With neuroplasticity, the power of change is at our fingertips6 min read


Our ability to adapt and change is rooted in the brain’s neuroplasticity – and therein lies the power of transformative self-renewal

Our subjective sense of wellbeing is affected by a whole range of factors, from the quality of our interpersonal relationships to the regulation of internal bodily processes, our sense of place in the world and the things we do that give us a sense of meaning and purpose.  Childhood experiences have a hugely influential role in how this all plays out, and it can often feel as though things are set in stone by the time we hit adulthood.  The reality is that neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to grow, adapt and change – gives us all the capacity to grow, adapt and develop across the span of our lives. And this means we can grow beyond the developmental harms embodied in our neural circuitry and enjoy transformative self-renewal, whatever our age.

The very real promise of plasticity

In a very real sense, our brain’s are physically sculpted by our childhood experiences. As we grow and our brains develop, the brain grows increasingly integrated across different domains, enabling communication between our cognitive and emotion centres and the effective regulation of emotional response. The greater the integration, the better the brain works. However, where parents are unable to provide optimal developmental support for their children, brain integration will be hampered. Among other things, this can affect the child’s ability to concentrate, regulate emotion, connect with people, cope with stress, and learn.  Ultimately, poor brain integration will impact upon the child’s emotional, cognitive and social development, persisting through adolescence and into adulthood in what Peter Fonagy calls a mysterious unfolding of disturbance across time.  It’s easy to see how the horizons of our everyday lives can be limited by the physical consequences of negative childhood experiences.

That said, the human brain also has incredible recuperative qualities. Neuroplasticity means that new positive and healthy experiences can actually repair and rewire the brain, and thus enhance our everyday lives. Even in adulthood, our brains are to some extent malleable with the capacity to establish new neural connections and deeper integration throughout the brain. This can mean improved self-esteem, more effective emotional regulation, enhanced executive function in the exercise of agency, greater clarity of thought, better decision-making, and more rewarding relationships [1].

Our greatest hope

The reality of neuroplasticity offers us the greatest hope – and provides the greatest evidence – that people can and indeed do change, even after experiencing extreme harm.   And while we can just leave things to chance, hoping our brains will somehow rewire themselves as things spontaneously fall into place [2], there’s overwhelming evidence that we can actively, consciously and deliberately reconstruct our own brains – and thereby enjoy tangible transformative self-renewal.  I call these deliberate, conscious and self-directed activities practices of transformative self-renewal, because they are things we choose to implement ourselves, rather than things that are done to us.

I don’t want to be overly prescriptive about what practices of transformative self-renewal will be best for you.  But here are some thoughts.

Relationships

Just as interpersonal relationships can create some of the problems that impair our everyday lives, healthy and supportive relationships can offer an arena for healing and reintegrating the neurological foundation of our lives. Healthy relationships can help us adapt our sense of what other people are like and create new ways of connecting with other people.  Evidence indicates this is precisely how counselling and psychotherapy work, because it’s an encounter with another person that allows us to grow and develop in a safe and supportive space, free from judgment, criticism or fear.

Meditation

You’ve likely heard of mindfulness meditation, a contemplative practice that can rebalance the brain and bring greater clarity, psychological flexibility, emotional balance, and awareness – what neuroscientist Dan Siegel calls mindsight [1].  Although nobody would claim mindfulness is a panacea, it has been shown to significantly alleviate depression and anxiety, while enhancing everyday life and fostering greater freedom at the level of lived-experience.

Similarly, metta meditation – commonly translated as loving-kindness meditation and hailed as as a radical act of love by Jon Kabat-Zinn  – is a practice the cultivates an attitude of kindness, friendliness and empathy, for oneself and for others.  The data’s in and the research shows people with social anxiety and depression experience a marked improvement in their everyday lives – and what’s not to like about a little more empathy, kindness and friendliness anyway?

Not quite meditation, but seven-eleven breathing is another simple practice that helps to rebalance the nervous system over the long-term, while offering immediate relief in the midst of stressful events.

Physical activities

Physical activities, like learning to juggle or dance will also create greater integration between the sensorimotor cortex, the memory centre and the area of the brain responsible for cognitive processing.

Learning

Learning any subject will prompt further neurodevelopment, and that includes learning about ourselves. We all rely upon beliefs, ideas and concepts to help us navigate our way around the world.  Therapeutic learning can help us reconstruct how we view ourselves, other people, and the world we live in, and integrate new perspectives into our individual worldviews.

Puzzles

Solving puzzles of any kind is hugely beneficial for left-right brain integration, recruiting our short-term memory, problem-solving skills, visual-spatial reasoning, and creative capacities.  Puzzle-solving also lowers our stress-levels, as focusing on a single complex task encourages our brains into a meditative state.

Practices of the Self

These are the things we choose to do that bring us joy or a sense of meaning and purpose. We know that socialising matters, as does having the opportunity to engage in creative activities and contributing to something greater than ourselves. But this will, of course, be a deeply personal choice. After all, I might enjoy volunteering with a conservation charity while you might prefer something of a musical nature, or something equally different. The point, of course, is to seek out opportunities that will enrich our lives not because we think we should, but because we want to.

The road to freedom

Although there are of course limits to what I’m suggesting, the therapeutic potential of neuroplasticity really can help us catalyse a transformative self-renewal. And, because it’s not prescriptive with a one-size-fits-all approach, the outcome for you will be as magnificently different for you as it is for me as it is for everyone else.


NOTES

[1]  Louis Cozolino’s The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy is an excellent exploration of how psychotherapy helps to remodel the brain.

[2]  And there’s no doubt that this can and does happen

[3]  Daniel J. Siegel (2010), Mindsight: the New Science of Personal Transformation. Bantam Books: New York.   While a powerful vehicle for repair and recuperation, neuroplasticity doesn’t have limitless potential.

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