You have probably seen self-help guides or personal development programs touting that they can help you “rewire my brain.” What? The brain isn’t like a muscle that you can just take to the gym for a work-out. You’re stuck with what you’ve got. Right? Wrong.
Brain development is possible
The scientific evidence paints a different picture. While the brain isn’t a muscle, the neural networks within it can be altered on the physical level through changes in behavior, external stimulation, and practice. This principle is called neuroplasticity, and it encompasses the brain’s ability to reorganize itself and form new connections or networks based on experience. So, if you are asking, "can I rewire by brain?" the answer is yes!
Agents of neuroplastic change can be in the form of sensory inputs (sights, sounds, smell, touch, etc.), as well as repeated motor or cognitive activities.
One of the most important factors involved in neuroplasticity is that it requires a sustained change in neural activity patterns. In other words, it is activity dependent. If you want your brain to react differently, you have to do something about it.
Although neuroplasticity is now viewed as the most fundamental mechanism underlying the modifiability of behavior, that was not always the case.
A history of neuroplasticity
Usage of the term “neuronal plasticity” can be traced back to the late 1800’s, when scientists first started to challenge the view that once a person reaches adulthood there is a fixed number of neurons in the brain and that, when they die, they cannot be replaced. This was a controversial idea at the time, and it sparked a huge influx of research into the topic of neuroplasticity, specifically neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons or synapses).
However, the prevailing view up until only two decades ago was that such extreme changes in the brain were limited to a critical period during childhood. That idea has since been refuted. We now understand that there can in fact be great neuroplastic change at any age in the life span. What’s more, neuroplasticity can be influenced by a number of factors, including exercise, stress, hormones, and environmental enrichment.
So, when you hear a 40-year-old say, “This is just who I am. I can’t change.” The answer is really, “you can’t if you won’t” – because growth truly is possible! Yes! I can rewire my brain!
Musicians. Amputees. What can they teach us about our brains?
Perhaps one of the more well-known explorations of the possibilities of experience-driven neuroplasticity has been the study of the brains of musicians. Professional musicianship represents an extremely complex feat of the human brain and requires a tremendous amount of practice. This makes it a perfect model for studying the level of neuroplastic change which can occur over time. From these studies we have seen that, compared to non-musicians, the brains of musicians work more efficiently to coordinate motor neurons and auditory processing. Amazingly, there is even some evidence that these neural changes begin after only the first several minutes of training and are further consolidated within weeks of continued practice.
Here's another example. You’ve probably heard about “phantom-limb pain,” where amputees still feel pain in a limb that is no longer there. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) we can map the areas of the brain that correlate to each part of our body. Research conducted on the phantom-limb phenomenon has shown that a rapid reorganization of the somatosensory cortex can occur after amputation, causing this very real sensation. Our brains can reprogram in other ways too, such as in the case of people who lose their sight and then experience a heightening of other sensations (such as more acute hearing). This occurs as areas of their brain expand to “take over” parts that are no longer being used for sight. Our brains are amazing!
Create a new path
What does this mean for you and me? You may not be in an orchestra or going through extreme changes in your physical body, but neuroplasticity on a smaller scale is occurring in our brains every time we learn. Importantly, the reinforcement of learned information is critical to maintain the newly formed neural pathways. And the more something is reinforced, the easier it is for our brains to engage those pathways.
We can use this principle to our advantage, whether it be in our careers or personal lives. At ThinkX, we stay up to date on the evolving scientific evidence to design personalized strategies aimed at improving performance by improving thinking patterns.
Perspectives on neuroplasticity give us the tools to target and update the neural networks that may have been reinforced throughout your life but are currently holding you back from reaching your full potential.
ThinkX won’t “train your brain”, because your brain has the power to train itself. ThinkX simply takes advantage of this built-in system for adaptation that can transform how you think, and ultimately how you perform. When you ask, can I rewire my brain? The answer is now; if you want to.
Contributed by Amanda Tardiff, ThinkX Neuroscience Specialist
MSc, Neuroscience, McGill University
BS, Psychology, University of California, San Diego