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Neuroplasticity 101: How To Make Brain Changes That Stick

June 27, 2022

Explore the human potential of neuroplasticity and how to hack your brain to make positive change that sticks with co-authored Muse Meditation Teacher and founder of Neurosculpting®, Lisa Wimberger. Learn more about the Neurosculpting Institute by watching below.

Learn more about Neuroscultping®>

AI is speeding up. Can you feel it? Web 3, the Metaverse, and AI-driven technologies today are making dinosaurs of the internet of 2010. As humans, we are left to stumble over each other to catch up as though riding this wave will somehow define us. But this is nothing new. We’ve been tripping over our own feet our whole lives…stumbling to be better, smarter, more productive, more aligned, in tune, optimized, healthy, and positive, all in service to be the best version of ourselves. So, we reach for the latest, greatest thing to help make that happen.

And while many of us are quick to leap to virtual reality’s potential for innovations in healthcare, manufacturing, and entertainment, the latest, greatest thing is actually the most innate and simple capacity born to each and every one of us. The technology we have inside us, the one governing the most complex operating system ever known, has been there the whole time: the central nervous system. 

The central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal column, is the only interface we have that communicates from the inside out and the outside in. It’s designed to adapt us in each moment to the needs and demands of the environment. Our very own analog virtual reality is working overtime to interpret, create, respond, and adapt our perceptions of the world. 

And neuroplasticity unlocks the manual.

Together, our innate neuroplasticity combined with exciting and ever-evolving advancements in tech is giving us access to new frontiers of human potential.

But how can we capitalize and work with our neuroplasticity to leverage these technologies? What practices and tools can help us rewire our brains toward greater fulfillment, freedom, and potential? We explore all this and more below.

The Adaptable Brain

Our brains work like prediction machines trying to replicate the efficiencies we created in the past, and only adapt them if necessary. This is why we find ourselves repeating our mistakes even when we know better.

The brain requires extra energy and resources in order to adapt, change course, or alter deeply held beliefs…resources like great sleep, great food, balanced emotions, exercise, and loving relationships. When these are in place, our operating system is efficient and malleable. We can change our perceptions and even our relationships to memories and trauma the way one might change the landscape in the Metaverse. This gift of resourced adaptability is called neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity

The Basics of Neuroplasticity

At a basic level, neuroplasticity refers to our brain’s ability to learn and work more efficiently. In practice, neuroplasticity involves an intricate interplay between neurons, synapses, and neurotransmitters in the brain.

Neurons are the cells responsible for initializing action (called action potentials) in the brain. Synapses and neurotransmitters act as the messaging system and messengers for action potentials between neurons.

Plasticity refers to the ability for something to be reshaped or molded. In this case, it refers to the molding of neural pathways (the messaging highways for action potentials) in the brain.

How are these pathways molded?

Essentially, the more we repeat a certain action, the stronger that neural pathway becomes. Think of it like skiing down a mountain. In the morning, you have a fresh slope, with no previous ski tracks for you to follow. You go down the mountain once, and you create a pair of tracks to follow. You go down again, and you deepen the grooves of the tracks. You go down a third time, and the path becomes much easier to follow because you’ve already carved the path twice before. You’re able to use less energy and effort the more you repeat yourself.

If you want to look at it from a biological perspective, each time you perform an action, a complicated orchestra of neurons is firing at specific moments to facilitate said action. The more you repeat the action and use those synaptic pathways, the stronger the connections become, making it easier to repeat the action in the future. In essence, “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Ultimately, neuroplasticity keenly shows how the structure and function of our brains are shaped by the stimulation of the environment. (Hubel & Wiesel)

Types of Neuroplasticity

There are two main types of neuroplasticity: functional and structural. 

Structural plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change its structure as a result of learning. Essentially, as you learn a new skill, your brain quickly categorizes all the circumstances that prompted you to take action and the action you took, so you can repeat it more easily in the future. In other words, you strengthen neural connections associated with specific skills, so you can repeat it faster and more effectively next time.

Functional plasticity refers to how if a brain area associated with a certain type of function is damaged, other areas of the brain can learn to function in its place. 

For example, studies have shown that stroke patients recovering from brain injuries to areas of the brain thought responsible for motor control (ie walking or talking) are able to regain certain skills that were once lost via functional neuroplasticity. [1]

Factors that can impact neuroplasticity

Although each of us is born with the innate gift of neuroplasticity, there are many factors that can influence our brain’s capacity for plasticity.

Research has found several factors can positively affect neuroplasticity, including [3, 4]:

  • Regular physical activity
  • Getting quality sleep
  • Balanced nutrition
  • Mindfulness practices

Factors that may adversely contribute to neuroplasticity include [5, 6, 7]:

  • Age
  • Trauma (specifically childhood trauma and Adverse Childhood Events)
  • Stress
  • Mood disorders

Additionally, research has also found that neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and reduced cognitive function are often accompanied by poor neuroplasticity. [2]

Neuroplasticity & Creating New Connections

Neuroplasticity works like this. Your brain experiences something. You remember that thing and store it as a template. The next time you experience something similar to the original event your brain says, “yes, I remember how to navigate things like this.” It reaches for that template to efficiently guide your behavior. And then it adds the current iteration to the template, the way an author adds a page to a story making it richer and more integrated. The more we do things, the easier it is to do them. This goes for thinking certain thoughts as well. 

The amazing thing is we can intentionally change these templates with directed awareness. We can choose, through mental and physical exercises, to override old templates and create new ones to guide our behaviors. So the fascinating thing about neuroplasticity is that we create the world from the inside out, programming it through our actions, thoughts, experiences, and sensations.

Shaping Your Brain

You are the programmer of your own operating system, which responds to many languages. Some of the languages that speak directly to the nervous system and leverage intentional adaptability are things like Neurosculpting® meditations and wearable tech like the Muse® headband.

A recent study published in the Journal of Yoga, Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation investigated the effects of 11 weeks of Neurosculpting® on sleep, stress, and heart rate. The 5-step meditation program was designed to encourage an individual to make new and more supportive patterns, habits, and behaviors by intentionally engaging the whole brain through specific language and focused imagery. Participants who completed the program showed improvements in sleep and a positive temporary effect on resting heart rate and heart rate variability. [10]

So really, your brain learns from any experience that combines learning and applying new skills. After all, neuroplasticity is the process of rewiring the brain based on our experiences and conscious choices. So you can spur on and support your brain’s neuroplasticity through many different activities, that require your brain to learn and adapt, such as:

  • Learning a new skill
  • Music therapy
  • Using language (writing, speaking, learning)
  • Physical activity and exercise
  • Meditation and mindfulness practices

Additionally, developing a healthy lifestyle that prioritizes quality sleep, nutrition, stress management, and physical activity can be beneficial in supporting your neuroplasticity.

The amazing thing is that while the outside world is trying to catch up to the speed with which the internet evolves, your nervous system is so far beyond Web 3 in its capacity that it just might be the most potent frontier of our evolution.

Neuroplasticity, meditation

Meditation and Your Brain

You may be wondering, why meditation? How is meditation or mindfulness any more beneficial than other neuroplasticity-supporting activities like skill acquisition?

Meditation and mindfulness support neuroplasticity in several fashions. 

First, mindfulness and meditation involve the practice of becoming aware of our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. This practice empowers us with the opportunity to choose our emotional landscape with greater intentionality. In this way, mindfulness practices can give us the essential skill of being able to see our habits of thoughts, feelings, and actions, and rewire our habits toward our desired outcomes. This rewiring engages and supports neuroplasticity.

Secondly, meditation and mindfulness have a direct impact on several aspects of our brains, including function and volume. 

For instance, meditation has been found to improve stability in the ventral posteromedial cortex (vPMC), which is related to mind-wandering and impulsive thoughts. [8] 

Another study by Harvard Neuroscientist Sara Lazar found that meditation increased the size of several brain regions, including the left hippocampus (associated with learning, memory, self-awareness, and empathy). [9]

Final thoughts…

So here we sit… At the precipice of so many new and exciting advancements in the world of virtual reality, augmented reality, and neurofeedback. And yet, the greatest area for potential, remains within you. There are so many ways to leverage these evolving technologies to better ourselves, and by doing so, unleash our potential and benefit the rest of the world at large.

 

Resources:

  1. Learn about neuroplasticity with Brittanica HERE >>
  2. Explore the relationship between Alzheimer’s and neuroplasticity HERE >>
  3. Discover the environmental factors that can contribute to neuroplasticity HERE >>
  4. Read how mindfulness and meditation can impact neuroplasticity HERE >>
  5. Learn about the relationship between age and neuroplasticity HERE >>
  6. Explore how trauma affects our brain’s capacity for neuroplasticity HERE >>
  7. Discover the relationship between stress, depression, and neuroplasticity HERE >>
  8. Read about how meditation impacts the vPMC HERE >>
  9. Explore how mindfulness can change the shape and function of the brain HERE >>
  10. Learn about the Effects of Neurosculpting® Meditation on Stress, Anxiety and Sleep in a group of undergraduate college students HERE >>

 

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