The exciting nerdiness of neuroplasticity!


In 1928, a brain researcher definitively stated that as a brain aged it got “stuck” or set in its ways, and we believed that for a long time. In 1980, however, a young doctor named Ian Robertson was puzzled by the improvement of people with recent strokes. It didn’t fit the accepted idea that the adult brain was done learning & changing. He discovered that this old idea was wrong.  “I can look back on giving lectures at Edinburgh University to students where I gave wrong information, based on the dogma which said that, once dead, a brain cell cannot regenerate and plasticity happens in early childhood but not later,” he says.

The best-selling book “The Brain That Changes Itself” outlines the field of neuroplasticity.  It is a very interesting read, but the way-over-simplified bottom line is “our thoughts can change the structure and function of our brains”.  If you read that again, you might agree with me that it is amazing.  We can change the physical structure of our brains by changing what we think???  It’s incredible, but true.  Studies of brain scans in the 1990’s even showed increased brain mass in areas that were frequently used.  This meant the brain wasn’t just learning or changing but actually growing!

Is this a magic cure?  Is this finally proof that  positive thinking “works”?  Yes & no, actually.  No one’s brain grew or improved by thinking alone.  Stroke patients who could no longer speak had to try to speak for thousands of hours, not just think about speaking.  Musicians had to play, not think about playing, to grow the sections of their brains that controlled their finger movements.  So, positive thinking, without action, has not been proven to do anything except maybe drive your friends crazy.  However, negative thinking typically forestalls action entirely, which also never produces change.  So, it seems positive thinking is necessary, but not sufficient.

In a way, this ruins the whole excitement of neuroplasticity.  It turns it into “practice something and you’ll get better at it”.  Duh.  But, upon reflection (a tip of the hat here to mirror neurons), that’s not really accurate.  It really means something much more profound.  We can do the things we can do because our brain is physically wired to enable us to do them, whether that is ride a bike, read a book, or rock a boat (kinda weak, but I like the alliterative poetry of it…).  This physical wiring is what makes things that used to be difficult seem easy.  Because of this, we tend to think that we are the puppet and our brain is the puppet master.  We think we can only do what our brains “allow” us to do.  The underlying essence is that we are a victim.  If only I was born rich, or went to better schools, or had better genetics, blah blah blah.  But this new evidence of neuroplasticity puts the lie to that.  Our brain is the victim, and we are the boss.  We decide what our brain gets wired to do, and it has no choice but to follow our lead and learn it.

That bears repeating.  WE decide what our brains are capable of doing.  It may not be easy, fun or quick, but it IS up to us.  We are not victims.

But it takes three key ingredients:  1) Decision, 2) action, and 3) repetition.

I think most people know about action & repetition, and the science of neuroplasticity shows that these remain true even as you age.  But how do you get yourself to do an action repetitively?  You make a Decision.  I capitalize it to signify it as a real, unbreakable, “burn the boats’ kind of Decision.  Not a “at least I have a safety net”, not “only if it is easy”, and certainly not a “well, I’ll try it out for a bit to see how it goes” kind of thing.  True Decisions, though, will take more writing than simply cramming onto the end of this post, so stay tuned…


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