What is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reshape its neural pathways. Neurons in the brain that fire together, tend to create a bond and wire together, so that when one synaptic signal is fired, those that are bonded with it also fire. Over time, and as a result of our feelings, thoughts, and environment, different neural pathways are created and bond with other pathways. Pathways that are no longer in use or needed tend to be discarded.
‘With every repetition of a thought or emotion, we reinforce a neural pathway – and with each new thought, we begin to create a new way of being. These small changes, frequently enough repeated, lead to changes in how our brains work.1’
There are two main types of neuroplasticity – structural and functional. Structural neuroplasticity is concerned with the changes in the strength of connections between neurons. Functional neuroplasticity covers the permanent changes in synapses that happen as a result of learning and development. Most of our understanding about neuroplasticity is based on structural neuroplasticity. We know that the brain has the ability to change the structure of it’s neural pathways. However, more research is needed around functional neuroplasticity before we can fully understand its potential.
What is Self-Directed Neuroplasticity?
As we have established, neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and adapt. Self-directed neuroplasticity, then, means changing the structure of our neural pathways with conscious intention. Dr.Jeffrey M. Schwartz, author of ‘The Mind & The Brain’, claims that we are not simply helpless passengers driven by genetically predetermined brain activity. The research carried out by Dr.Schwartz suggests that the individual plays an active role in influencing neural activity by consciously choosing where to place his or her attention. If one wished to improve their social skills, for example, they could influence their brain chemistry to feel more comfortable in a social setting2. This could be done through exposure to the situations in which they feel the need for improvement. Longer time spent being in a social setting with focus and attention on feeling comfortable will influence the neurochemistry of the brain in a way that makes it better able to achieve a state of comfort, and even confidence, with less and less effort over time.
Awareness as a Tool for Change
The key to self-directed neuroplasticity is awareness – which is a controlled attention – in which we use our focus and will act like a spotlight to shine on things within our awareness. When we bring our awareness to our thoughts and feelings, we can become a witness to their movements. We can observe where our attention goes, and if it goes down a path of negative thinking, we could choose to let it pass by and refocus our attention elsewhere, instead of placing attention on the negativity, which only serves to further amplify it. If we rest our attention on negative thoughts like memories of past failures, the neural pathways that carry those thoughts and feelings will strengthen. However, if we shift our attention towards things for which we are grateful, like our loved ones, or our health, then the neural pathways associated with gratitude will strengthen and grow, making it easier over time to reap the benefits of these new pathways.
When it comes to cultivating a greater sense of awareness, meditation and mindfulness practices can be of great value. Meditation helps in regaining control of one’s attention, without which self-directed neuroplasticity is pointless. The higher your level of self-awareness, the less likely you are to be blindly influenced by your pre-existing neural patterns3. The practice of mindfulness is also of great benefit in cultivating awareness of one’s thoughts and behaviours. When one is mindful, it easier to notice and identify particular thoughts and behaviours that may be destructive.
Attention is not enough, however. Will power is also needed if one intends to make any lasting changes. If the goal is to rewire the brain so that the mind and body are less susceptible to compulsive behaviours, for example, we first need to bring our attention to the thoughts around the behaviour, then make a plan to alter them, and then execute that plan. When tending towards a compulsive behaviour, we could try to partake in a different activity to change the wiring of the brain. Over time, as a result of consistent practice, the brain will begin to fire up the circuitry associated with the new activity, and discard the old neural pathways associated with the compulsion.
Please keep an eye out for our forthcoming articles on how to help ourselves feel happier, and if you have a client, or know of someone who is struggling with seriously low moods during these dark winter months – reach out to Khiron. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and out-patient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
- “What Is Neuroplasticity? Brain Plasticity Explained – UK”. https://brainworksneurotherapy.com/what-neuroplasticity. Accessed 6 Dec 2019.
- “Self-Directed Neuroplasticity: Consciously Changing Your Brain Function”. Mental Health Daily, 2019, https://mentalhealthdaily.com/2015/02/20/self-directed-neuroplasticity-consciously-changing-your-brain-function/. Accessed 7 Dec 2019.