Written by Dr Arien van der Merwe
In a nutshell
- What is neuroplasticity?
- How does enhancing neuroplasticity and the new field of epigenetic restructuring support each other?
- Can we all use the principle of enhancing and encouraging our neuroplasticity?
- Mind and brain – sending it out to myself, to others close and far away
- What is the opposite of neuroplasticity? – i.e. my term ‘neurorigidity?
- What is the default setting running our mental programs? – lack, scarcity, growing old, weak and sick is just the way it is, or do I believe in an abundant universe – only if I decide to change my old programming based on very old beliefs? Musical chairs principle – I’m the one being left out
- Key ingredient for developing and maintaining neuroplasticity: willingness – deep and sincere into the marrow of your bones – there must be another way, rather than this (‘life sucks and then you die’ of old age and its evil twin, disease)
- Practical ways to change your grooves to dance to a new rhythm – or teaching an old dog new tricks
- Physical – eat, drink, move. Health insurance top up policy – additional cover (basic supplements: antioxidant, calcium & magnesium in amino acid chelate with vitamin C, D, boron; omega 3 fish oil)
- Mental – challenge those networks, prevent rigidity of thinking, believing, behaving. Notes on meditation – pause, become still, relax a while
- Emotional – choose peace, happiness and joy – our birth right. Informational substances
- Spiritual – deliberately increasing our feel good peptides using the 3Ps (Practice, Patience, Perseverance), EPS (Emotional Positioning System) and ways to lift into the higher frequencies or vibrations. Basics of 3 levels (conscious, subconscious, superconscious) of mind – open up to superconscious mind support and lightening up
Neuroplasticity is all about the incredible ability of our brains to adapt to situations, being malleable like clay. And by incredible, I mean exactly that. We tend to think of our brains as static and unchangeable. Nothing could be further from the truth! Your brain is the most exercise-able body part you have and is FAR easier to develop than calf muscles! A stronger, healthier brain (leading of course, to a healthier body in any case) is also worth so much more than body builder muscles. You can learn to retrain and rewire your brain to serve you rather than hold you back – teaching an ‘old’ dog new tricks, so to speak and remembering all of your potential.
Our brains are amazingly adaptable. It never ever stops learning, depending on how your mind set (rigid, stagnant or flexible, adaptable, keen to learn) supports this natural ability, of course. It changes because it constantly optimises itself, reorganizing itself by transferring cognitive abilities from one lobe to the other, particularly as you age. After a stroke, for instance, your brain can reorganize itself to move functions to undamaged areas of the brain.
A little background information:
Old thought: ‘In adult centres the nerve paths are something fixed, ended, immutable. Everything may die, nothing may be regenerated’, written by Prof Santiago Cajal in his 1928 publication ‘Degeneration and Regeneration in the Nervous System’.
He believed that brain neurons were unique because they, of all cells in the human body, lacked the ability to regenerate.
New thought: published by the journal Nature Medicine already in 1998, a report indicating that neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells), does indeed occur in humans.
As Sharon Begley wrote in her book ‘Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain’, ‘….the discovery overturned generations of conventional wisdom in neuroscience. The human brain is not limited to the neurons it is born with, or even the neurons that fill in after the explosion of brain development in early childhood’.
Within each of our brains there is a population of neural stem cells which are continually replenished and able to differentiate into different brain neurons. We can all do our own brain stem cell renewal and regrowth therapy every moment of our lives, by opening up to new learning, new experiences, exploring new horisons, possibilities, or elsewhere of thought! The ‘how’ is what my workshop on this topic, is all about.
We lead busy lives, often on autopilot, therefore we almost never pay any attention to the fact that we can retrain our brains at any given stage. In medical terms, this ability of our brains to send the troops where help is needed so to speak, is called neuroplasticity. Plasticity means ‘mouldable’ or malleable, with the ability to form new patterns and shapes, like clay or play dough. This is the potential that the brain has to reorganise by creating new neural pathways to adapt, as needed.
Let’s get down to business!
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to form new neural connections throughout life. This inherent ability of brain neurons, allows the nerve cells in the brain and body to compensate for injury and disease while adjusting their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment, leading to changes in behaviour, thinking and emotions throughout life. The concept of neuroplasticity is not new and mentions of a malleable brain go back to the 1800s. However, with the modern capability to visually see into the brain, as allowed by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), science has confirmed this incredible transforming and adaptability of the brain.
The concept of a changing brain has replaced the formerly held belief that the adult brain was a physiologically static organ or hard-wired after critical developmental periods in childhood. While it’s true that your brain is much more malleable during the early years and capacity declines with age, plasticity happens throughout life.
Neuroplasticity makes your brain extremely resilient and is the process by which all permanent learning takes place, such as learning to walk, drive, playing a musical instrument or mastering a different language. Neuroplasticity also enables people to recover from stroke, injury and birth abnormalities, overcome autism, ADHD, learning disabilities and other brain challenges, heal depression and addictions and reverse obsessive compulsive patterns.
Use it, or lose it: similar to resistance training and physical exercise building muscles, nerve cells in the brain are growing and cross linking with other neurons for better communication, through mental exercise and continuous learning – mind training to develop new ‘elsewheres’ of thought, really new thinking – not rehashing old, often negative memories and traumatic experiences from the past and projecting these into the future. For new manifestations, new beliefs and attitudes, we have to retrain and refire our brains, change out of our comfort zones of neural networks stuck in old grooves (those that can still remember LP’s) to create a new physical reality for ourselves, according to our thoughts, beliefs (innermost feelings of joy, love, happiness and deep peace)…to explore, experience and evolve into all we’re meant to be until we’re at least 120 years old! There’s also such a thing as negative neuroplasticity (neurorigidity), where you keep on doing what you’ve always done, with the results you’ve always been getting…not the ones you actually want! A Course in Miracles says we are far too tolerant of our mind wanderings, and Einstein said that the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and always expecting a different result. If we want to experience positive neuroplasticity, the first step is a willingness to change, and that’s easier said than done, for human beings love things to stay the same, even if old behaviour patterns are not working, at least they’re familiar!
Requirements for mind training
Key: Willingness to change! If you’re content in your rigid stuckness, resisting change, insisting things stay the same, or saying to yourself that you’re too old to learn new things, or develop new abilities, then neuroplasticity mind training is not for you. But softening your mind, at least considering the possibility, yielding in willingness to change, then a whole new world opens to you!
Once the willingness is there, the next step is focused attention to become aware of old behaviour based on past memories with their accompanying emotional load, then determination and diligence to change the old patterns and maintaining overall brain health, remembering the 3P’s (practice, patience and perseverance) and the 1GNF (good natured flexibility mostly with yourself!). Keep on practising, day after day, stumbling and falling and getting up until you find longer periods of peace, joy and happiness – the key ingredients for a brain to remain malleable. Cells that fire together, wire together: what actually changes in the brain are the strengths of the connections of neurons that are engaged together, moment by moment, in time. The more something is practiced, the more connections are changed and made to include all elements of the experience (sensory information, movement, cognitive patterns). You can think of it like a new software program being formed for that particular behaviour, which allows it to be performed with remarkable facility and reliability over time. Remember when you started to drive and having to remember everything, then after a while it became completely automatic and easy? You practised and finally it became a known and automatic software program. Problem is we do the same thing with programs that don’t serve us any longer, and the challenge then is to change the old programming and relearn new programming. This takes determination and practice (or the 3P’s).
Beware though, you can’t stay too content or self-satisfied in the newly learned ability, otherwise that becomes a rigid pattern! Time to explore once again, learning a new skill, a new creative activity. Challenging yourself is the name of the mind training game!
We have about 60 000 thoughts a day (not sure who counted them, but research says it’s so J). 98% of those are repetitions of old thoughts with their associated emotional loads from the past, or one’s own beliefs mostly based on others’ beliefs, with the continuous mental interference from TV (negative news – good news not being news!), violence, action, drama.
Instead of using our thoughts to create or invent new ideas, to ask for answers to life’s great mysteries, we waste them on trivial, insignificant, thoroughly meaningless things, such as endless repetition of our old story dramas, articles about ‘how to keep your man’, ‘how to lose fat fast’, ‘6 new sexual positions’, and so on ad nauseam. If the millions of readers of women’s magazines, would rather focus their thoughts on asking: what can I do to rewire my brain, to encourage my own neuroplastic creativity, connect to my own soul, my deeper, authentic, whole self? How could I spread more love and blessings into the world? Focusing concentrated thought on issues like these will become an unstoppable force for good, all our big problems we are so afraid of, would be solved in a year!
New science shows all the exciting possibilities: training new brain circuitry – from those with Alzheimer’s, dementia, to every day changing of old circuitry to making new networks –is completely possible! We don’t even have to believe it, but just be willing to do it!
Scientists now know that the brain has an amazing ability to change and heal itself in response to mental experience. This phenomenon (neuroplasticity) is considered to be one of the most important developments in modern science to understand that the brain is not fixed and unchangeable, as was once thought, but can create new neural pathways to adapt to its needs. This has led to an explosion of interest in the power of brain training to improve our focus, memory attention and performance.
Calm your mind, improve your neuroplasticity
Daily meditation – relearning (as babies and young children we were able to relax easily) to calm the mind into mental stillness, moving the monkey chatter mind to the back burner for a while. Start with as little as 5 minutes morning and evening to retrain your brain into relaxed awareness – staying in alpha rhythm and later in theta rhythm while awake (read more about meditation). Learn to pay attention to the present moment. A still mind is relaxed, but alert. Constantly bring your attention consciously back to the present moment for the relaxing brain benefits.
Find your anchor
Bring your attention back to a chosen object (such as a candle, tree, flower, crystal, word) or your breath. If your mind wanders, as it is bound to do, gently bring it back to your anchor. Your mind will stay close to your chosen object despite any other mental activity going on.
Relaxing the mind is about resting, ceasing mental activity for a while. We have to relearn this as it is a skill most of us have forgotten once we leave our childhood years. The good news is that we can reconnect to it through the 3 P’s. Sit, then deliberately relax by alternately tensing and relaxing your muscles (first calf muscles, then thighs, buttocks, hands, lower arms, upper arms, neck and shoulders), then focus on your breathing, making it deep and slow. Sit down, rather than lying down, otherwise you’ll fall asleep, as this is the only familiar link to relaxation we have – i.e. sleeping, when our brain slows down to alpha (relaxed but still aware), then theta (dream sleep) then delta (dreamless sleep)). Then repeat to yourself: I have nowhere to go, nothing to do, just be here now, relaxing. Repeating this faithfully, every day, will make it a conscious skill that will become a brain habit of healing neuroplasticity in due course, and like brushing your teeth, it will simply become a part of your healthy habits and behaviour.
Becoming a human being rather than a human doing, to HEAL – intentionally choose, feel and internalise positive experiences into cell memories – from mind, to brain, to body.
Heart – it’s more than a pump! It is also a brain, informing the brain and body in a 24/7 communication network, as well as an endocrine organ with an electromagnetic field extending at least 10 meters around the body
Change the rhythm of your heart to a calm, peaceful frequency to affect the rhythm of your brain and body, sending feelings of peace and love to every cell. This is the best neuroplastic tool of all! Use your free will to notice feelings of distress (anger, fear, worry, despondency, frustration, or symptoms in your body) in the present. Then deliberately change it to feelings of a higher frequency (love, joy, happiness, gratitude), the brain and health enhancing vibrations. You can do this by becoming more aware of your present mode, recent events, or ongoing conditions, the people in your life, tuning into your body and inner speech, and thinking about or imagining positive memories, emotions, and actions using your emotional positioning system (EPS). Even our perceptions of the past is malleable. We can choose to remain stuck in old, trapped emotions of past hurts, injuries, regrets, sadness or guilt, or we can choose to focus on the good memories of the past, the love and laughter, without nostalgia or yearning for the past, of course.
Emote it – feel it.
Use emoticons or draw your own (simple ones!), to first feel the negative or low, frequency and then deliberately changing it to a positive one. Notice the difference in the 2 vibrations. Which ones will enhance neural cross networking? Breathe in the calming, relaxing or safe feeling/emotions.
Apply it – make it your own.
This step heightens the installation of the good experience by prolonging and intensifying neural activity which builds new neural structure. This involves sensing or visualising that the good feelings are dropping into you like penetrating, soft rain. Stick with it – 3P’s!
Love – the answer.
Switch thoughts from fear based to love. This really takes some practice as we’re hardwired for stress from our old survival brain. Hold both positive and negative emotions in your awareness, while choosing to keep the positive more prominent. You can feel a positive emotion while also feeling a negative emotion at the same time, but in the background or back burner of the sotve. Know that the two are not mutually exclusive.
3P’s: Practise, patience, perseverance! Just keep on doing it, if you stumble, get up and simply go on, taking in the good will strengthen, shape and sustain new neuronal pathways to build a responsive brain with a more optimistic and resilient mindset. Repeating positive affirmations lead to neural stimulation – e.g. I am always happy, I am always well, always always always – combine this with physical movement like walking or dancing, to ingrain into cell memories.
Left brain and right brain: you have a whole brain!
Brain training will allow left and right sides to work together. Learning and practising activities that get us out of our comfort zones and force us to use both hemispheres, will help us to become more proficient at whole brain thinking, and from there to a mind that extends much wider that the physical brain. This will have a pay-it-forward effect on our bodies and the rest of our lives, while also inspiring others around us.
Brain training and rewiring for whole brain function
For the mind
- Allow your mind to wander or drift, daydream, doodle, write down your dreams in a special journal upon awakening
- Meditate. Simply relax into beingness, into non-doing, simply sitting, floating, observing any thoughts passing like clouds across a clear blue sky. Stress is the biggest enemy of neuroplasticity. Brainwave entrainment helps us to move into a deeply relaxed theta brain wave state (dream sleep) to help us put aside intrusive thoughts while attempting to meditate. The music stills the mind and guides it through the various brain wave patterns down to the theta brainwave pattern. Ocean, whale, dolphin and other nature sounds can assist in the process of total mental relaxation.
- Mindfulness meditation helps you to focus on the present moment – when you walk, walk! Experience your environment with all your senses. Breathing exercises are great for mindfulness practice.
- Listen to music – upbeat when you’re feeling low, slow, flowing and beautiful when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed
- Challenge your brain: word games, Sudoku, bridge, read, do online courses – expand knowledge base, learn new language, learn new skill, puzzles, crossword, knitting, sowing, crocheting
- Use positive affirmations, speak them out loud, engage in good conversation
- Break your routine – brush teeth non-dominant hand, take different route to work
- Organise and tidy up your stuff
- Beginner’s mind: look at the world around you with childlike wonder, as though seeing things for the first time
For the body and mind
- Sleep 8 hours in quiet and darkness to improve thinking, concentration and mood
- Powernap – 10-20 minutes in afternoon to rebalance brain rhythms
- Exercise: yoga (GABA – ¯depression), walking, dance, cardio, resistance training to encourage muscle mass, doing movements that encourage cross linking of brain networks, are excellent and very enjoyable (such as dancing the Macarena!)
Food for thought (some examples)
- Spices to prevent neurodegeneration diseases (e.g. Alzheimer’s) – cinnamon, sage, cumin, cilantro, ginger
- Dark chocolate (70-90% cacao)
- Herbs: Ginkgo biloba
- Use almond, oat or coconut milk
- Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, lettuce
- Avocados, olive oil and coconut oil
- Eat more cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and brussel sprouts. Studies have shown that people who eat a lot of cruciferous vegetables and leafy greens have a slower rate of cognitive decline.
- Eat berries (raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, red berries, etc) regularly
- Omega 3 as found in fish like salmon, sardines, trout, pilchards and cod liver oil, also lentils, flax seeds, chick peas, etc.
- Nuts (walnuts and pecan nuts even look like the brain!), protein (eggs, fish, lean meat, chicken, ostrich)
- Water – 250ml (1 glass) for every 10kg in body weight.
- Antioxidants, folic acid, B-vitamins, choline, inositol, quercetin (neuroprotective) – onions, garlic, apples with skin
- Resveratrol (red wine, green and other tea, parsley, sage)
- Complex carbs – alertness, ↑ATP (energy)
- Good quality ground coffee – 1-3 cups a day for caffeine and antioxidants – stimulation and alertness
Uplifting activities for mind and emotions
- Laughter has a natural healing capacity. It reduces stress and produces an overall sense of wellbeing. Laughter can move us into a positive frame of mind. Laughing to mentally challenging and complex humour involving paradoxes and surprising twists and turns increases neuroplastic abilities
- Be creative – painting, sculpting, knitting, gardening, crocheting, drawing with non-dominant hand – challenge right brain for whole brain development. Painting, sculpting, pottery, use colours and textures
- Challenge yourself to think in new ways, questioning your beliefs and thinking about new things and new perspectives. Even activities such as juggling, tango dancing and 3 dimension puzzles challenge the brain by making simultaneous demands on both hemispheres, known as whole brain thinking
- Imagine and visualise – close your eyes, think about a lemon, its colour, feel it in your hand, feel the texture, then slice it in quarters, take a bite of 1 quarter and feel your salivary glands contract – this is your own wonderful imagination! You can use it to feel better, uplifted, lighthearted any time any place – choose where you place your focus – favourite activities, places you’ve been or want to visit, people you love
- Brain plasticity exercises – try new ones all the time to challenge your brain and prevent complacency, laziness and being stuck in a rut. Examples are puzzles, Sudoku, chess, card games, memory games, computer games where skill and memory are involved
We are creative beings – becoming enthralled and engrossed in creative activity might be the best tool for rewiring and refiring our lazy brains!
All the many tools and techniques mentioned above are only some examples of the vast buffet of options available to you to support and enhance your neuroplasticity.
Ultimately, you and your mind are the architect of your brain. When you change your beliefs, learn something new or become mindful of your habitual reactions to unpleasant emotions, you actually alter the neurochemistry and the structure of your brain.
Learning is much more than just receiving new information and gaining knowledge from other people. It’s also about the path of continuous growth and living a more optimal life where you are free from habitual addictions (sugar, food, alcohol – to name a few), behaviours and beliefs, better able to learn and grow from your direct experience. Your brain and its neuroplastic ability (meaning able to rewire, relearn and re-form) and your own willingness to meaningfully interact, puts you in total control (from a soulful, rather than an egocentric, perspective).
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