Neuroplasticity: Are You Making A Masterpiece or Mess of Your Brain?

In every moment of your life, every single thing 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 experience-dependent neuroplasticity. The neurological explanation of how this happens is complicated, but the basic concept is simple: every minute of every day you are shaping your brain.  The question is: What are you making?  A masterpiece or a mess?

In his book, Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, Rick Hanson describes how to undertake the process of “developing a buddha brain one simple practice at a time.”  The book outlines 52 brief actions a person can do several times a day to craft a brain that is less stressed, happier and more resilient with a deeper sense of well-being.

Hanson writes:

There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes the shape it rests upon; the modern update is that the brain takes the shape the mind rests upon.  For instance, if you regularly rest your mind upon worries, self criticism, and anger, then your brain will gradually take that shape – will develop neural structures and dynamics of anxiety, low sense of worth, and prickly reactivity to others.  On the other hand, if you regularly rest your mind upon, for example noticing you’re all right right now, seeing the good in yourself and letting go…then your brain will gradually take the shape of calm strength, self confidence, and inner peace.

How Neuroplasticity Physically Happens

It almost seems too simple – too easy – and the concept is. However, harnessing neuroplasticity as an adult requires specific circumstances, including focus, dedication, and persistence, but it can be done. What you pay attention to, what you think and feel and want, and how you react and behave all physically shape your brain.

Hanson explains how neuroplasticity is accomplished:

  • Busy regions get more blood flow since they need more oxygen and glucose.
  • The genes inside neurons get more or less active; for example, people who routinely relax have improved expression of genes that calm down stress reactions, making them more resilient.
  • Neural Connections that are relatively inactive wither away; it’s a kind of neural Darwanism, the survival of the busiest, use it or lose it.
  • “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”  This saying from the work of Donald Hebb means that synapses – the connections between neurons – get more sensitive, plus new neurons grow, producing thicker neural layers.

Neuroplasticity works under the same conditions as physical exercise does for the body. A single Zumba class or one run is not going to make much difference.  However, the same practices done with consistency, over time, will gradually have noticeable, lasting effects on your body. The same is true for the practices which shape your brain.

It occurs to me that self-discipline, then, is not so much about control as it is about the conscious creation of yourself.

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/futurilla/

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43 Comments

  1. Stephen Gemmell Reply

    Hi Debbie, I agree absolutely – well, you knew I would 🙂
    The more I study thought and emotions, subconscious and conscious, the more I realise that not only does the power lie within but you can also consciously create. And it truly does work. With practice and repetition new habits form. Sometimes I can almost feel the neural changes happening. Amazing. Take care, Stephen

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Stephen, I think, self directed neuroplasticity is the magic wand we all have to reinvent ourselves and to create better lives for ourselves. I find it so empowering. It allowed me to go from being a victim to being a conscious creator. It does take time, but it does work!

  2. Neuroplasticity is certainly a fun topic to consider. If I were to choose a metaphor for what I’m creating in there, I believe it’s a county museum of art. The controlled, careful woodcuts of Albrecht Durer hang next to the emotional exuberance of Jackson Pollack. There’s also pop art and kitsch mixed in with classical and ancient pieces, but elegant mobiles by Calder hang above it all. They show movies in the auditorium, introduced by lecturers. There’s a small, high-quality cafe, and the gift shop is superb.

    I do go in all directions, but practicing stillness allows me to focus on one style at a time. I’m getting better at managing Acquisitions, so they occur internally and not materially.

    The one thing I would add to Hanson’s advice, which I fully agree with, would be to consider where you choose to live, especially if you are sensitive and prone to distraction as I am. In the first 27 years of my life I lived in small-to-medium sized places, populations of 10-100k. There was enough opportunity for a broad education, but not much danger of over-stimulation. Then I spent the next 29 in super-huge, super-crowded, superfast El Lay. I think I went a bit crazy from too much choice. In my two years here in this artsy, leftie, aging hippie town of 9k, I’ve felt so much freer from distraction. I’m in a wonderful phase of new growth and productivity.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Mikey, your brain is most definitly an interesting place. I have no doubt of that with all the vastly different topics about which you write. Your description of it is intriguing and entertaining. Makes me wonder how I would describe mine. Hmmmmm Have to give that one some thought.

      You bring out a very good point about considering where you live. Living in a big city would be my idea of hell. I do not want to even visit one if I do not have to. I would take this advice even further to consider your actual home, your work or any other environment in which you spend a great deal of time. Your mind is going to become a reflection of what is around you.

      Glad to hear you are finding some freedom and new growth!

  3. Simple, little things done consistently over a long period of time pay incredible benefits. Even doing something once has benefits, but they are very short-lived. We may never even recognize a change has occurred. Thanks for the info.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      They say at yoga that even a millimeter (stretching more) is progress. Over time, those millimeters add up! It is the same with neuroplastic changes in the brain. It does take time…years, even,….but anyone can change their brain with consistent, determined effort.

  4. Judy M. Hampton Reply

    Debbie, I love the visual image of an art gallery in my brain that Invisible Mikey paints. I’ll have to ponder what masterpieces are there and paint a few new ones, too. Great blog, as always. Mom

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      He does paint a colorful, interesting picture, doesn’t he? We’ll have to share what we think ours would look like with each other!

  5. Excellent article Debbie!
    Repetition, repetition, repetition! Focusing on things we can easily fit into our schedules that bring change and benefits to our lives bit by bit. Thank you for sharing this excellent info.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Thanks, Angela! Exactly. It does take determination, persistence and focus, but little efforts, every day do add up. In recovering from my brain injury, I had OCD, laser beam focus, over years, liteqally, which allowed me to achieve improvements. I would focus on something specifically, and it would improve. Anyone can do this. No brain injury required.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Very cool. Who would have ever thought? I am sure the implications of neuroplasticity have not yet begun to be even partially much less fully realized. If more people would just understand the most basic principals and truths of neuroplasticity and put it to use in their life, that is a step in the right direction in my book.

  6. Hi Debbie,

    Thank you for sharing the wonderful content that you do on your blog. I was just sent a link to your URL by a survivor buddy and I am beginning to explore. Looking forward to time well spent.

    Smiles : )

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Gary, thank you for your kind words! I hope you find a lot of useful information on here. I am convinced that, if you are willing to work at recovery, with neuroplasticity, anything is possible. Blessings to you!

  7. As a student of the Feldenkrais Method I am learning that the neuroplasticity taking place in my mind is greatly influenced by the way I move. While many years of ‘mindfulness/insight’ meditation proved to be very beneficial, the changes that have taken place during my last two years of somatic movement education have been exponentially life changing. Long before we could map the brain and look at its neural connections, Moshe Feldenkrais knew that by changing our posture, we could change our minds.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Yes, indeed. I am not familiar with the Feldenkrais Method. Sounds very interesting. I will look it up. Thank you for bringing it to my attention and for commenting.

  8. Debbie,

    I love the example of how the more you relax, the more genes that calm the stress reaction are activated. I like your proposal of conscious creation of the self ~ that’s one way to see it as fun!

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Sandra, I think this is SO important. We need to be teaching this in schools and every person needs to know this because life can be fun and more peaceful and consciously created.

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  12. I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good.
    I do not know who you are but definitely you are going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already 😉 Cheers!

    my webpage headset microphone (Kathrin)

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Kathrin, thanks for making me mile and giggle! 🙂 I like the sound of that!

  13. I love that the very new subject that I first studied at uni in the mid ’90s and just fell in love with (yes, it is possible to fall in love with a scientific concept!!!) is now something we can apply to our daily lives. At times it felt like science moved sooooo slowly (which was one reason I left research). But now look, one of my favourite neural mechanisms is going mainstream. You write about it so beautifully. I love this post.

  14. Debbie Hampton Reply

    Sarah,you’re a woman after my own heart – to fall in love with this brain stuff! I find the “new” brain information of the last decade so empowering. It gave me the ability to heal from a brain injury and to change my life for the better. I want everyone to know that they can do it too. No brain injury required!

    It amazes me that some medical professionals STILL do not know of or utilize this information. I would take books, like Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself, to my neurologist and tell him that he needed to read them. I hope he did!

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  31. I’m intrigued by your final sentence. “Self-discipline” is a phrase that always makes my heart sink. Put in the context of choosing how to shape brain and mind, it becomes a much more positive concept. Thankyou!

    • I’m sp glad that you found it to be a positive concept. I think it is very positive and empowering. 🙂

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