Neuroplasticity. From a neuroscientist’s perspective this isn’t a new thing. It’s just a term to describe the dynamic everyday processes that relate to how the cells of the brain adapt and function. “Neurons that fire together, wire together. Neurons that fire apart, wire apart.” However, when we think of neuroplasticity as an idea, it’s kind of a big deal. Because the idea is that we can all change for the better, and neuroplasticity supports this truth. But why did this old concept suddenly become relevant now? For decades in Medicine and research, there’s been observations that after injury or through a deliberate training process, new emerging brain functions can be learned. When someone becomes blind, adjacent areas of the brain can occupy the space previously attributed to the visual cortex, allowing other senses to actually become better. Kind of like how a growing business expands into the recently vacated office space next door. People who have had strokes and have lost certain functions can learn alternative brain routes to reaccess previous skills and regain some of their abilities. This process of learning and relearning was believed to be mediated by forming new connections between existing undamaged neurons – like building a new road as an alternative route to connect two parts of town. However, it wasn’t until the late 1990’s that research demonstrated that an old belief about brain development, that the neurons we had in our 20’s were the ones we kept until we died, was incorrect. What various studies showed was that new neurons were always still growing in the adult brain, that over time as old neurons “died” they could be replaced by new ones, and under certain conditions the growth of new neurons could outpace the death of old ones – the discovery of adult-onset neurogenesis. This was the new truth that reshaped our understanding of the importance of neuroplasticity and its potential applications.
In terms of timing, this discovery came alongside developments in brain imaging that could more easily measure not just structure, but also function. Another factor is that neuroscience became less tied to Medicine, which has a limited perspective focusing on the treatment and prevention of illness. Instead, researchers have started to collaborate across the disciplines of the “hard” sciences with the social sciences, and have asked more questions about the rest of the scope of human experience – not just what happens when we are ill, but also addressing the normal, healthy, and thriving.
With this converging research and broadened perspective, what was now different was the belief that not only could we build analogous new connecting “roads,” but new houses, new neighborhoods or even new cities. The possibilities now seemed open-ended. Could we rebuild “cities” that were previously destroyed by disease, like in Alzheimer’s or stroke? Could we tear a “house” down to the studs and rebuild it bigger and better than before – like changing longstanding core beliefs by creating more accurate and authentic ones? If we could grow new neurons, could we build up our small “town” into a thriving metropolis – such as making ourselves smarter or increasing our capacity to experience happiness?
And because neuroplasticity is “just” the plain old normal everyday process of brain change for everyone, the application of this idea can be universal – that anyone could change their brain at any time. When we are young or when we are old. When our brains are diseased. When we are average to then become exceptional. When we are already exceptional to become the best. The neuroscientists’ perspective that neuroplasticity is nothing special, is actually part of the power of this idea. We don’t have to be special in order to change our brains. Our brains are changing anyways. Change is normal. It’s not only the possibility of change but the inevitability of change.
This idea of the guarantee of change opened up areas of new scientific inquiry that we are still in the midst of answering:
What are the factors that promote more brain change and growth? Challenges. Learning. A Growth Mindset. Mindfulness.
How can we influence these factors? Mindfulness again. Meditation. Exercise. Grit.
How do we facilitate better learning? Curiosity. Internal motivation. Emotion. Creativity. Teaching someone else.
Can these new changes become permanent? Absolutely because that’s what neuroplasticity is – real brain change.
Where in the real world can we practice and apply these ideas? In Medicine. In psychotherapy. In education. In parenting. In marriage. In business. In life. Anywhere that needs improvement.
So here’s the real value of neuroplasticity. It provides the grounded truth about our flexible and dynamic mental life that allows us to reliably believe that we can all change. This is actually not the concept of neuroplasticity, but the principle of Growth Mindset pioneered by psychologist Carol Dweck. It’s the belief that you can change that allows us to change the most.
So now that we’ve definitively answered the question “can we change?” (yes!) and have previously answered the question “how do we grow?” (Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4), next in this series, we’ll talk about “what do we change?” and the three practices that can create the type of change in our brain that will pay healthy dividends for the rest of life.