Did you know it’s possible to change your mind?
You’re probably thinking, “Yes, my girlfriend does it all the time just to confuse me.”
Haha, yes, but that’s not what I mean. I am talking about changing habitual patterns of thinking so that you react differently to situations.
Also known as brain plasticity, neuroplasticity is the ability of neural networks in the brain to change and adapt through reorganization and growth.
The human brain has the capacity to reshape neural pathways between the brain and the body. When neuroscientists discovered this a little over a decade ago, it opened the door to exploring ways of biologically rewiring the brain.
Neural pathways are created in the brain by our habits and behaviours. They consist of neurones which process the information we receive from the external world. Connected neurones enable us to interact with the environment, as well as experience emotions and sensations. They create our memories and enable us to learn.
When we change the way we think and act, our impulses, instincts and views of the world change as well. In short, neuroplasticity gives us the power to prevent negative thoughts and encourage positive actions.
This is important because how we think has a profound impact on our lives. It dictates how we feel, what we do and what we say. How often do you do and say things you later regret?
How we think, feel and act create the experiences we have in life.
How Brain Plasticity Made Scientists Think Differently
Until the 1970s, neuroscientists believed the functions of the adult brain were hard-wired and could not be changed. The old way of thinking was people are what they are and will always be the same.
As it turns out, the old view was fundamentally flawed. And whenever evidence emerged to the contrary, the phenomenon was chalked down as exceptions to the rule.
Yes, you did read that right. When science cannot provide answers to contradictory evidence, the issue gets pushed to one side and described as a “phenomena.”
Forty years later, neuroplasticity is becoming widely accepted throughout the scientific community. Although it is still not fully understood, efforts are being made to help people literally change their patterns of thinking. This ultimately changes their patterns of behaviour.
An explanation given by a qualified psychologist and published in Health Transformer reads:
“When brain cells communicate frequently, the connection between them strengthens and “the messages that travel the same pathway in the brain over and over begin to transmit faster and faster.” With enough repetition, these behaviors become automatic. Reading, driving, and riding a bike are examples of complicated behaviors that we do automatically because neural pathways have formed.” ~ Deann Ware, Ph.D.
There are some extreme and fascinating case studies that have been performed under clinical conditions. And a great deal of evidence proves we can alter the way we think.
On a fundamental level, neuroplasticity means that anybody can change negative views into positive thoughts. By doing so, you will improve your mental and physical health. Negative thinking is self-damaging.
How does developmental neuroplasticity work?
Our neural pathways develop rapidly within the formative years of life. By the time a child is three years old, the brain has developed 15,000 synapses (channels from one brain cell to others) per neuron.
The average human brain has about 86 billion neurones.
Neurones perform multiple functions. They send information to the body telling it what to do, control the nervous system and basically tell us how to think and behave. The latter is based on external influences such as parents, education, media and general experiences in life.
When neural connections are reinforced by repetitive experiences, the signals become stronger, whilst brain cells that are not stimulated become weak. Underused neurons eventually fade away completely. But the brain has the capacity to grow more.
The strongest neural connections shape themselves into belief systems. As we get older, the information and experiences the brain processes become ingrained in our thinking. This is how we become creatures of habit.
Childhood is the most critical period for neural development. Our experiences during this time typically determine how we think, feel and act when we become adults.
From an early age, we are programmed with repetitive negative thoughts, mostly fuelled political and religious propaganda, which influences adults who then pass these negative ideas and limiting beliefs down to their children.
This negative thinking becomes a recurring cycle from generation to generation. Genes that prompt behaviour can also be passed down through generations. Just as neuroscientists found with brain neuroplasticity, frontier-scientists investigating epigenetics have discovered that genes can also be changed in relation to a person’s environment.
Your environment is determined by how you think.
Negative thoughts ingrain themselves into our neural pathways. As a result, we react out of habit. Sometimes erratically. Worry, paranoia, delusion and other fear-based reactions become the norm.
This brain activity takes place in the cerebral cortex, the cognitive brain that is responsible for emotion and thought. The cognitive brain is the emotional brain.
Although we cannot automatically order our brain to change how we feel instantly, there are methods of changing neural pathways so we can adapt to any given situation in a calm and positive manner.
The objective of neuroplasticity is to develop stronger connections from the left prefrontal Cortex that sends inhibitory signals to the amygdala.
The amygdala is in the centre of our brains and is essentially the control room. This is where our fight or flight mechanism is harboured. When the amygdala receives fear-based signals we react with negative emotions such as anger, anxiety or depression.
When you train your left prefrontal cortex to send positive signals, the amygdala will quieten down quicker and avoid you experiencing a sense of panic or other negative emotions. Neuroplasticity is the biological process of strengthening the signals.
Clinical evidence that neuroplasticity works
A series of clinical tests performed by neuroscientists prove that corresponding mental and physical exercises can help to reorganise the neural networks in the brain.
By doing so, people that previously thought something was not possible came to realise it is possible!
A study performed on seven patients in Germany that could not walk is a good example of how neuroplasticity can work.
The participants were harnessed from above and put on a treadmill. The movement of the treadmill became the mechanism for the actions their legs should take in order to walk.
Over a number of weeks, the physical sensation of walking became embedded on the mind and repaired the damaged part of the brain that believed they could not walk. Together with positive thinking, the neural pathways learned to understand the process of walking.
Of the seven patients that performed the study, three were able to walk independently, and another three could work under supervision. Only one failed to respond to neuroplasticity.
The potential for the brain to relieve suffering is real. Studies have garnered a growing body of evidence that brain cells can help cure Parkinson’s disease, cancer, strokes, depression, brain damage and much more.
Training the brain
Neuroscientists are now attempting to develop methods of training the brain. Techniques involve physical exercises, drug therapy and meditation. Let’s ignore the drug therapy for now. I am not convinced drugs will work anyway.
Physical exercises, on the other hand, put people in real-life situations whereby they can train their brain how to react. These exercises involve social situations, day to day activities, professional environments and any other reality patients are likely to find themselves in.
The military use neuroplasticity to train recruits. The video below about how the mind works demonstrates how the US Navy conditions the minds of trainees to act calmly when under pressure. They do this by putting them in life-threatening situations that train the brain how to react with composure.
Let’s try this one instead:
Physical exercises can be, and in my view should be, supported with mindfulness meditation exercises. Research shows there is a strong correlation between meditation and neuroplasticity.
Meditation strengthens the left prefrontal Cortex and can be used to build emotional resilience. This part of the brain is where we plan and imagine the future and exercise self-control.
It is also possible to attain moments of self-realisation during meditation or deep contemplation. By identifying your weaknesses and accepting you need to change, neuroplasticity can help you develop qualities of character that improve aspects of your life.
Furthermore, by using visualising techniques, you can imprint an image on the brain of how you want to see yourself. Remember I mentioned the prefrontal Cortex sends signals to the amygdala..?
The amygdala is in the same part of the brain where the pineal gland is housed – the limbic system. It is believed the pineal gland is the third eye, or the mind’s eye as it is more commonly known. This is a vital piece of machinery that helps us transform imaginative thoughts into physical reality.
The next time you meditate why not try training your brain. Even if you do not meditate in the traditional sense of the word, you can still try this exercise. Meditation is merely a term to mean concentration. If you prefer, just stare at a single point on the wall or ceiling.
Before getting into neuroplasticity training, it is a good idea to start with small changes. Peel away problems one by one. This way you will notice the difference and over time develop techniques that best work for you…
…but to get you started, follow this process:
- Think about something negative in your life (a current situation, a person you have ill feelings towards, a character flaw you want to change)
- Observe your thoughts and feelings about your subject
- Resist being drawn into feelings of negativity (anger, fear, worry etc.)
- Now think about the situation or feeling from a positive perspective and observe how the mind can exaggerate situations to make them appear worse than they actually are
- Think of a *positive affirmation and repeat it to yourself over and over. The best time to do this is in bed as you are settling down to sleep
*Positive affirmations should relate to whatever thought you want to change. Remember thoughts evoke emotions which provoke actions.
So if you are quick to anger, your affirmation should be something like “I am a calm and reasonable person. I have no reason to be angry.”
If you get angry with somebody for a particular reason, base your affirmation around that. During your contemplation, you should have observed a positive outcome to your situation. A thought, otherwise known as self–realisation or moment of enlightenment, should have popped into your head at this time. If so, use that thought as your affirmation – it came from your higher-conscious so you can trust it.
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