Neuroplasticity: The Key To Becoming More Resilient
November 24, 2020
What does it mean to be resilient and why is that a useful skill to have? Resilience doesn’t come hard-wired, but, just like a muscle, it’s something we can build and grow. And our ability to boost our resilience—or any other skill—relies primarily on a miraculous function of the brain known as neuroplasticity.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity (also known as neural plasticity) is your brain’s ability to grow, adapt, and change in response to experience (1). It’s one of the magic reasons that learning and memory are possible. “Neuro” means the nervous system (your brain, spinal cord, and all the nerves that run to and fro), and “plasticity” comes from the Greek plastos which means moldable (2).
Basically, it means you’re not stuck with the brain structure that you were born with, and that your everyday experiences keep your brain in a constant state of change.
To understand neuroplasticity, it’s helpful to review how the brain works at its most basic level. Nerve cells, or neurons, are the gatekeepers of information in our body’s nervous system. They receive, interpret, and communicate information that comes from both inside as well as outside the body (2). The brain is made up of an astounding number of these neurons—about 100 billion (3). And an even greater number of connections exist between them called synapses. Synapses allow neurons to talk to each other, and are necessary for building circuits (and connections) in the brain.
Basically, your brain is like a mega-superhighway of information constantly whizzing around. Every thought, emotion, or fact you learn zips along these roads by electrical impulses and chemical messages (4). Some of these roads are like highways—well-traveled and faster while others are more like backroads—slower, less-traveled, and where you’re more likely to get lost.
So how does neuroplasticity affect learning and memory? In quite a fundamental way. A classic study conducted by Eric R. Kandel (1963) was the first attempt at identifying “neuronal changes that underlie learning and memory” (4). Instead of humans, the study used sea slugs. Why? Because, despite their small size, they have incredibly large and simple neural circuits, which makes it much easier to observe physical changes in their cells. Kandel discovered that, after using classical conditioning training, he was able to induce changes in the sea slug’s gill-withdrawal reflex and change the structure of its cells!
In other words, they discovered that with training, the sea slug’s neurons and synapses changed, and with that, came a new, learned behavior.
Kandel’s study was groundbreaking because it revealed that new information and experiences can change what we know and how we act in the world.
You’ve probably heard the saying “neurons that fire together, wire together.” But what does that actually mean? It means that connections between neurons grow and get stronger the more they’re used. The more you think of a specific thought or act in a certain way, the more that becomes ingrained in your brain. And the opposite is also true. The thoughts and actions that are less frequent become weaker connections (6).
Your highways are your go-tos—those thoughts you have all the time or the tapes that are always playing in your head. They’re easy to access because your mind defaults to tried and true connections. Your backroads are all those things less ingrained—like something you just read in the news or your first week of meditation practice.
Busy regions of the brain need more oxygen and glucose (think: a busy car needs more gas) so they get more blood flow. And the genes inside your neurons then get more or less active (7). For example, if you regularly practice meditation or another relaxation technique, you’ll develop a stronger ability to control your stress response and find calm. And all those brain highways that aren’t used very often will wither away.
Like a kind of Neural Darwinism, or survival of the fittest (6)(7). Neuroplasticity works much in the way that physical exercise does for the body or meditation for the mind. One workout or a single meditation isn’t going to make much difference. Where the power (and ease) comes is in the consistency of the practice.
What does a more resilient brain look like? According to research done by psychologist and author Richard Davidson and others, resilience is marked by greater activation in the left prefrontal cortex part of your brain. In fact, he says “the amount of activation in the left prefrontal region of a resilient person can be thirty times that in someone who is not resilient (8).”
Davidson, also the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds, has spent decades studying the brain. In a 2012 research project, he discovered something interesting. He found that the amount of white matter (axons connecting neurons) you have between your prefrontal cortex and your amygdala (emotion center), can predict how resilient you are (8).
What Makes Some of Us More Resilient than Others?
While some of us will experience more extreme hardship and suffering than others, all of us will face adversity at different points in our lives—from losing loved ones and jobs to coping with breakups and loneliness. When these situations happen, feeling temporarily set back is common, even expected. The difference comes in what happens next. Some of us endure, move forward, and grow from the hardship; while others get derailed, lose control, or fall into depression. What determines how we respond comes down to how we handle stress (7).
Our brains were made to handle stress and threats by releasing neurotransmitters that trigger our fight or flight response. But if we’re under a constant state of stress or anxiety, these systems can become overloaded. When this happens, it becomes harder for us to access the parts of our brain that are good at solving problems and helping us recover. This is why being able to manage stress in a healthy way and access calm can be so crucial to our health (1).
Tips to Build Your Resilience
So how can we become more resilient? Calming practices like meditation and mindfulness can help you reduce reactive responses, making you better able to cope with adversity and boosting your resilience (1). They can help you engage with and work through negative emotions instead of running from them, which rewires your brain for resilience.
Another way is through pairing positive emotions with negative experiences. For example, if you’re afraid of change, you can think of a time when things did change for the better and feel that in your body. Similar to how weight-training builds strength, feeling the sensations of competence and confidence will help you build these parts of your brain (1).
A few other tips for becoming more resilient are (9):
Make positive connections with others
Take action toward your goals
Nurture a positive view of yourself
Look for opportunities to grow
Take care of yourself and your health
Neuroplasticity can be a helpful reminder that a lot of what we want and need is within reach. While we can’t control what happens to us, we can learn to control our thoughts and behaviors and how we react to life. From this place of awareness, we can identify and find the tools we need to help us grow, become more resilient, and more skillfully navigate challenges when they come our way.
Estévez-Priego, E., Teller, S., Granell, C., Arenas, A., Soriano, J. (2020). Functional strengthening through synaptic scaling upon connectivity disruption in neuronal cultures. Network Neuroscience. Advanced Publication. https://doi.org/ 10.1162/netn_a_00156
Russo, S. J., Murrough, J. W., Han, M. H., Charney, D. S., & Nestler, E. J. (2012). Neurobiology of resilience. Nature neuroscience, 15(11), 1475–1484. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.3234