In one of my favorite Ambrosia songs, (Biggest part of me), David Pack asked his love to make a wish for a very prophetic outcome: the ability to “wash away the past so they could start anew.”
I don’t think he had any idea that a couple of decades later a scientist by the name of Eric Kandel would win the Nobel prize for illuminating the science and mechanism of action for the phenomenon we now call neuroplasticity: Neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to re-organize itself and change in response to new experiences and situations, that is, to wash away the past and start anew! It is the greatest neuroscience discovery in the last hundred and fifty years. The discovery of our brains plasticity is in direct opposition to the old scientific view that we are stuck with the brain we inherited from our genetics and the way we were raised. We now know that our brain is “plastic” and can actually adjust for past injuries (psychological or physical) based on new experiences.
It turns out that our mental activity determines the shape and function of our brain, hence the well-known statement, “whatever your mind rests upon becomes your reality.”
If you desire to use your amazing brain to change the outcome of any aspect of your life, I am happy to report that you have access to the phenomenon and science of neuroplasticity to create happiness.
Why is neuroplasticity so important?
Our brain makes us who we are, as our behavior is fueled by the saved data in our brain from our entire life. It is an immaculate organ with incredible superpowers, most of which occur without any intervention on our part.
Our brain consists of over 100 billion neurons (nerve cells), each one firing five to fifty times per second and capable of forming an estimated 100 trillion connections (synapses) with other neurons. These nervous system cell connections are the messages communicated and saved in our inner being (you could say what we call our unconscious) based on what we focus on and how we interpret life experiences.
But depending on what happened in our early years and how we have accustomed ourselves to respond to life situations, our neurobiology can work either for or against us.
Let me elaborate. The primary job of our brain and nervous system is to constantly scan the environment in order to determine the answer to the question: “Am I safe?”
Based on the experiences we have and how we interpret them, our brain organizes itself in a way to give us the highest survival advantage.
In this fashion, sensory input from the external environment sculpts our brain through connections that take place between neurons. These connections
form the building blocks of gray matter in different regions of our brain depending on our experiences and how we interpret them.
We now know that different regions of our brain give us access to resources and inner strengths or weaknesses, depending on how well-developed they are. A well-integrated, healthy brain allows us to be really good at going in and out of excited and restful states in a balanced way.
What we repeatedly do becomes an automatic response, just like if we get used to taking a certain route to work every day. After a while, we don’t even think about it and can drive, make calls, and still find our way to work on time. If the automatic responses stored in our brain’s hardware have not cultivated gray matter in the regions of our brain associated with inner strengths, thanks to neuroplasticity we have the opportunity to change that! The way our brain accomplishes this is through reorganizing and forming new connections between our neurons. In order to reconnect in the right places associated with positive states and capabilities, the neurons in specific regions need to be stimulated through activity that involves those regions.
That means that by choosing the meaning we give to situations or how we look at events, we can actively intervene in cultivating and reinforcing synapses in the regions of our brain associated with qualities like resilience, motivation, optimism, compassion, and creative problem solving.
How we can use our mind to change our brain toward our desired outcomes.
Our behavior is driven by our state.
Our state is driven by our emotions.
Our emotions come from our implicit memories (information that our brain stores that we are not conscious of). For example, if in our childhood our brain was developed with a high sensitivity to identifying threats because our parents were non-nurturing, abusive, non-responsive, toxic, or had substance abuse and/or mental health issues, we will have increased right pre-frontal cortex activation, which is associated with hypervigilance. In other words, we will have a higher propensity for identifying life situations as threats and engaging our neurobiology for defense. At this point, we lose our ability to make good use of our nervous system for health and restoration.
We don’t have to go through life with the limitations set forth by the shape and function of our brain that we inherited genetically and by our original environment. By changing our mental activity, we can change our brain to be our ally and beautifully serve both our mundane and our higher purposes.
If you feel frustrated by the results you are getting in any area of your life, here are some actions that you may consider trying to take advantage of the beauty of neuroplasticity:
- Embrace the power of your mind.
Earl Nightingale said: “The human mind is the last unexplored continent on earth. It contains riches beyond our wildest dreams. It will return anything we want to plant.”
He was so right! The mind/body problem, despite the incredible progress scientists and philosophers have made towards solving it, is still not solved, and we don’t fully comprehend how the mind and body affect one another.
However, the integration of neuroscience and neuropsychology—with the aid of imaging techniques—has uncovered a myriad of clues suggesting that our very mind/body is also where our personal power can be found.
Undoubtedly, there are a myriad of life experiences outside of our control that are not pleasant. However, we tend to overlook the fact that all the experiences we have matter, not just in how they feel in the moment that they happen, but also in how they affect the structure and function of our brain.
Our brain does not know the difference between what we do, what we say, and what is actually happening in reality. This means that if, for example, we interpret an average performance review (or any other negative experience) as a personal failure, we reinforce the stored data in our brain that holds the belief and worldview that we are a failure.
Just like if we consistently do bicep curls our bicep muscles will grow, when we repeatedly use the muscle of a particular form of mental activity (like compassion or defeat) we build brain structure in the regions of the brain associated with that quality and therefore improve its function.
We have an average of 70,000 thoughts a day. Ninety-five percent of those thoughts are worries, yet only five percent of what we worry about actually happens! We can change the natural propensity of our brain to assume the worst by taking an active stance in looking for the gold in challenges and savoring our ability to pick and choose the information that we allow to flow through our brain.
We will face many problems as we go through life. We can decide to look at every problem as an opportunity to increase the size and function of our brain that is involved with problem solving. And this can be done depending on what we choose to focus on. We are the antidote to our own pain and suffering, and if there is one thing you and I can do differently starting right now, it is to choose our thoughts wisely.
- Respect your nervous system.
Our brain is an immaculate organ, which works with our nervous system around the clock to keep us safe. The part we don’t realize is that our nervous system pretty much runs our life without our permission until we befriend it and consciously work with it. The work we need to do depends on how our nervous system has developed throughout our life until the present moment.
Every time our needs are not met our nervous system no longer operates from a resting state, but instead from a disturbed state. This response is automatic when something awakens the implicit memory of what happened in the past and bases what will happen next in the present on how things went in our earlier life experiences.
Experiences impact functions and structures in our brain that are associated with different strengths and weaknesses. The amygdala (our fear alarm), the hippocampus (involved with learning and memory), and the prefrontal cortex (involved with executive function, emotion regulation, and impulse control) are the three main structures whose function is greatly compromised in people with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In people that have experienced chronic depression or PTSD there is:
—an increased right prefrontal cortex activation which has been linked to avoiding issues and to negative emotions,
—an enlarged or over-active amygdala which recognizes events as threatening more often than not, and
—a shrunken hippocampus, which impairs memory and ability to learn.
When there is any dysfunction in our nervous system, our nervous system will shut us down biologically and mentally in order to keep us safe. This happens without our cognitive awareness. This nervous system shutdown can manifest itself in many problems in our day to day experience. For example, when our stress response is unreasonably activated because of an enlarged amygdala, our right hemisphere which governs our relational ability will shut down. This can result in intimacy issues.
We need to embrace and respect our nervous system, which we cannot outsmart.
We can make the choice to correct our neurobiology simply by infusing our present moment with empowering ways of thinking and being. That is the beauty of neuroplasticity.
- Practice mindfulness.
Considering how much hype this word has received, mindfulness is basically nothing other than any approach we utilize to regulate our brain through quieting the chatter that plays on in the background of our minds. Mindfulness is one of the most popular types of meditation, which can be described as the active choice to place our attention on what is here and now as opposed to worries concerning the past or future.
We tend to present a lot of resistance in letting go of persistent thoughts and the subsequent discussions regarding problems and challenges we face. For example, if our significant other has betrayed us in any way, we feel that by letting go of any negative thoughts we have about the experience we are somehow letting the person “off the hook” for their wrong doing.
Mindfulness is not about overlooking reality. It is about placing our attention on a neutral spot, so we may deal with the ups and downs of life while having access to our best internal resources. One guaranteed place that we can place our attention on is our breath. By simply making our breath more regular and deeper and increasing our exhalations, we impact involuntary muscles and nerves that activate the parasympathetic nervous system associated with calm states. From this calm place, we can then observe our thoughts about any negative situation as just thoughts.
Although we may have a hard time recognizing the benefits of this simple practice, there is a tremendous body of evidence that links mindfulness meditative practices to significant structural changes in the brain in critical regions associated with our ability to manage our mind/body system more effectively. For example, a Harvard study compared the brains of meditators to the brains of a control group. After eight weeks of mindfulness meditation, the meditator’s brains showed measurable changes using imaging techniques.
The meditator’s brains had thicker cortical tissue in the insula, which is involved in allowing us to tune into our body, motivation, and attention; and increased left pre-frontal cortex activation, which is associated with approaching issues, positive emotions, and resiliency. Meditators also had improvement in immune function.
It may seem difficult to bypass our conditioned way of wanting to mull over things when the heat is on, but see mindfulness as the ultimate gift to yourself. Mindfulness is the most effective way to allow yourself the freedom to deal with life more skillfully. Our suffering stems from the challenges we face measured against the resources we have at our disposal to overcome those challenges. Since we cannot impact the occurrence of most challenges in life, what we can do is to cultivate inner resources that allow us to become more effective and more resilient in returning to our home base when things do not go according to plan.
As it turns out, regardless of our humble beginnings, the way we were raised, or any mishaps along the way, Ambrosia songwriter, David Pack, was right.
As long as we let love rain down on us, starting from the love we have for ourselves, the significant people in our life, and our smaller and larger communities, we totally have the ability to wash away the past and start anew!
The only thing you and I have left to do is to pick the moment in time to begin.