What is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is currently one of the hottest and most controversial topics in psychology and neuroscience. As you will soon find out, the implications for personal growth and well-being are huge.

The human brain is among the most amazing and intricate constructs in the entire universe. This three-pound organ contains roughly 100 billion neurons that work in perfect harmony with each other to create what we call the human consciousness.

Thanks to this fascinating organ we can interact with ourselves, the people around us and the environment in which we exist. But that’s not all because the human brain is capable of much more than just helping us interact with everything (and everyone) that surrounds us.

For example, did you know that your brain is capable of incredible changes as a result of learning and experience? This extraordinary property is called neuroplasticity.    

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

– Aristotle

It is because of this fantastic property that your brain can adapt to the environment and integrate new information. In other words, from a purely biological perspective, any changes you want to make – be it getting rid of a bad habit or learning a new skill – is mediated by this phenomenon.

The purpose of this article is to help you gain a better understanding of what neuroplasticity is and how it can help you implement positive changes that lead to personal growth and well-being.

The Inner-Workings of Neuroplasticity

In the last decades, mental health professionals and researchers have begun to realize the incredible potential and implications of neuroplasticity. Some experts have even started to explore the possibility of harnessing neuroplasticity for clinical applications. As one study clearly states, lessons can be gleaned from studying fields related to plasticity, such as development, critical periods, learning and response to disease. [1]

Although experts have yet to come up with a ‘practical’ way of harnessing neuroplasticity, the growing interest in this topic suggests that the scientific community is actively pursuing a breakthrough.

What we do know for sure is that neuroplasticity manifests in three crucial contexts:

  1. During human development, when our brains begin to model under the influence of external factors.
  2. During learning experiences, when we study and exercise new skills.
  3. During recovery following an accident or disease that has affected us on a sensory or cognitive level.

As you can see, neuroplasticity plays a crucial role not just in learning, skill acquisition, and personal development but also recovery and well-being.

The neurons in your brain are always changing and forming connections to help you integrate new information and acquire skills.

But how exactly does it work?

First, neuroplasticity wouldn’t be possible in the absence of one crucial characteristic that each neuron has – synaptic plasticity. In other words, every neuron in your brain can change its structure and form strong bonds with neighboring neurons. Thanks to this amazing process, your brain can build neural pathways that help process information better and faster.

A neuron has three main parts, a cell body and two types of extensions: the dendrites and the axon. These extensions are like ‘branches’ that grow from the cell body and extend until they reach the ‘branches’ of other neurons, thus forming a connection. The result is a network of neural pathways that run through your brain like highways, streets, and alleys. Each of these pathways is designed to serve a certain purpose. For example, the reason why you can read and understand this article is that your brain has developed a series of neural pathways that help you decode written language and attribute meaning to each word and phrase. The more you read, the stronger those pathways become. And it’s all thanks to neuroplasticity.    

Neuroplasticity: Remodeling the Brain (and Mind)

The discovery of neuroplasticity is beneficial for all of us as it clearly proves that people of any age can learn new things and cultivate healthy habits.

A study in which researchers used whole-brain magnetic-resonance imaging to visualize learning-induced plasticity in the brains of volunteers who have learned to juggle, some exciting changes. [2] It seems that the brain alters its structure depending on the stimulus. In this case, juggling resulted in grey matter changes in the brain area responsible for complex motor tasks.

This study proves that the best way to acquire or master a skill is to repeat it until our brain forms new neural pathways that can process information better and faster, resulting in higher performance.

Another study that investigated the brain’s ability to change and adapt to new stimuli identified the protein responsible for neuroplasticity. It appears that after 3-to-7 days of exercising a specific activity, the brain begins to increase the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). [3] Aside from that, the authors also observed some changes in the spinal nerves (the neural pathways in your spinal cord).

What the two studies mentioned above prove is that neuroplasticity has solid biological foundations and tons of potential for learning and consequently personal growth. 

But the concept of ‘neuroplasticity’ isn’t new. In fact, humans were aware of this phenomenon long before the first MRI machine was used to scan the brain.

In Tibetan Buddhism, neuroplasticity is known as ‘le su rung wa’ which roughly translates to malleability. This means that repetition can change your brain structure. It’s no wonder they say, “Practice makes perfect.” Considering that Buddhists have taken advantage of neuroplasticity for hundreds of years, we should not be surprised that countless studies have shown that meditation can shape and reshape the brain.

If you use it wisely, neuroplasticity can help you achieve things you never dreamed about. You could become more positive, master a musical instrument, become a talented painter, and achieve well-being.

Implications for Mental Health

Although Buddhists seem to have been the first to acknowledge the existence of neuroplasticity, it was researchers and mental health professionals who highlighted the implications for psychological health and well-being.

For example, studies have repeatedly confirmed that mood disorders such as depression or stress can disrupt neuroplasticity, leading to reduced neuronal adaptation. [4] In fact, BDNF (the protein responsible for neuroplasticity) levels are associated with clinical changes in depression. [5]

From a biological perspective, there’s this vicious circle where mood disorders disrupt neuroplasticity which leads to reduced adaptation, which in turn makes it even harder to cope with depression or stress.

Another issue in which neuroplasticity seems to play a crucial role is drug addiction. One study published in Neuropsychopharmacology portrays drug addiction as a pathology of staged neuroplasticity. [6] In other words, in the case of drug addiction, our brain’s ability to change and adapt to new stimuli can actually lead to adverse outcomes. That’s because many drugs are known to alter the structure of the brain. Just as the brain is capable of adapting to positive changes – thanks to neuroplasticity – so can it adjust to negative changes such as drug addiction.

Finally, Parkinson’s disease seems to also be among the problems that neuroplasticity can help solve. In a study on the effects of exercise on Parkinson’s disease, researchers discovered that thanks to neuroplasticity, patients who exercise regularly could delay or even reverse the onset of this terrible brain disease. [7]

In the end, it’s up to us to decide how we’re going to use this amazing ability. Do you want to use it to bring positive changes and healthy habits into your life, or do you want to let it ruin you through addictions and unhealthy habits?

On a positive note

Now that we’ve explored the relationship between neuroplasticity and mood disorders let’s move on to a more positive and encouraging news.

As we mentioned before, experts in mental health are actively searching for ways to harness the power of neuroplasticity and put it to good use.

It seems that one way of using neuroplasticity to our advantage is through positive psychology. In broad lines, positive psychology is a new approach that focuses on positive human experiences such as joy, optimism, gratitude and the conditions necessary for human beings to have a fulfilling life and make positive changes. Instead of focusing on treating mental conditions, positive psychology aims to increase people’s happiness and well-being so that they don’t end up struggling with mood disorders.

One study on the relationship between positive psychology and neuroplasticity revealed that positive psychology can strengthen this trend toward increases in wellbeing by using this evolving research for motivation to increase healthy lifestyle choices, for reinforcement of successive approximation toward these goals and for the many gains associated with greater happiness. [7]

Long story short, by combining the healthy habits promoted by positive psychology with the brain’s ability to adapt to changes by creating new neural pathways, one can cultivate a set of habits that increase health (mentally and physically) and well-being.

One incredibly beneficial practice that you can implement into your day-to-day life is Yoga Nidra. This systematic method of complete relaxation on all levels (physical, mental, emotional) looks more like meditation than yoga and is ridiculously easy to practice.

As you can see in the graph below, people’s interest in yoga practice has increased significantly over the last decade.

Yoga Nidra has two beneficial functions: 1) it removes mental and physical fatigue, thus revitalizing the mind and body, and 2) it clears away psychological tension and restores your mind’s flexibility.

By practicing this technique on a regular basis, and with the help of neuroplasticity, anyone can learn the basics and enjoy some fantastic results.

Here’s how you can help your brain ‘forge’ new neural pathways:

When you walk on a path several times, it widens and becomes more and more visible. Same goes for your neural pathways. The more you activate them, the stronger they get.

For example, if you choose to eat a certain food or watch a certain TV show, your brain will give rise to neural pathways to support these habits. What’s even more interesting is that, as we discussed earlier, your brain is continually changing and can cultivate new habits by creating new neural pathways.

The minute you realize that your brain is capable of such incredible changes, you gain a vast understanding of how you can change or even eliminate certain habits. Here’s how you do it: 

#1 Identify the habit you want to cultivate, change, or eliminate

When it comes to change and personal growth, motivation is the key element. Without a desire to better yourself, the chances of implementing healthy habits are slim. The more motivated you are, the bigger the chances of cultivating a healthy habit or getting rid of a ‘bad’ one.

#2 Notice how each of your habits can affect your life

A habit is something we do on a regular basis; something that shapes our existence. Take the time to observe your thoughts, emotions, and how your body responds to certain habits. Be aware of the outcomes that your habits produce in your life. Be conscious; witness your own existence.

#3 Learn to control your focus

When it comes to getting rid of ‘bad’ habits, this aspect is of paramount importance. If you want to ‘shut down’ the neural pathway responsible for a ‘bad’ habit, you have to move your focus away from that particular habit. Stop looking at the delicious treats that sit in the window of your local bakery. Stop googling “discount shoes” if you want to get rid of your uncontrollable shopping habits.

Instead, shift your attention towards something else. Maybe you can focus on learning an instrument or go for a jog in the park. There’s always something better to focus on instead of your unhealthy habits.

#4 Use your imagination

You can stimulate the construction of new neural pathways not only through focus and motivation but also through the power of imagination. Simply close your eyes and imagine the new behaviors and habits you want to adopt, over and over again. In a sense, even the process of imagining yourself performing a certain habit is a habit in itself.

Continue to play these scenarios in your head, so that new neural pathways begin to emerge. Focus your attention and educate your mind.

#5 Say “Stop!” to negative thinking patterns

Whenever the seed of doubt begins to take root inside your mind, make sure to eliminate it as quickly as possible. One negative thought leads to another, and another, until you give up on trying to implement positive changes and you return to your comfort zone.

Say “No” or “Stop” whenever a negative thought pops into your head and whispers “You can’t do it” or “Give up.” You can then go back to #3 or #4 so that you can continue moving in the right direction.

#6 Turn obstacles into opportunities

Take a good look at all the things that stand between you and a better version of yourself. Pay attention to all the stress, worrying, negative thinking, and unhealthy habits that prevent you from achieving health and well-being.

Be curious and allow your mind to wander into a place of opportunity. Manipulate your thoughts and emotions to create new neural pathways. They tend to form more rapidly when your emotions are consistent with your thoughts.

Neuroplasticity is the foundation of both healthy and unhealthy habits. Use it wisely!

[1] S. C. Cramer, “Harnessing neuroplasticity for clinical applications,” Brain, vol. 134, no. 6, p. 1591–1609, 2011.
[2] B. Draganski, C. Gaser, V. Busch, G. Schuierer, U. Bogdahn and A. May, “Neuroplasticity: Changes in grey matter induced by training,” Nature, p. 311–312, 2004.
[3] F. Gomez-Pinilla, Z. Ying, R. R. Roy, R. Molteni and R. Edgerton, “Voluntary Exercise Induces a BDNF-Mediated Mechanism That Promotes Neuroplasticity,” Journal of Neuropsychology, vol. 88, no. 5, pp. 2187-2195, 2002.
[4] C. Pittenger and R. S. Duman, “Stress, Depression, and Neuroplasticity: A Convergence of Mechanisms,” Neuropsychopharmacology, vol. 33, p. 88–109, 2008.
[5] A. Brunoni Russowsky, M. Lopes and F. Fregni, “A systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical studies on major depression and BDNF levels: implications for the role of neuroplasticity in depression,” International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, vol. 11, no. 8, p. 1169–1180, 2008.
[6] P. W. Kalivas and C. O’Brien, “Drug Addiction as a Pathology of Staged Neuroplasticity,” Neuropsychopharmacology, vol. 33, p. 166–180, 2008.
[7] G. M. Petzinger, B. E. Fisher, J.-E. Van Leeuwen, M. Vukovic, G. Akopian, C. K. Meshul, D. P. Holschneider, A. Nacca, J. P. Walsh and M. W. Jakowec, “Enhancing neuroplasticity in the basal ganglia: The role of exercise in Parkinson’s disease,” Movement Disorders, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 141-145, 2010.

J. Shaffer, “Neuroplasticity and Positive Psychology in Clinical Practice: A Review for Combined Benefits,” Psychology, vol. 3, no. 12, pp. 1110-1115 , 2012.