Until recent years, the story of your brain was pretty discouraging. When I was getting my degree in Cognitive Science in the 1980s, I was told what you may have heard: you are born with billions of brain cells. Your brain sets like concrete as you become an adult. Neurons die throughout your lifetime, and then you die. So suck it up!Neuroscience is rewriting the story of your brain to be much more encouraging. Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to rewire and restructure itself due to learning and experience. Few scientists believed in neuroplasticity until recent years. Now the consensus is clear: under the right circumstances your brain physically and significantly changes throughout your life.
One dramatic example of this comes when a person loses sight as an adult due to an injury, and learns to read braille. Portions of the brain devoted to visual processing shrink dramatically. The portion of the brain involved with processing touch on the right index finger grows substantially.
Many other examples and studies document the significant ability of our brains to rewire. It doesn’t take a significant injury or incident to rewire your brain. Maguire and colleagues reported on a study of London cabbies whose brains changed in response to learning the complex map of the city. As described below in detail, simply learning something new and challenging will likely do it.
Significant brain changes don’t happen overnight, but we don’t have to wait a lifetime, either. Studies have shown physical changes in human brains in a few months and even weeks. For example see the 2006 study by Draganski and colleagues on brain structure changes during extensive learning. Science is clear we can re-wire, IF we have the right mindset.
Adopt a Growth Mindset.
Neuroplasticity means we all should adopt what Stanford professor Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset. She divides people into two groups.
- Those with a fixed mindset believe that their talents are essentially set. People don’t significantly change once they are adults. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
- Those with a growth mindset know that real change happens all the time. With the right focus and repetition, brains rewire to enhance or add pathways that result in new skills, knowledge, and habits.
Dweck’s work shows that choosing a growth mindset is extremely important. It’s not what you know as much as how you grow. By choosing a growth mindset, you open the door to continued learning and change all of your life. You open the door to rewriting the story of your brain.
Choosing a growth mindset means you continue to learn new knowledge, skills, and behaviors. You can improve your brain’s ability to do your current job and prepare your brain for your next role.
So what do you need to do to most effectively rewire your brain? Perhaps surprisingly, it starts with relaxation.First, relax.
Excess stress kills neurons, the opposite of the brain change most of us want! To be primed for learning and growth, you need to feel safe and relaxed. To relax under stressful conditions, try visualizing or focusing on your breathing. Both are scientifically shown to reduce stress.
Exercise is fantastic for brain function, learning, and managing stress. When your body is active, it produces more brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which acts like fertilizer for brains. As John Cacioppo explains, social connections are a huge factor in happiness, which leads to better brain function. Why not combine exercise and social connection? For your next meeting with one other person, try going on a walk.
REACH to rewire.Once you are relaxed, then you need to REACH to rewire. Neuroplasticity requires several things that I’m summarizing with the acronym REACH:
- Repetition. You must do something repeatedly to significantly rewire your brain.
- Effort. You must put in significant effort. The activity can’t be easy for you. You have to care about the activity.
- Attention. You must focus and sustain rapt attention on the activity.
- Complexity. The more complex and challenging the activity, the more rewiring you’ll get.
- Health. Eat, sleep, and exercise well to keep your body and brain healthy and ready for growth. Shaar and Britton suggest 50 specific activities for maintaining healthy habits, including ways to build a growth mindset.
Once you have rewired your brain, you need to keep using the new circuits to keep them. It’s “use it or lose it” for your brain as well as your muscles. I prefer the phrase “work it or waste it,” to reinforce the fact that challenge and effort help rewire your brain and strengthen your new neural networks.
Learning one new thing helps keep the neuroplasticity ‘machinery’ in your brain working well. In addition, Smith and colleagues suggest that the the richer your neural networks or cognitive reserve, the more protected you are against cognitive decline as you age.
How do you want to grow?
Neuroplasticity means that you can rewrite the story of your brain. Now that you understand your brain’s ability to rewire, how do you want to use this knowledge? You can change who you are by what you think and do. You can even change using your imagination. Doidge discusses changes in the brain coming from simply imagining doing an activity, including the political prisoner Sharansky who became a chess expert by playing mental games of chess as a way to survive solitary confinement. So imagine, think, and do! How do you want to grow? Who do you want to be?
Write a Neuroplasticity Plan.
Write your own neuroplasticity plan. Pick one activity to focus on for one month. Work on it intensely every day and you will see your ability develop. Choose something complex and challenging, but possible. Pick a task where you can see progress. Notice as it becomes easier through the month. Share your plan publicly to increase your level of commitment.At the end of the month you may choose to keep going developing that skill or knowledge, or you may choose something completely different. As long as you are REACHing, you’ll be rewiring your brain. You’ll also be keeping your neuroplasticity ‘machinery’ active in your brain, improving your ability to keep growing your whole life.
As one example, my brother Bill and I are both working on playing guitar leads for the first time in our middle-aged lives. Both of us could hardly play a single note when we started. But with repetition, effort, and attention we are developing this complex skill. We are taking good care of our health so our brains can rewire most effectively. Because playing a musical instrument involves so much of your brain , we know we will achieve numerous benefits from this learning. I recently just played my first guitar solo ever with my band, something I would have though unthinkable just a year ago.
REACH to rewire your brain and achieve your goals, whatever they are.
Cacioppo, J. T., Berntson, G. G., (2005). Social Neuroscience: Key Readings (Key Readings in Social Psychology). New York: Psychology Press.
Cotman, C. W. & Engesser-Cesar, C. (2002). Exercise enhances and protects brain function. Exercise & Sport Sciences Reviews, 30(2), 75-79.
Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books.
Draganski, B., Gaser, C., Kempermann, G., Kuhn, H. G., Büchel, C. & May, A. (2006). Temporal and spatial dynamics of brain structure changes during extensive learning. Journal of Neuroscience, 26(23): 6314-6317.
Gómez-Pinilla1, F., Ying1, Z., Roy, R. R., Molteni1, R. & Edgerton, V. R. (2002). Voluntary exercise induces a BDNF-mediated mechanism that promotes neuroplasticity. Journal of Neuroplasticity, 88(5), 2187-2195.
Hannan, C. K. (2006). Neuroscience and the impact of brain plasticity on Braille reading. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 100(7), 397-413.
Levitin, D. J. (2007). This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. New York: Plume Books
Maguire, E. A., Gadian, D. G., Johnsrude, I. S., Good, C. D., Ashburner, J. Frackowiak, S. J. & Frith, C. D. (2000). Navigation-related structural changes in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97(8), 4398-4403.
Maguire, E. A., Woollett, K. & Spiers, H. J. (2006). London taxi drivers and bus drivers: A structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Hippocampus, 16(12), 1091-1101.
Merzenich, M. (ongoing). On the Brain” with Dr. Mike Merzenich, Ph.D. Blog. Includes, for example, an article titled The brain plasticity revolution.
Sapolsky, R.M. (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Third Edition. New York: Holt.
Shaar, M.J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press.
Smith, G. E., Housen, P., Yaffe, K., Ruff, R., Kennison, R. F., Mahncke, H. W., & Zelinski, E. M. (2009). A cognitive training program based on principles of brain plasticity: Results from the Improvement in Memory with Plasticity-based Adaptive Cognitive Training (IMPACT) study. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 57(4), 594–603. Abstract.
Brain wiring courtesy of Patrick Hoesly
Succulent bulbs courtesy of E.J. Posselius
Relax courtesy of lululemon athletica
Reach! courtesy of Woodley wonderworks
Learning on the guitar courtesy of Andy Bullock
Your suggestion that people keep learning makes me think of Coursera — “World’s Best Courses – Online – For Free.” I haven’t tried it yet, but I have a friend who has taken the course on Sustainability, and I think it’s fair to say that she has found it a REACHing experience.
There are ones coming up on astronomy, drugs and the brain, the language of Hollywood, How to reason and argue, and lots more.
Thank you. I like your REACH summary… it’s memorable.
This article is a nice summary on the general discussion of choosing a goal and sticking with it long-term for the greater overall benefit, not just the immediate gratification.
Thanks much for this.
I want to thank everyone for reading, commenting, tweeting, etc. It’s been extremely gratifying to know that at least some people found this useful.
Thanks so much all of you and don’t hesitate to get in touch if I can answer any questions.
Thank you, Scott,for this wonderful and inspiring article. It is much appreciated, a valued perspective, and very important reinforcement for our whole health and well being through life. Cheers! Elaine