Neuroscience has proven that our brains are constantly changing in response to incoming stimuli from birth to death. In every moment of your life, everything of which you are aware – sounds, sights, thoughts, feelings – and even that of which you are not aware – unconscious mental and physical processes – are based in and can be directly mapped to neural activity in your brain. What you do, experience, think, hope and imagine physically changes your brain through what is called neuroplasticity. The neurological explanation of neuroplasticity gets involved, but the basic concept is simple: every minute of every day you are shaping your brain. While it’s true that the brain is much more plastic in the early years and capacity declines with age, neuroplastic change happens all throughout your life. Harnessing neuroplasticity as an adult does require extra effort and specific circumstances, but it can be done.
Neuroplasticity Can Help and Hurt You
Neuroplasticity follows what’s known as the “Hebbian rule.” Neurons that fire together wire together, meaning the connections between neurons get more easily activated and new neurons grow when they are repeatedly stimulated in a coordinated pattern. The reverse is also true. Neurons that don’t, won’t.
You’ve got a “use it or lose it” brain. Information rarely accessed and behaviors seldom practiced cause neural pathways to weaken until connections may be completely lost in a process called “synaptic pruning.”
Neuroplasticity can hurt or help your brain and your mental health. It’s just as easy to degrade your brain’s function as it is to improve it, intentionally or unintentionally. Dr. Michael Merzenich, one of the original UCSF scientists confirming neuroplasticity and author of Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life calls backward neuroplastic change “negative learning” and writes:
It is almost just as easy to drive changes that can impair one’s memory or slow down one’s mental or physical control as it is to improve one’s memory or speed up the brain’s actions.”
Neuroplastic change occurs in response to stimuli processed in the brain which can originate either internally, with mindfulness, meditation, visualization or externally, with behaviors and experiences.You can harness neuroplasticity at any age to improve your brain, mental health, and life.
At fifteen, Lisa Wimberger, who had been a healthy, active teenager woke up confused and scared on the bathroom floor after her first blackout. These blackouts continued undiagnosed until her thirties when she just happened to have one during a doctor’s appointment for a routine exam.
It was determined that she had a condition where her vagus nerve, responsible for regulating breathing and heart rate in the brain stem, would randomly trigger the freeze response. When this happened, Lisa’s heart rate dropped to the point it stopped beating, then her brain, deprived of oxygen and blood, would shut down.
When conventional medicine offered no answers or help for her episodes, Lisa harnessed the power of neuroplasticity through a regimen of meditation and life practices to heal herself. Her episodes of seizures and flatlining disappeared. She calls the practice she developed and teaches others “neurosculpting.”
In her book, “Neurosculpting,” Lisa explains the practice like this:
Neurosculpting is a mental training process that quiets our fight or flight center and activates our prefrontal cortex, which is the mind’s seat of compassion and empathy. It also engages left- and right-brain stimulation and incorporates somatic awareness for a whole-brain and whole-body approach to meditation and rewiring. It’s a lifestyle of day-to-day exercises, nutritional tenets, and meditations designed to allow dialogue between compartmentalized and silenced parts of ourselves. It involves learning about a brain supportive diet, exercising, and identifying and enhancing opportunities for neuroplasticity throughout your day…”
The 5 Steps
The Neurosculpting® practice involves five steps:
- Step One: Down-regulates hyperactive stress activity and an engagement with the parasympathetic response.
- Step Two: Enhances focused attention to support with emotional regulation.
- Step Three: Increases the activity between our analytical self and our intuitive feeling self.
- Step Four: Links somatosensory, bodily sensation-based, engagement to perceptual shifts in patterns.
- Step Five: Enables the user to easily identify and replicate the process in day-to-day activities
A Typical Neuro-aware Day
- Brush your teeth with your nondominant hand and think about one of your favorite mantras.
- Do a five-minute gratitude meditation in the shower that looks something like this:
- Breathe deeply with attention for a few rounds, noticing the way the lungs effortlessly fill and empty.
- Think of the concept of gratitude. I imagine what it looks like to be in gratitude, I spell it in my mind, and I remember a time in which I was filled with that sentiment.
- Assign a color, texture, or vibration to the concept of gratitude and imagine it located and vibrating in the center of your palms.
- Wash each part of your body while imagining the color of gratitude pouring out of your palms and filling up each body part.
- Eat a balanced breakfast on a plate at the table after saying a brief statement of gratitude for the food.
- Shake for a few minutes in the afternoon to help normalize excess stress from the morning.
- Brush your hair with your nondominant hand.
- Eat a balanced lunch on a plate at the table.
- Look or walk in an outside environment for at least five minutes.
- Exercise in a way you enjoy, such as taking a brisk walk or a fitness class you love. (You might prefer to do this in the morning.)
- Engage in a nondominant hand gesture or activity while choosing a mantra to think about.
- Eat a balanced dinner on a plate at a table a least a few hours before bedtime. Minimize carbohydrates in order to support a full and deep night’s sleep.
- Shake for a few minutes in the evening to help normalize excess stress from the afternoon.
- Shut off electronics or television an hour before bedtime.
- Do a ten-minute evening meditation that goes something like this:
- Breathe deeply with attention for a few rounds, noticing the way the lungs effortlessly fill and empty.Think of your daily stressors. That might be conversations you’ve had, people you interacted with, or emotions that came up and seem unresolved.Assign a color, texture, or even a vibration to each of these.Imagine where you might be holding these colors or textures in your own body.Create a receptacle in your mind’s eye in front of you and imagine your body releasing these colors into it.When you’re done notice if you perceive you’ve made more space in your body.Imagine a concept that works well for you, like restfulness, ease, grace, joy, or any other idea. You might remember a time when you felt this, or maybe you focus on the concept and its definition, maybe you even spell it out in your mind’s eye.Assign a color, texture, or vibration to this concept and imagine your body filling up with this as you prepare for sleep.
Neuroplasticity has implications for every aspect of human nature and culture including medicine, psychiatry, psychology, relationships, education, and more. Where it stands to have the most potential is for the individual in their own life. Because you can learn to consciously control your thinking, reactions, and behavior, and some of the experiences you have, you can oversee your own “self-directed neuroplasticity” and invite change and healing into your life.