What is Neuroplasticity?

There was a time, not that long ago, actually, in which the prevailing wisdom among scientists and brain researchers was consistent: The brain stops developing at an early age, and continues to “die off” over the span of one’s life. We now know this to be horribly inaccurate. Over the past 20 years, advances in brain imaging and neural research have revealed pretty much the opposite conclusion: the brain’s neural networks continue to change and grow throughout our lifetimes, even up to and through old age and death. This is pretty amazing in and of itself. But what’s even more, er, “mind blowing,” is this fact: You can change the structures in your brain yourself. 

universe in the headThat’s right–carbon-based, wandering through the universe you–you can actually modify how your brain’s genetic structure works and changes. Known as neuroplasticity, the latest research indicates that the brain is essentially “agnostic” when it comes to how the brain changes. As the most advanced memory and central processing unit in the known universe, with trillions of connections, the brain, it turns out, “doesn’t care” how it changes–it simply responds to external and internal stimuli and (the latter of which includes “pre-programmed” and genetic stimuli. At the most basic level, the more you do something, the more the brain does that thing, and will continue to “want” to do that thing–whether it’s exercise and kindness toward others practiced every day, or indulging in drinking and online pornography. The brain basically doesn’t care: it says “I see that you are doing this thing. The more that you do it, the more I will enable you to do it through your own programmed pathways known as synaptic connections between neurons. A fancy way of describing a habit. The brain is so incredibly complex in so many ways, but in some ways it’s very simple: as I like to say The more you do something, the more you do something. The brain just wants to repeat what it’s presented with, whether it’s watching TV or working out or meditation. After approximately 2 – 3 weeks of doing something consistently, the brain has built up enough patterns of neurons to help you keep doing that thing, whether it’s good for you or not. The brain is really good at this, and is especially well versed in creating addictive behaviors and stressors.

What seems to be the problem? 

We know from modern research that the brain tends to (though not for everyone) have what’s known as a “negative bias.” That is, the brain is much more capable of “remembering” negative events and inputs, because that’s what helped our ancestors survive (twig snap in the distance? could be a dangerous threat from a predator or another tribe). Over millions of years, literally, our brains have gotten very very good at preparing us for danger, or what’s known as fight or flight. The same sections of the brain that do this (in the Limbic system of the brain) are also responsible for rewards–food, sex, intoxicants that make us “feel good.” But the negative bias is dominant in many people, and that’s why repeated thoughts of stress, anger, frustration, fear, anxiety–all are provided a lot of “bandwidth” in the brain and easily remembered and repeated. In fact, the brain has a tendency to kill off the “happy chemicals” in our brain in favor of embracing the negative–don’t blame the brain for this, it was just doing this automatically to help preserve our ancestors from an early death. Worked very well for a long time! But now, that same, powerful capability is the undoing of many people today–they can be trapped in what I call a “negative feedback loop” (see below). What happens in a negative feedback loop is a negative stimulus causes our ancient brains to react in a way that prepare our bodies for fight or flight. But this also triggers the more “modern” parts of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex) to try to search the database of our memories for a solution; it also thinks about future scenarios (or “stories”) that might come true as a result of the stimulus (e.g., health, money, emotional/familial/relationship, and other fears and anxieties) for an answer. If the brain finds none, it triggers even more negative response and fight/flight preparation from the ancient survival instinct part of the brain, which releases all manner of hormones and chemicals that would help us escape an immediate threat, but that are harmful if there is no immediate or real threat. This is what brings many people to the doctor these days; stress-repeated fight or flight physical (somatic) symptoms that are the result of an inability to figure how to fix what’s wrong or mitigate the threat, real or (often) imagined.

Bad wiring?

Your brain creates negative habits and conditioning from a variety of sources, family history, traumatic experiences, head trauma, and now the latest research indicates that

“those who experience relatively common family problems early in childhood have an increased risk of mental health issues later on….The cerebellum is an area of the brain associated with learning new skills and regulating stress, amongst other things. This could be a marker of psychological problems later in life as a small cerebellum has been consistently linked to serious mental disorders.”

Personally, my “bad wiring” developed over decades, and I’m not sure that there was one point in time when it started (which could well involve some inherited anxiety), but anxiety over my personal health became an obsession, filled with anxiety, stress, and self-diagnosed prophecies. I created a negative feedback loop and fed into it any skin discoloration, ache, pain, fatigue, or anything else that happened to be occurring (naturally, I might add) to my body at the time. (This American Life did an interesting series on “maps” wherein a reporter for Planet Money admits her unhealthy, disruptive obsession with breast cancer. Worth listening to, especially if you suffer from this specific kind of anxiety disorder). Research indicates that kids undergoing trauma at a young age develop problems as they get older, as well, and for most, it’s probably some combination of a variety of factors, both internal and external.

Okay, so, that defines the problem. How does Neuroplasticity help? 

Neuroplasticity is a powerful tool thatenables people to “rewire” the neural structures in their brains through conscious, repeated efforts. Interestingly,  Buddhists have been using these techniques (though not referring to them as such) for literally thousands of years. It’s only fairly recently that the West has come to adopt this proven reality–rewiring our brains has always been an option, and we know now, through very clear, irrefutable research, that you can change the way you think and feel and how you handle the stress and challenges of life. The “plastic” part of “neuroplasticity” means that our brains are malleable; they can be reformed, in a way, to a reflect healthier, more productive, more focused and emotionally positive way of being. But, like exercise and physical health (which helps improve the “good chemicals” in your brain, btw), it only works if you do it consistently and repeatedly. That’s the rub. There’s no magic elixir, no easy path, one has to literally accept a new way of being, including developing new habits of mindfulness to create these new neural pathways.

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…like exercise and physical health (which helps improve the your brain, too), it only works if you do it consistently and repeatedly. That’s the rub. There’s no magic elixir, no easy path, one has to literally accept a new way of being, including developing new, daily habits of mindfulness, to create these new neural pathways.

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Okay, that’s enough from me about what’s what in neuroplasticity, let’s hear from some of the people who have done the research.

Functional and Structural Neuroplasticity

According to Kendra Cherry, author of the Everything Psychology Book, “as we gain new experiences, some connections (in the brain) are strengthened while others are eliminated. This process is known as synaptic pruning. Neurons that are used frequently develop stronger connections and those that are rarely or never used eventually die. By developing new connections and pruning away weak ones, the brain is able to adapt to the changing environment.” According to Cherry, there are two types of plasticity in the brain: functional and structural. Functional plasticity involves the brain’s ability to compensate for damage in one area, and developing connections to compensate and recreate those functions.

Functional Plasticity. One example of this is the famous neuroscientist, Jill Bolte, who had a stroke that disconnected her left brain functionality. Her description of what she went through–and the 8 years it took her to develop “compensating functions” can be found in her book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal JourneyAs she explains in a (well worth watching) TED talk about the experience of losing the ability to speak, remember, and function in any meaningful way:

“…on the morning of December 10 1996 I woke up to discover that I had a brain disorder of my own. A blood vessel exploded in the left half of my brain. And in the course of four hours I watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information. On the morning of the hemorrhage I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life. I essentially became an infant in a woman’s body….Two and a half weeks after the hemorrhage, the surgeons went in and they removed a blood clot the size of a golf ball that was pushing on my language centers.” Jill Bolte, Neurologist

Structural Plasticity.This is the kind of neuroplasticity that most of us think about when we think about changing “the way we are.” Structural plasticity refers to learning to actually modify how our brains change. What’s amazing–and I didn’t know this before starting this piece–as little as two hours of learning a new skill actually modifies the brain at the molecular level.

Here’s a short-form explanation from Rick Hanson on what Neurosplasticity is:

The Ancient Brain: The Link between Buddhism and and Neuroplasticity

Buddhism has been practiced for, literally, thousands of years–since roughly 2500 BC, give or take a millennia or two. The practice of mindfulness meditation has been a core tenet of Vipassana Buddhism, which is, in one way or another, part of all Buddhist practices. As Dharma.org describes it, this approach is

… a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.

This form of Buddhism focuses on mindfulness in attention, awareness, and focus on breathing, bodily sensations, and walking. Simple stuff, but hard to remember to do when our modern brains are constantly pulling us toward the past and  the future with worries and stress and questions and “what if” scenarios and self-doubt and uncertainty, etc. Meditation as practiced by the “ancient-brained” Buddhists actually helps breaks this cycle of living in the past and worry about the future. And now, only a few thousand years later, science has proven that what Buddhists have been doing for centuries is, in fact, a good thing for our mental and physical health! 😉


The14th-Dalai-LamaDon’t take my word for it, here’s what the Buddhist the Dalai Lama did….Several years ago, perhaps the most famous Buddhist, the Dalai Lama, gave a speech at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C. What is unusual (or was, at the time) about this is that the philosophy of Buddhism, which the Dalai Lama practices, would seem to be at odds with Western science. We now know that nothing could be further from the truth–and the science backs up that assertion. Since his speech, the Dalai Lama has “helped recruit Tibetan Buddhist monks for, and directly encouraged research on the brain and meditation in the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.” The head of the program, the well-known and highly regarded Professor of neuroscience, Richard Davidson, published a summary in 2008 on the key elements of how Buddhism and meditation are actually scientifically proven to improve the functioning of the brain. According to Davidson, research indicates that,  “over the course of meditating for tens of thousands of hours, the long-term practitioners had actually altered the structure and function of their brains.”

As Davidson stated in 2008, “Neuroplasticity is a term that is used to describe the brain changes that occur in response to experience. There are many different mechanisms of neuroplasticity ranging from the growth of new connections to the creation of new neurons. When the framework of neuroplasticity is applied to meditation, we suggest that the mental training of meditation is fundamentally no different than other forms of skill acquisition that can induce plastic changes in the brain.” He said this in 2008. Since then, the data that have been gathered have made it crystal clear: we can, in fact, change our brains, and doing so involves mindfulness meditation techniques that have been around for thousands of years.

Lisa Wimberger, author of Neurosculpingand founder of the Neurosculpting Institute, has studied the science of elasticity in the brain for years (check out a brief podcast from SoundsTrue here) and explains it quite well:

In the last few decades the concept of neuroplasticity has taken hold of the science community.  We agree now that our brains are malleable, waxing and waning in their structure and function, and ever changeable.  NOW we know it’s even more plastic than that!  Not only can we birth new brain cells, and strengthen existing ones, we also have the power to manipulate the neurotransmitters released from those cells.  The messengers themselves are forever morphing based on the brain’s needs.  Daylight affects how and where we produce dopamine and extra excitation can cause cells to switch the neurotransmitters they produce so the cell becomes quiet.  Down to the very last components, our brains are dynamically changing with each thought and action.  Every belief you have causes a structural and functional change in the brain.”

Rick Hanson, one of my favorite authors on the subject explains neurosplasticity thus:

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Some great links from Dr. Hanson: Buddha’s Brain: The New Neuroscience and the Path of Awakening ☯ Web site resources an embarrassment of riches for info on the brain ☯ Your Wonderful Brain  a PDF on things you never knew about your brain but always wanted to know. Hanson’s view is focused mainly on the need to provide your brain with positive inputs–taking in the good as he calls it. Dwelling in those moments of happiness that the negatively biased brain tends to slough off (like teflon), as he explains in his book Hardwiring Happiness.

We know that those who meditate for years can actually change their brains for the better (as we’ve written previously). But as reported in cell.com, changes in the brain can be incredibly rapid.

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How rapidly does learning shape our brains? When novices are taught to juggle over a period of weeks to months, for example, this increases gray matter volume and changes white matter organization in brain systems involved in visuomotor coordination. But a 2012  study concludes that uses diffusion magnetic resonance imaging in both humans and rats, suggests that just two hours of spatial learning is sufficient to change brain structure…  [source]

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According to recent research, we can actually change our brain’s structure really quickly. Just by playing a video game, for example. According to the summary of this study, researchers offer the first evidence that rapid structural plasticity can be detected in humans after only two hours of playing a video game ( Sagi et al., 2012):

We continue to learn new skills and refine our existing abilities throughout life. To what extent does this ongoing learning shape our brain structure? We know from studies of highly skilled populations that the brains of experts are unusual: London taxi drivers have a larger posterior hippocampus, for example (Maguire et al., 2000), which presumably supports their unrivalled skills in navigating the labyrinthine streets of the city. However, these experts have experienced many years of training, and such cross-sectional studies can always potentially be explained by preexisting differences in brain structure that determine our behavior. Longitudinal studies, in which the same individuals are followed over time, provide more direct insights into how experience shapes the brain. When novices are taught to juggle over a period of weeks to months, for example, this increases gray matter volume and changes white matter organization in brain systems involved in visuomotor coordination (Draganski et al., 2004 and Scholz et al., 2009).

So experience shapes brain structure and neuroimaging provides us with a window into this structural change in humans. But how rapidly do such changes occur? Human studies of structural plasticity to date have considered periods of weeks to months of training. Yet experiments in nonhuman animals suggest that structural remodeling is a rapid, dynamic process that can be detected over much shorter timescales. Two-photon microscopy studies in rodents, for example, reveal increases in the number of dendritic spines in motor cortex within 1 hr of training on a novel reaching task (Fu and Zuo, 2011).

The one thing that seems consistent across all the research is that one has to practice mindfulness meditation fairly consistently for it to “stick.” There are so many possibilities for helping those with disorders–from  neurological to the neurotic. As it turns out, people in the Eastern part of the world have known this for a little while now… 😉

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness

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