. Likewise, many noted with surprise that prodigiously gifted peers did not end up in the upper echelons of their field.” Angela Duckworth, PhD.

We aren’t born with a “set” amount of grit but there are things we can do to strengthen our mental toughness. And leading the pack? Meditation. It all starts with the brain.

Meditation – Don’t just do something, Sit There!

https://angeladuckworth.com/research/

https://chopra.com/articles/resilience-and-grit-how-to-develop-a-growth-mindset

Meditation – “Don’t just do something, Sit There!”

Meditation strengthens our “inner-Rocky-Balboa”.  What is that? Well its your Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC); responsible for pain resistance, willpower, motivation, focus, clarity and emotional resilience.  This powerful brain region ticks all the gritty, mentally toughness boxes.

Then, to increase grit, strengthen the ACC, right?

RIGHT! The University of Montreal researchers (Grant et al) compared the brains of 17 experienced meditators to 18 “normal” brains. What did they find?

The meditators’ brains had much “thicker” grey matter in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC), with the degree of thickness of grey matter linked to years of mediation experience.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20141301

In other words, meditation fortifies the brain’s “grit” center.

Harnessing the power of meditation to literally “grow” and strengthen the “grittiest” brain region of all takes the idea of a “growth mindset” to a whole new level. Neuroplasticity is a powerful thing.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2944261/?_escaped_fragment_=po=77.2727

We go to school to learn many things; to gather knowledge, to hold that knowledge in our brains and come summer to sit exams which require us to remember as much detail as possible to get good grades and pass our exams.  Whilst going through this process is great exercise for our cognitive capacities, it doesn’t teach how to create Balance in our personal life or work.

Creating Balance is a skill like any other.  Oftentimes you may read numerous books and articles on how to do this, but still the struggle remains.  Like I said before, creating Balance is a skill and skills require habits to be embedded.  I empower you to create Balance yourwork and personal life.  By using empirically tested tools and strategies you are enabled in a way that allows for continuous self-assessment so you can stay on track.

Sometimes we struggle to believe something unless we have proof of it through our five senses. At one time in human evolution, the question was asked “are there forms of life that are smaller than the eye can see?” It did not make sense to us unless we could prove it through our five (limited) senses. So from that place the answer to that question was “No”. There is always one who thinks out of the box and generally considered a troublemaker, so he/she did not accept the “No”, and a microscope was invented.

Another question followed, “are there things which exist that are smaller than can be seen through a microscope?” Again the answer was “No”, but the persistent among us discovered the idea of atomic and subatomic phenomena.

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Are we really happy here
With this lonely game we play
Looking for words to say
Searching but not finding
Understanding anywhere
We’re lost in a masquerade

The words of this song by Leon Russell come to mind everyday whilst observing commuters at the train station, on the tube, waiting at the bus stop. The song is called This masquerade. Written about a couple in the dying throes of a relationship, it may as well have been referring to the thousands making their way to and from work obsessed with their iphones, tablets, blackberrys.

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