Neuroplasticity is the principle that the human brain can change over time, through the 'rewiring' of neural connections. Neuroplastic change is a natural part of human growth and development.
Knowing this, are there any ways in which we can deliberately shape our future selves via neuroplasticity?
The answer is "Yes, with difficulty." Let's explore some conditions in which the human brain can be more readily rewired.
Always Be Learning New Things
The brain of a young child is very plastic, picking up on environmental cues in order to adapt the child's mind to their culture and surroundings.
As we age, our brain's physical capabilities change:
"A major reason memory loss occurs as we age is that we have trouble registering new events in our nervous systems, because processing speed slows down, so that the accuracy, strength, and sharpness with which we perceive declines. If you can’t register something clearly, you won’t be able to remember it well." -- Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself.
Beyond the functioning of our brain, the environment in which we operate also has a substantial affect on neuroplastic potential.
As we age, the way in which we use our cognitive abilities also changes:
"We rarely engage in tasks in which we must focus our attention as closely as we did when we were younger, trying to learn a new vocabulary or master new skills. Such activities as reading the newspaper, practicing a profession of many years, and speaking our own language are mostly the replay of mastered skills, not learning. By the time we hit our seventies, we may not have systematically engaged the systems in the brain that regulate plasticity for fifty years." -- Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself.
While age is a factor in neuroplasticity, it is not determinative. Neuroplastic potential can be retained by continually learning new things, by laying down new and differentiated neural pathways, and by constantly challenging ourselves.
The more we push ourselves to learn new things, ranging from learning a foreign language to learning a new dance move, the greater the neuroplastic potential of our minds will be.
Supportive Community and Relationships
It's said that the five people you surround yourself is who you'll be in five years. There's a good deal of wisdom in this statement!
The affect of your social environmental on neuroplasticity is similar to epigenetics.
Epigenetics affects the expression of your genes, based on environmental cues like food and exercise.
Your social environment affects neuroplasticity in a similar way, by affecting the direction and orientation of your newly-laid-down neural pathways. In other words, if you spend a lot of time interacting with anxious and angry people, then you are apt to become more anxious and angry. If you spend a lot of time interacting with peaceful and kind people, then you are apt to become more peaceful and kind.
This is a very low-tech and slow way to initiate neuroplastic change, but it is also very effective. You should simply spend more time with people that you want to emulate in some way, and spend less time with people who demonstrate lots of personality traits that you don't like.
In other words, get a better set of friends! :)
Why is this an effective way to create neuroplastic change?
The evolutionary argument for brain plasticity is that it allows the human brain to adapt its operation to current environmental and social conditions. This is an important evolutionary trait for a long-lived species, like human beings.
By pushing yourself into a different living environment (surrounding yourself with different people), you nudge your brain towards neuroplastic change.
Desire vs. Belief
Neuroplastic change is about belief, not desire.
Desire is a helpful component of neuroplasticity, because it can help to provide you with the motivation to follow through.
To explain this another way:
You can modify your environment in a manner supportive of neuroplastic change
You can engage in various techniques to create neuroplastic change
However, you cannot simply wish yourself to be different
Desire is an emotion borne of internal conflict. Desire is the feeling that you want something different (in this case, a different you), coupled with the recognition that you don't have that thing yet!
For example, you can desire to quit smoking all you want. You can wish you were a non-smoker, perhaps desire is very strong inside of your head! But desire won't get you to stop smoking.
How is belief different from desire?
Belief is an emotion borne of internal harmony. Belief is the feeling that you want something different, coupled with the knowledge that you can achieve it!
For example, you can believe that you will quit smoking. You can visualize yourself as a non-smoker. You can visualize your 'smoking self' as someone who will die of cancer in 5 years and leave your children without a parent. You can visualize your 'non-smoking self' as the person you are -- right now -- a person that will be around to see their grandchildren!
Belief is a very powerful tool in creating neuroplastic change. When you strongly believe that change will occur, you tie into a set of very powerful neural pathways that already exist inside of your brain.
What are some examples of powerful neural pathways that you can 'tie into'?
A belief in a higher power. Do you believe that God will help you to change?
A belief in yourself. Do you believe you're smart, strong, and/or capable enough to create positive change in yourself?
A belief in a friend, mentor, program or other third party. Do you believe in them, and do you believe in their power to help you?
Belief comes in various forms. The type of belief is less important than its intensity.
The stronger your belief, the more fertile the environment is for creating powerful and lasting change in yourself.
The Edge of Consciousness
Neuroplastic change is greatly facilitated by good sleep, and by maintaining a normal circadian rhythym. Your brain operates much better when it's well-rested.
One of the most powerful times to create neuroplastic change in yourself, is when you're on the edge of consciousness. The brain is more open to change, when you're on the edge of consciousness.
The first five minutes of each morning is the most valuable time window of each day. If you want to create quick and powerful change in yourself, then use that time each day to visualize the person you want to be -- visualize having an awesome day!
Powerful Life Expeirences
Sometimes, change comes from powerful and unique experiences in our lives.
For example, astronauts often report a substantially altered view of the world and their place in it, upon returning to Earth (Source: The Perspective-Altering Effect of Seeing Earth from Space). They tend to see the Earth in a less nationalistic manner (it's 'one planet' from space), and often come away with an increased sense of serenity and peace.
All of us change, over time It's part of what makes us human! We are particularly affected by intense, powerful life experiences like 'seeing Earth from space'.
Neuroplastic change isn't a static phenomenon. We don't change a little bit each day in a predictable pattern. Neuroplastic change primarily occurs in brief, intense periods of activity.
In evolutionary biology, this phenomenon is referred to as punctuated equilibrium. In neuroplastic change, as in evolution, change often occurs in brief and intense bursts of activity in response to powerful environmental stimuli.
This is why neurohacking is possible. When you surround yourself with powerful environmental stimuli, you push your brain towards swift and positive change.
Doidge, Norman (2007-03-15). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (James H. Silberman Books) Penguin Group.
Universe Today, The Perspective-Altering Effect of Seeing Earth from Space, http://www.universetoday.com/98865/overview-the-perspective-altering-effect-of-seeing-earth-from-space/
Originally written on 2013-11-28