With all the latest science buzzing around the idea of neuroplasticity, what exactly does it mean to your life?
Neuroplasticity is the idea that although we once thought the brain was fixed in its anatomical function and structure, it’s actually adaptable. We are not dealt an unchangeable hand at all. At one point, our mental capacity was considered finite. It was believed that brain cells, or neurons, died and could not be replaced. We believed, based on science, that dysfunctions of the mind were stamped as our destiny and that we had no ability to change that. We believed that damage was permanent. With the discovery of neuroplasticity comes the realization that we, and science, were wrong. We are infinite in capacity instead!
Thanks to the work of scientists like David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, in the latter half of the last century, we know that the brain is much more elastic and resilient, malleable and trainable than we once thought. We know that we can birth new brain cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain highly involved in our ability to create and store memories. Those new brain stem cells can then migrate to other areas of the brain for specified differentiation, becoming functional cells where we need them. This implies our own ability to repair, regenerate, and enliven our own minds well into old age. In other words, we can regenerate cognitive functions in our senior years. Abilities lost to stroke damage can migrate to other areas of the brain. Neural maps or control centers of certain bodily functions can be taken over by neighboring real estate when damage occurs. This means that damage to an area can be compensated and adopted by another area. For instance, damage to an area of the brain that controls one finger may not be the permanent loss of finger control as the neighboring area may be able to gain those abilities. Areas of cognitive abilities can also migrate from areas of damage to areas of healthy tissue. This current model of the brain has vast implications for healing damage due to physical, emotional, and mental stressors. Through this model, we no longer have to feel destined for senility and dementia, and we can look forward to the potential that our senior years can be rich, engaging, and mentally stimulating.
What neuroplasticity has illuminated for us is the miracle that we call “learning.” The process of learning neurologically looks a bit like our brain cells following a specific process: activating with electrical excitation; firing their neurotransmitters or chemical messengers; sending signals across a gap; reaching and connecting with other neurons through dendrites or spiny branches; and signaling the next neuron. These cells chemically and electrically signal each other when we learn new skills. For instance, when I pay focused attention to a new skill or activity like salsa dancing, rock climbing, or learning a new language, I have an excitatory response in brand-new neural maps, which then encode that new information. I’m learning something new, and my focused attention allows this experience to stick so I can retrieve it again later and build upon my skills.
We have the ability to strengthen neurological activity in some areas and lessen activity in others, growing and diminishing skills and competence all the time. Sometimes this happens unconsciously, and other times this happens when we exercise a skill with intention. Each skill and thought we have is associated with an electrical firing in the brain that creates a path of activity. Imagine you are walking through the dense woods for the very first time. You may expect that the forest floor is full of leaves and vines, maybe even a bit difficult to navigate. You might find yourself stumbling for balance and a clear foothold. But each time you return to that forest, you retrace your steps and walk the same path to get you from point A to point B. What will happen to that path over time? How much more easily will you find that path after having walked it for years? And what happens to the alternative path you tried to make just once but never revisited? How easy will it be to find that one year later? Strengthening and diminishing neural activity in the brain is similar.
Sometimes we’re re-learning old lessons like how to tie our shoes, repeating the same thing for the hundredth time, and this neurological process is happening in an already established map or path. Consider the idea of reinforcement. Perhaps I have a skill or a hobby that I enjoy. Each time I practice that skill, or essentially retrieve that mental script and revisit it, I re-learn that skill and store it again, this time with just a little more sticking power. ~ Excerpt from Neurosculpting: A Whole-Brain Approach to Heal Trauma, Rewrite Limiting Beliefs and Find Wholeness (releases Jan 2015)
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