Rewiring your brain is much more than scientific fantasy. Angela Tufvesson discovers a self-help method to alter the way your mind works As far as scientific breakthroughs go, neuroplasticity is momentous. As recently as the 1970s and for 400 years prior, scientists believed that the brain was static – as in unchanging in a ‘do the best with what you’re given’ kind of way – and that damage led to the progressive loss of knowledge. Coined by US-based psychiatrist Dr Norman Doidge from neuron, meaning brain cell, and plastic, meaning malleable, neuroplasticity posits the opposite. It explains that the brain continues to adapt and change throughout life. Like plastic.
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The structure of the brain reflects the lives we have led so far, and its capabilities alter in line with our decisions, skills, behaviours and feelings. Forget the old adage that your brain has cells ‘to lose’. Instead, the scientific community now knows that everything we think, say and do changes the brain and shapes your life. Which means something quite powerful – you can literally change your mind and the way it works. “You change your mind in response to every experience, thought and action,” says Susan Pearse, founder of Mind Gardener and co-author of Wired for Life. “Not only are your beliefs, perceptions and views changed, but your brain’s physical structure also changes. We have been training our brains since the day we were born and laying down the pathways for how we experience life.”
That the brain is changeable rather than static has had a dramatic effect on the full health care spectrum. It’s altered the way doctors treat patients with brain injuries, informed our understanding of the development of anxiety disorders and proven the power of motivation in even the most ardent of exercisers. Professor Peter Schofield, executive director of Neuroscience Research Australia, says the principles of neuroplasticity explain the continual mental improvements made by stroke patients over time. “Many stroke patients are unable to talk directly after their stroke because the part of the brain responsible for speech is damaged,” he says. “But over time – days to weeks or months – patients are able to regain the use of speech and can begin talking again. “This could be because the brain has been repairing itself, either by generating new neurons in the damaged areas, causing neurons from other areas to grow and reach towards the damaged area, or because the brain has re-allocated some of the function of speech to new and different areas. The capacity for the brain to heal and re-organise does not appear to be limited to a certain period of time.” Dr Helena Popovic, CEO of Choose Health: Better Living for Busy People and the speaker of Boost Your Brain presentations, says because our mental capacity isn’t a passive victim of our genes, we have the capacity to sharpen our thinking, improve our concentration and memory, expand our creativity and increase our learning and problem solving skills. In the long term, this can help “reduce our risk of developing depression, anxiety disorders and Alzheimer’s disease”, she says. “In terms of our overall health, neuroplasticity has shown that our attitudes, beliefs and expectations play an enormous role in our wellbeing, especially as we age.” Think happy, be happy. Get it?
Whether you’re a recovering stroke patient or aspiring health food connoisseur, training your brain is much like a gym workout. The areas of the brain you train will get bigger while those you don’t will lack tone and strength. But in controlling how your brain operates, it’s important to train the right parts. “Your brain does not distinguish between what is good for it and what is harmful,” says Pearse. “Your brain adopts whichever habits you have focused on and practised throughout your life. It is just as easy to become very well practised at being unhealthy as it is to become well practised at being healthy.” Research has found the most powerful determinant of success in changing any habit is finding a compelling and motivating reason for wanting to change. Dr Popovic says when we find a reason that excites us and compels us into action, we release three potent brain chemicals: dopamine, acetylcholine and adrenaline. “Dopamine opens our minds and gives us a pleasure hit that compensates for the deprivation we experience when we give something up,” she says. “Acetylcholine enables us to focus on our goal and consolidate changes in our brains that occur when we learn a new skill or take on a new habit, and adrenaline fires us up and improves our strength, stamina, alertness and energy levels.” Along with motivation, Prof Schofield says one of the keys to change is repetition. “Think of a baby learning to walk. They spend countless hours watching other people walk, then a long time developing the muscles for walking by crawling; they then practise by holding on to furniture and then finally begin taking steps, often a single one at a time. “All of these behaviours and experiences change the brain and result in structural and functional changes that equip the brain and body, slowly and over time, for the act of walking.”
The brain uses habits to maximise efficiency – you’d be exhausted if you had to consciously think about everything you do each day. Research suggests that it takes as many as 66 days to cement a new habit, although our experts warn that scientists have not been able to confirm these findings with confidence. In any case, training your brain will take time. Pearse says repetition and motivation should be combined with the development of new thoughts and behaviours rather than simply layering a new healthy mindset on top of old unhealthy thoughts. “If you are constantly thinking ‘don’t smoke’, for example, you’re firing the same network that is already there in relation to smoking, which reinforces your need to smoke.” Instead, Pearse says you’ll get faster results by focusing on the health benefits you’re working towards, like reduced risk of illness and clearer lungs. Also crucial is an old fashioned dose of discipline. “Just like we know we should exercise for 30 minutes a day, you should also exercise your mind daily,” says Pearse.