Neuroplasticity is in your hands.
Updated: Nov 5, 2018
Lets take this big intimidating word and understand how this concept can revolutionize the way we think, act, and relate to ourselves and our loved ones.
My 72 year old father recently asked me at the dinner table, "I can change? At my age?"
When discussing the concept of neuroplasticity (brain plasticity) with my family around our oval oak table, our chicken was getting cold and everyone's eyebrows were furrowed in doubt.
Brain plasticity means that our brains have the ability to re-wire themselves; We can actually exercise our brains to modify connections and associations so that we are able to react to events differently and thus think and behave differently. People often act on auto-pilot, based on neural connections made in the past through experiences that could have been positive, negative, fearful, traumatic, etc. But our present brain does not determine our future brain. Research from the past 40 years (and the past decade of neurogenisis research) affirms this elastic ability exists in each of us.
Yes, I insisted to my father. Our brain does have the ability to re-wire, even at 72! I noticed myself feeling tense and frustrated trying to convince my loved ones of this research-based reality.
I realized that my frustration in trying to convince my skeptical family members stemmed from the fact that I so deeply want people to realize their full potential. It's a shame, isn't it, for so many of our choices and behavior to be determined by past experiences and learned unhealthy patterns?
Throughout our lives, sensory information gets sent to the brain for processing. Nerve cells connect with each other, and sends impulses to the brain. Neurons send out dendrites to connect with other neurons. (Picture trees in your brain, sprouting branches, and connecting with other branches). Our personal experiences and interpretations make specific types of connections that determine our current reactions. Well, we can actually change the internal structure of neurons and increase connections between neurons by exercising our mind.
Once my father accepted the premise (finally), he said, "That can't be easy. Who has the time for that?"
It's true. This process requires close attention, time, and slowness. It also requires admitting that maybe our natural reactions or go-to behaviors aren't as helpful, as kind, or as productive as we'd like.
The payback is that after paying close attention, taking time, and slowing down, we eventually develop new, healthier cognitive and behavioral patterns that become instinctual.
Imagine if your gut instinct towards your child acting out was to take a deep breath and calm yourself before reacting?
Imagine if your go-to reaction when you have a tough challenge at work was to remind yourself to have faith that you can manage stress and difficulties before tackling the issue?
Take some time right now to identify an unfortunate behavior pattern you have (with yourself or another person). Are you quick to anger, resentment, or panic in specific scenarios?
Start with that one pattern. Pay attention each time you have it.
Evaluate why you are having that reaction. Ask yourself- is it rational? is it helpful? is it kind? is there another way I'd like to deal with this situation?
Once you are able, try to pause before acting on it. Keep pausing each time.
Find a new way to react- a way that you actually want to behave. Be intentional.
Repeat. After a while, your desired behavior will be your gut instinct. You've connected those branches.
Believe that you have the capacity to do this, because... you do.
And by the way, when feeling impatient with my family as my elbows pressed hard on the dinner table, I eased my posture and reminded myself that communicating is a process...I'm working on it too. We're all in it together.
I've developed an Emotional Intelligence activity that helps children learn about emotional intelligence and neuroplasticity.
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Links for further (accessible) reading on neuroplasticity: