So, What is Neuroplasticity? A Brief Introduction into Brain Matters
You might have heard the term ‘neuroplasticity’ being used in news reports on scientific discoveries, and in relation to injuries and the body’s ability to recover. But still, many of us have very little understanding of what neuroplasticity is, and how it relates to us. In this article, we will introduce you to neuroplasticity and give you a better understanding of just how our wonderful brains work.
It might help to offer a definition on neuroplasticity before we go into more detail. MedicineNet.com provides one of the most useful definitions of neuroplasticity, as follows:
“Neuroplasticity: The brain’s ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.”
The brain is made up of countless neurons (really, countless! There are more than 100 billion cells in the human brain!) which are nerve cells that link to the synapses to communicate information to and from the nervous system.
The nerve signals emitted by the brain’s neurons travel at up to 200mph and are responsible for every function that your brain and body perform. The ‘tail’ at the end of the neuron is called the axon, and bundles of these axons are what we call ‘nerves’. Within the central nervous system, these are called nerve tracks or ‘pathways’. It is along these pathways that the vital information for your body and brain are transmitted.
When neural pathways are damaged, for example in a spinal injury, signals can no longer reach the part of the body they need to control, and result in a loss of function of one sort or another. This is why, when someone receives a spinal injury, they may find that they are unable to use their legs, despite the legs themselves not being damaged.
For years it was believed that once a pathway was damaged, it could never be repaired again. Recent research has discovered that this is not that case, and that the brain is able to regenerate and reorganise itself. This exciting discovery is what we now know as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity: The Plastic Brain
It wasn’t until the later half of the 20th century that the old ideas about the brain began to be challenged. Previous wisdom on the subject suggested that the brain was formed in utero, or as a young child, and was then unable to be altered throughout the rest of a person’s life. Research in the last few decades has discovered that, in fact, the brain is constantly changing as a result of our environment and experiences. This does not just affect the way we are physically, but relates to our thoughts, emotions and even mental health as well.
As far as the physical body is concerned, the brain’s pathways can be strengthened and reinforced with the repetition of certain behaviour. This is why it might become easier for you to remember a process over time and begin to do it almost automatically. Think of the first time you learned to drive a car, for example. Initially, changing gears while remembering to be aware of your surroundings and steer in a straight line were very challenging for you. As you practiced and began to drive more often, you began to be able to do each of these things with barely a thought. Changing gears is now second nature, driving in a straight line requires very little effort. With each repetition of a series of actions, the neural pathways in the brain are reinforced and the action becomes easier to replicate. These changes are actually altering how the brain works, and this is the foundation of neuroplasticity.
Just as we can train our muscles to become stronger and perform things that we couldn’t previously attempt (think of a body builder lifting weights – they weren’t born like that!), neuroplasticity refers to the ‘muscle building’ going on in our brains. Just like a muscle within the body, when it comes to the brain, it’s a ‘use it or lose it’ situation. What we practice at, we become better at, and what we don’t use tends to weaken and fade.
It is understood that younger brains are more ‘plastic’ or more adaptable and changeable than older brains. Just as our bodies weaken as we become older, the brain becomes slowly less able to adapt as easily as it once would have. However, just as we can maintain our fitness throughout our lives to ensure that we are fitter and healthier in old age, the same can be said for the brain! Keeping the brain challenged and using different parts of the brain is just like training for fitness: it can increase the longevity and fitness of your brain into old age! This is very good news for all of us, and as the science into neuroplasticity evolves, we are seeing more hopeful outcomes for preventing and treating things like dementia, and even spinal injuries.
Neuroplasticity and our mental health
What’s really interesting about neuroplasticity is that it can also be applied to our mental health and wellbeing – and that you don’t need a laboratory to achieve results!
The way we see the world and ourselves is largely shaped by our experiences and becomes a part of our brains in a very real way. What we tell ourselves and think to ourselves can strengthen neural pathways in the brain, so that these things become entrenched in our brain matter. So, how does this apply to your mental health? It means that not only are able to change the way that our brains work in terms of our mental and emotional wellbeing, but that we can create new ways of thinking, acting and functioning. The very exciting field of neuroplasticity teaches us that we can overcome long-held behaviours and beliefs, and even train the brain to prevail over things like depression, anxiety and more. Neuroplasticity means that we can retrain the brain to overcome anxiety, and to be more resilient, for example. It also means that we can create and strengthen brand new pathways. Have you always wanted to be more confident, more fulfilled, happier? Neuroplasticity means that yes, you can! With practice, we can teach ourselves (through our neural pathways) to think and feel almost anything.
At Integrated Health Specialists, neuroplasticity is a fundamental understanding that we adopt and teach in all of our unique psychology and life coaching programs. The power of your mind is so much more powerful than you realise, and the majority of our brains are so under-utilised compared to our true potential!
Stay tuned for more on this fascinating subject, and how this complex field of science can help you!