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Neuroplasticity: Your Brain’s Amazing Ability to Form New Habits

with 40 comments


Brain and focus One of the most popular areas of research in psychology these days is neuroplasticityNeuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to restructure itself after training or practice.  In many ways, neuroplasticity is what makes personal growth and development possible at its most basic level.  With the understanding that change is indeed possible, you’re able to focus on the ways in which you’d like to grow instead of whether or not it’s achievable for you.  It’s possible, it’s proven, and now it’s up to you!

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

An example of how neuroplasticity works: when you view the brains of people who frequently practice playing the violin under fMRI (functional MRI) they appear to have developed a larger area of their brain devoted to mapping their fingers.  This change is directly related to the quantity and the quality of the practice they’re performing – their brains are adapting in very real and tangible ways unbeknownst to them.

One of the fun sayings around neuroplasticity: “neurons that fire together wire together… and neurons that fire apart wire apart.”.  Effectively this means that when neurons activate at the same time as a response to an event, the neurons become associated with one another and the connections become stronger.  This is why people talk about “neural pathways being set” with respect to increased practice – the more practice you accumulate, the more ingrained or grooved the pathways become.  Of course the inverse happens as well: if those pathways aren’t utilized, the space will be used by other pathways needing room to grow. Use it or lose it!

Click for photo You can picture this yourself by imagining the flow of water through sand (I’m writing this from a beach in Kauai so excuse the metaphor – but I always find a mental motion picture is worth a thousand words!)  When seawater first runs over the sand, there isn’t a path for it to follow so it starts to form one for itself.  As the water continues to flow over the sand, the pathway forms a real groove in the sand and gets deeper and more defined.  It may start to branch off and take up more room in the sand if necessary, even reforming pathways on top of pathways that are no longer in use if it needs to.  Once the pathways are formed, it becomes more difficult to change the water flow – and if the water ever stops flowing, the pathway will remain for some time in the hopes that it’ll be used again at some point.  (This is why picking something back up after some time of inactivity is easier than starting a new activity cold).

The research around neuroplasticity is burgeoning these days – many people in psychology are talking about the hows and whys around it, and over the last decade a fair amount of research has already been done on the brain and its ability to reshape itself.  It’s no longer considered a theory in brain science, it’s fact.  Up until the 1980s or early 1990s, most scientists believed that your brain developed in your early years (throughout childhood) and then became “hardened” like dried concrete.  One has to assume this is where the moniker, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” came from.  But it turns out this just isn’t true.  You can fundamentally change your brain so long as oxygen and blood is flowing through you.  Which means you have no excuse when it comes to forming new habits.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the concept of neuralplasticity has been around for far longer than Western science has recognized it – the term for it is le-su-rung-wa which means “pliability”; your brain can change based on repeated experience. It’s no surprise then that studies have been performed on plasticity during meditation and have shown that the brain can change based purely on mental training.  This of course has huge ramifications for mental practice and its impact on overall well-being.  If you can think yourself into being more compassionate, or more positive and more resourceful, or calmer and more content, it seems a little too good to be true.  But with some effort, it’s possible.

There are a few interesting things to note about neuroplasticity.  Change takes place rather suddenly in the brain.  A recent study has shown that habits can be formed in as little as 7 days of repeated activity, but can dissipate just as easily.  In other words, change comes naturally and quickly and can disappear just as quickly as it arrived.  It also appears that “learning a variety of new things, rather than simply practicing old skills, may be most effective in terms of brain structure alterations”.  And while neuroplasticity is possible in adults, it appears that in children it’s rampant – which makes logical sense as it aligns with our overall perspective on learning.

In short: this is relevant research to all of us.  It implies that people of any age have the ability to learn new things and form new habits.  Therefore contentment (my preferred term for ‘happiness’) isn’t a state you’re born into, it’s a state you can discover.  And the sky’s the limit for the ability to learn and perfect new things throughout your life.

So what are you waiting for? :)

Written by Mike Torres

May 27th, 2009 at 3:56 pm

Posted in Positivity

Tagged with , , ,

  • http://recoverfromstroke.blogspot.com/ Peter G Levine

    How did they get the violin (with a billion metal parts) in to the MRI? I’m betting the research was with a finger tapping task.

    Love the site tho’!

    • Ebane_ebane

      all I can say is thank you

  • http://www.refocuser.com Mike Torres

    Sorry, that’s just poor writing on my part. The study was done with people who frequently practice, not people who frequently practice under fMRI ;)

  • http://recoverfromstroke.blogspot.com/ Peter G Levine

    Actually, when viewed through the lens of common sense, the sentence is fine. But just to clarify; the violin players practice a lot, but when they go under the fMRI they probably do a finger tapping task that activates the same portion of the cortex that is hypertrophied in this population.

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  • Art Hansen

    Neuroplasticity is also part of the Theravada Buddhist tradition through the use of mindfulness. Personally, I have succeded in eliminating virtually all anger and most fears. I was unaware of how fear had been taught to me and the many aspects of this fear that I was unaware of. I have successfully taught many prisoners to control their anger.

    Art

    • http://www.refocuser.com Mike Torres

      Art – that’s great to hear. One common thread I’ve found is that modern positive psychology is learning – and likely will continue to learn – a lot from Buddhism. The similarities are quite apparent. While I personally don’t follow any faith, religion, or creed, I have a lot of interest in the teachings of Buddhism.

  • Jane Paul

    The articles was awesome it allowed me to understand easily what neuroplasticity is.. I have few more queries about how the changes in our habit change brain structure whats the biology behind it?? how is the memory or our daily routine stored in brain?? where is it stored?? Is changes in habit caused by some biochemical changes in brain protein or structural changes in some biomolecules?? How does it occur?? Does any energy change is taking place like eg when we see a person the image is formed in retina as the photons fall on it and this gives electrical impulse to brain and then the brain recollects the person from wherever it stores the memory.. So there is a change in energy from light to electrical then biochemcal and so on… There are much more things… Im a research scholar and actually doing lot of literature work in this topic.. Would really appreciate a witty reply from you..

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  • Lloyd B Almand

    When the brain has been altered through surgery, as in the case of our son who had his right temporal lobe removed, does the scientific fact surrounding neuroplasticity still apply ? In other words can the brain be retrained to pick up fundamental skills once held by a certain part of the brain
    that has been removed by surgery. His surgery came after being a paramedic fo over ten years, so he knows just enough about the brain to be dangerous to himself. He now finds himself in a situation labeled by our local Elks Rehab as ” learned lack of use ” (ie rt. side damage = lt side defficit )

    • http://refocuser.com/ Mike Torres

      It's a good question Lloyd. From what I've read, it's dependent on the part of the brain that's injured or removed and the skills trying to be relearned – that in some small cases it may be possible, but that in most cases, it's not. Neurologists and brain scientists would certainly know more though.

  • Ig88sir

    Good Article. Why is is so hard for people to overcome speech disorders such as stuttering though? Even losing an accent is very difficult as well.

    • Chislw

      Yes, this is a very good article and I would like to know how this can be used to overcome or at least help stuttering. Very strange, I do stutter and do not stutter when speaking with an accent or speaking Spanish.

      • Gksharma72

        Stuttering seems to be rooted in more than just the brain. Some theories say that it is an incongruency between how your brain controls speech and how your vocal cords actually move. The real cause of stuttering hasn't been fully delineated, but an incongruency between what you think and how it comes out of your mouth (using mouth muscles, throat muscles, and facial muscles) wouldnt necessarily be fixed by just a change in the brain. I stutter as well and I've done a lot of research on this.

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  • Jimmy topgun149

    I had a stroke in May 2009. I’ve noticed that my brain want to heal and get better all the time. Great article and keep them coming.

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  • adeoye bayo olufunsho

    What about the roles of bouttons……………………..adeoye bayo olufunsho, lautech, nigeria

  • Karlkabilg21

    I had a learning Disability some years back, but i had a passion towards learning new things, without understanding anything i started learning, but now i understand any type of scientific blogs.. some people call themselves tat they are in-born genius, so wat, u have just copy-pasted ur dad’s code…

  • http://www.recruitinganimal.com RecruitingANIMAL

    2 articles you might like

    1 – http://mindhacks.com/2010/06/07/neuroplasticity-is-a-dirty-word/

    2 – http://mindhacks.com/2010/07/06/neuroplasticity-is-not-a-new-discovery/

    Also, you only talk in terms of metaphors. You never explain what is actually going on in the brain.

    A reader leaves with the idea that brain scans show that habit building changes the brain but she doesn’t know how.

     

    • http://refocuser.com/ Mike Torres

      Thanks – I’ve read them both and follow Mind Hacks.  Honestly, the point of this post isn’t to teach science, it’s to help people understand that things are possible they otherwise couldn’t believe would be.  There are definitely better ways to learn more about the actual changes to the brain.

      • http://www.recruitinganimal.com RecruitingANIMAL

        I appreciate your modesty (sincerely) but Mind Hacks’ point seems to be that when science is popularized it is little better than superstition.

        So, I think it’s good for people to have some idea about what UR really talking about in concrete terms.

        The challenge is to spoon-feed info in a way that doesn’t turn off the average reader. I guess that wd mean no Latin names for the parts of the brain – but colloquial names like Fear Controller or Memory Centre might do.

      • http://refocuser.com/ Mike Torres

        Good feedback – thanks.  I actually do have a degree in Psychology but don’t consider myself an expert at all, particularly in brain science.  Of course, popularizing science in many cases is precisely how it makes a material impact on the world – but I get the point nonetheless.

      • http://www.recruitinganimal.com RecruitingANIMAL

         Thanks. I realized after listening to a lot of Norman Doidge and Jeff Schwartz online that brain scans show changes in the brain that correspond to habit building — but I have no real idea of what that means.

        They keep chanting neuroscience and neuroplasticity but really it doesn’t mean that much to me except that we can now see evidence of what we already knew (regarding habits).

        I’m surprised that I haven’t seen lots of joint public declarations between the promoters of neuroplasticity and Deliberate Practice since the latter claims that you can master almost any skill by overpractice.

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