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For an improved quality of life, you can develop simple habits to enhance your neuroplasticity and protect your brain against preventable decline.
Neuroplasticity drives the functioning of your brain—from its biochemical to behavioural mechanisms. It determines your brainpower or mental abilities.
Thus, increasing your brain’s neuroplasticity means better performance of the brain and improved quality of life.
Before learning how to increase neuroplasticity, it’s necessary to know what it means. Also, it’s noteworthy to know the benefits and factors affecting neuroplasticity.
What is Neuroplasticity?
The term “neuroplasticity” or “neural plasticity” refers to your brain’s ability to change and repair itself. You may refer to it as brain plasticity. Thus, the term “neuro-” means “related to the brain.”
The prevalent features of the brain are the neurons. They form circuits in the brain that form a system of communication in the brain and body. When the connections are faulty, unpleasant symptoms like seizures, loss of awareness, and memory loss occur.
Your brain comprises chemicals and specific parts with designated roles. But your brain is not rigid. It is constantly changing without your deliberate input, naturally.
The biochemical composition of the brain changes in response to your behaviour, environmental factors, or brain injury.
Hence, if you have ever heard the phrase “rewiring the brain,” it refers to neuroplasticity. Whereby, the “wires” are the “neurons,” or nerve cells found in the brain change their connections.
“Neural plasticity: The ability of the nervous system to change in response to experience or environmental stimulation. For example, following an injury remaining neurons may adopt certain functions previously performed by those that were damaged, or a change in reactivity of the nervous system and its components may result from constant, successive activations. Also called neuroplasticity.”American Psychological Association
Sometimes we hinder the brain’s neuroplasticity by certain bad mental habits. For instance, neglecting your brain by living a couch-potato lifestyle and not stimulating it.
Yet, an amazing fact is that although neuroplasticity is an automatic process, you can master how to enhance changes in your brain.
In short, there are certain actions you can take to increase neuroplasticity.
First, let’s see what influences neuroplasticity, and how. Then you’ll see the benefits of neuroplasticity.
What Affects Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is time-sensitive as it changes throughout human development. Thus, throughout human development, your brain cells change.
The brain of a child under 6 years old has the greatest potential for neuroplasticity. Hence, the new brain has a higher ability to rewire than the adult brain.
Normal ageing leads to reduced plasticity perhaps because of genetic diseases affecting the brain that may occur in old age such as Alzheimer’s, or age-related changes causing reduced memory or processing speed of the brain.
This doesn’t mean you can’t rewire an adult brain. Studies using neuroimaging technology show the brain undergoes neuroplasticity, and you can consciously aid the process.
Neuroplasticity enables recovery after suffering a brain injury. Brain diseases such as stroke, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and epilepsy influence neuroplasticity. Early-onset diseases of the nervous system caused by genetics or injury also affect neuroplasticity.
Sometimes, brain diseases cause negative neuroplasticity causing permanent damage to the neurons. Neurodegenerative diseases cause negative neuroplasticity by damaging or killing neurons. Under such circumstances, the illness can only be managed but not cured.
Mental illnesses such as mood and addictive disorders occur because of chemical imbalances in the brain. Therefore, treatment targets to reverse neuroplasticity to the optimum condition.
For instance, depression results from imbalances in certain parts of the brain known as the limbic and cortical regions. Therefore, antidepressants improve a person’s mood by affecting neurotransmitters in these regions whose deficiency causes low mood.
Neuroplasticity creates a positive or negative influence on behaviour. The biochemical changes that happen in the brain influence how you behave. A change in the molecular or cellular aspects of your nervous system may cause emotional changes that make you behave a certain way.
Thus, choosing to behave in a particular way causes a rewiring of your brain. The actions you take in the morning, your routine, daily activities, what you say and do, all affect the connectivity of your neurons.
Thus, you train your brain to get used to a manner of doing things, and its neurons reorganize to support that behaviour.
So, how you are raised, the behaviours you were taught or learnt from childhood, become ingrained until adulthood and are difficult to change.
Living conditions and individual experiences cause changes in neuronal activity. Being exposed to substance abuse, psychological trauma, and social-cultural influences (e.g. education) affect how an individual’s brain is wired.
Experiences and internalized perceptions in the social contexts can change the neural pathways in your brain.
For instance, the brain functioning and biochemical composition of a woman change when she becomes pregnant and after she gives birth. According to research, “pregnancy is associated with neuroplasticity.“
If you grow up in an abusive home or say around addiction, the brain will develop differently compared to the brain of a child who grows up in a peaceful home.
Benefits of Neuroplasticity
The Functional Role
Your brain tries to prevent loss of functioning as much as it can by making needed changes to the nervous system.
Neuroplasticity ensures communication between the neurons responsible for your sensory and motor functions in your body with the relevant muscles and organs.
Neuroplasticity plays a critical role in normal stages of brain development from conception through ageing. As a child grows the brain gains better functioning through learning from the environment. Neuroplasticity makes your brain flexible. Therefore, you can reinvent yourself.
Brain plasticity supports learning and behavioural responses to the environment to support adaptation. It gives you the ability to retain new information or skills you learn by forming neural pathways that aid in memory and attention.
The Ameliorative Role
If your brain suffers from disease or injury, that impairs its functioning, the ability of neurons to form new connections makes it possible for you to heal. The brain can repair damage to itself because of neuroplasticity.
Therefore, illnesses caused by chemical imbalances in the brain such as autism, depression, and schizophrenia can be countered by enhancing neuroplasticity through medication or behaviour modification.
Also, neuroplasticity helps you to heal in other parts of the body, to function when you lose some sensory nerves.
That’s why people who have sight problems have a high sensitivity to other senses like hearing and smell. And a person who lost their arms, learning to write and eat using their feet.
Their brain cells rewire differently to help them heal by adapting and surviving despite their damaged body parts.
Is it Possible to Rewire your Brain?
The frontal lobe is the part of the brain you can fix through voluntary activities like adjusting your thoughts and behaviour.
When electrical wiring is faulty, it may cause flickering lights, explosions, or broken circuits. Consider such a similar scenario, when negative neuroplasticity occurs in the brain.
Thus, you can control the circuits underlying neural processes and reduce the chance of faulty “wiring.” And if the “wiring” is faulty, but not beyond repair, you can fix it.
Scientific findings show the frontal lobe (cerebrum) is responsible for learning, reading, regulation of emotion, thinking, learning, speech, social interactions, and voluntary muscle movements.
So, it’s possible to enhance your neuroplasticity by using behavioural techniques to influence your brain’s biochemical structure.
In time, you will rewire your brain, and if viewed before and after through neuroimaging technology, the structural difference will be clear.
You can control your behaviour and your neuroplasticity to a certain degree.
Considering the above, do you want to enhance your neuroplasticity? If yes, continue reading to see effective strategies that improve brain functioning.
How to Enhance Neuroplasticity
Let’s learn how to enhance your neuroplasticity and rewire the brain by either forming or eliminating habits from your life. We will focus on the reversible form of neural plasticity.
The techniques to enhance neuroplasticity discussed here are suggestions and not rules. They are based on a basic understanding of neuroplasticity as outlined earlier with a focus on behaviour which is within your control.
If you have been diagnosed with a neurological condition, discuss with your doctor about these tips before applying them.
I discuss 10 useful strategies to enhance your neuroplasticity below.
The list is a guide to point out to you that modifying your thoughts and behaviour can support your neurons to do their work well and boost your brainpower.
1. Do Mental Exercises
Attention and concentration are a critical factor in increasing brain plasticity. Give your brain demanding tasks to increase mental engagement. Hence, stimulate the formation of new neural circuits. Repetitive mental exercises cause changes in brain structure and improve its functioning.
Mental exercises slow down the natural age-related decline in brain functioning. Some mental decline is preventable because it occurs because of low engagement in mentally stimulating tasks.
Hence, it weakens neuroplasticity and leads to reduced functioning. The brain that is actively engaged in stimulating tasks has less adverse symptoms in old age. Cognitive skills training enhances mental sharpness to achieve greater behavioural and clinical outcomes because it increases neural resources. (Professional therapy can guide you with this.)
People who work in professions involving a lot of arithmetic, critical reasoning tend to have improved neuroplasticity.
But since we all can’t be in such professions, you can find other ways of stimulating your brain such as engaging in visual and sensory-motor stimulation through playing video games, solving puzzles, riddles, maths problems, or other “brain teasers” that demand critical thinking.
2. Develop Positive Mental Habits
Negative habits lead to maladaptive rewiring but positive habits promote the formation of useful neural pathways. Therefore, the difference between someone bouncing back from trauma and another crumbling down for good is strengthened neuroplasticity.
Read these articles about habits :
If you adhered rigidly to negative mental habits, you establish a destructive form of neuroplasticity. For many people, adopting new behaviours and reversing established negative habits is difficult since they have reinforced the neural pathways in the brain to work that way.
The reason addiction becomes so hard to treat is that drugs or addictive behaviour have wired the brain in a certain way. No wonder it’s challenging to get the brain to work differently after addiction.
Therefore, it’s crucial to establish a pattern of positive behaviour to reinforce positive neuroplasticity which has a more adaptive than destructive role. Training your mind by consciously behaving in a way that reinforces positive outcomes like growth and change.
It begins with your thoughts. Fill your mind with positive information, for example, read the Bible, listen to soothing music, practise relaxation techniques and so forth.
3. Pursue Lifelong Learning
Build your cognitive abilities and aptitude by seeking new experiences and knowledge. Learning helps your brain to build a greater cognitive reserve. Consequently, neuroplasticity protects your brain from impairment as it’s always forming new neural pathways.
Learn a new language, play a musical instrument, perform mathematical constructs or coding.
Learning also involves learning new motor skills. Learn to drive, cycle, swim or dance. Take a lesson to learn some craft like pottery, creative arts, or knitting. Lifelong learning improves your brain’s capacity to rewire for better performance.
Learning to the brain is like maintaining the wiring system of your house. By changing or reorganizing it, your wiring will give you a better experience. But neglect it, and it poses a threat to your house.
Never stop training your mind. Keep it active by seeking novelty. Watch a documentary, read a book, learn a new dancing style, travel to new places. Being a lifelong learner will enhance your neuroplasticity.
4. Perform Aerobic Exercises
Aerobic or cardio exercises help in the circulation of oxygenated blood to the muscles. Exercises like swimming, running, walking, skiing, and dancing improve the functioning of the central nervous system. Aerobic exercises promote the formation of new nerve cells (neurogenesis.)
Aerobic exercises enhance neuroplasticity by stimulating your brain and counteracting age-related decline. Therefore, physical exercises improve your performance in cognitive and motor tasks.
One tip to maximise the aerobic exercises to the brain is to combine it with other strategies for promoting neuroplasticity such as social interaction and cognitive stimulation. For instance, dancing in a group (for social interaction.)
5. Strengthen Motivated Behaviours
Have you ever noticed how people who set their mind to achieve something find ways of reaching their goal despite the obstacles they may face? Such people have trained their brain to stay motivated. They identify the goal and focus their attention on it. As a result, they strengthened their motivation to achieve success.
Motivation is the driving force that pushes you to pursue a goal. Thus, to motivate yourself, you first need to set a goal. What do you want to achieve? When goal-setting, look ahead to the challenges you may face and how you will overcome them.
A daily habit of motivational behaviours will reshape your thoughts which will change the way your brain functions and you will be more self-motivated.
Therefore, take part in rewarding and pleasant activities and in time neural pathways associated with motivation will become stronger.
Making deliberate efforts towards achieving your goal is crucial. Use positive self-talk, listen to inspiring stories, or talk to a trusted person about your goals. Even the small daily goal of getting out of bed in the morning reinforces neuroplasticity.
When you take action despite feeling a lack of mental energy, you increase your brainpower. You trigger the formation of positive neuroplasticity contrary to wallowing in negative thoughts.
6. Establish Quality Social Interactions
The parts of your brain stimulated by social interaction are the hippocampus and left amygdala. When you socialize with others, your cognitive performance does not deteriorate fast. You can learn new things from them, experience pleasant emotions, or get the motivation to do things.
But, not all types of social interactions are good for your neuroplasticity.
Hanging out with people who have behavioural problems will in time wire your brain to behave like them and not see a problem with your actions. That’s why it’s important to choose who you interact with closely.
Being in the company of people with a positive mindset will help you become more positive.
So, if you are trying to change your brain to stop being addicted to a substance, stop interacting with people who have trained their neuroplasticity to rely on drugs. Instead, try to associate more with sober people.
Social interactions have a significant influence on your neuroplasticity such that the company you keep will affect your thoughts and behaviour. That’s why people who have a strong social support system manage life stresses and challenges with more success than those who have no one to support them.
7. Maintain Healthy Nutrition
Nutrition directly influences your body organs, and the brain is not left out. Your brain needs healthy food to work properly and aid the neurons to make the connections as required. Therefore, maintain a healthy diet so that your brain can function properly, create new cells, and be protected against damage.
Eating foods that provide your body with Omega-3, Vitamin B, and Magnesium improves neuroplasticity. These foods provide the benefits of healthy brain development, protective factor from neurodegenerative diseases, and keeping the nerves in good working conditions, respectively.
These are just illustrative examples of how nutrition helps the brain. It is necessary to eat healthy food and avoid foods and substances that may put you at risk of brain damage.
8. Practise Stress Reduction Techniques
Every time you experience psychologically distressing situations, your neurons change their connections. Enhancing your neuroplasticity gives you the potential to handle stressful situations and come out of them with minimal damage.
You may also engage in fulfilling activities which help you bear psychological pain like a hobby, cuddling with your loved one, physical exercises, writing, etc. The aim is to train your brain to keep working despite the stress by creating a positive sense of well-being.
Therefore, to counter mental breakdowns that are difficult to recover from, practise stress-reduction techniques such as a habit of gratitude or breathing exercises.
Reflect each day on the positive side of your life, no matter how small the positive side may look. Write a poem, talk to someone, go out, keep a journal.
Choose something from your mental reserves (from inside) to help you relieve your stress instead of training your brain to rely on external stress-relievers like alcohol, drugs, or sex.
9. Regulate your Emotions
Having dysfunctional patterns of dealing with emotions can cause negative neuroplasticity. Instead of your neurons forming healthy connections as required, it may lead to “faulty wiring” and you behave in destructive ways to yourself or others.
For this reason, it’s important to train your brain to regulate emotions by modifying your underlying thoughts and your behaviour when experiencing intense emotions.
To illustrate, imagine someone makes you angry today by doing something that hurts your feelings. What will be your first reaction? Insult the person’s appearance? Become violent? Take the nearest object and hit them with it?
Considering that, whatever you do when you are in a state of heated emotion and do it repeatedly, you teach your neurons how to connect. You rewire the brain to get used to reacting in the same way whenever you have intense emotions.
The best way to regulate your emotions is to practise habits that reinforce a positive mindset. Hence, instead of focusing on the things or people promoting negativity, engage in activities that make you happy.
You can deal with negative emotions better if you train your mind not to seek the immediate gratification of the moment, but analyse the consequences of your behaviour first.
In short, you enhance your neuroplasticity by training your mind to “think before you leap” especially when experiencing intense emotions.
10. Apply Therapeutic Interventions
In a psychological treatment setup, you may learn the techniques suggested by this article and how to apply them based on your specific needs.
Therapeutic techniques in psychiatric and psychological interventions usually aim to enhance neuroplasticity. For instance, psychiatrists may prescribe medication to increase your neuroplasticity.
In psychotherapy, cognitive skills training as used in CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) leads to improved behavioural outcomes, the basis of which is to enhance neuroplasticity.
In counselling, behavioural interventions produce clinically significant changes. When you learn to modify your responses to stressful life events, you activate your frontal and limbic brain systems.
When you go through major life changes, it affects your brain cells. You may experience mental anguish until it triggers mental illness. Therapeutic interventions try to help you regain optimal brain functioning, or they may be preventive measures to counter damage. In short, therapy aims to rewire your brain positively.
Symptoms of mental illnesses caused by chemical imbalances like depression may cause behavioural symptoms like social withdrawal, reduced novelty-seeking behaviour, and avoidance of sensory stimuli. Hence, treatment interventions in psychiatry targeting these behaviours can help rewire the brain differently.
As you can see from the above research-verified suggestions, improving your neuroplasticity is not a far-fetched dream. In fact, we innately know how to enhance neuroplasticity.
To enhance your neuroplasticity means increasing both your mental and physical health.
Try these do-it-yourself forms of brain stimulation to enhance your neuroplasticity. You can improve your brainpower by ensuring you have a healthy diet, quality social interaction, physical and mental exercises, task-specific training, and cognitive stimulation.
And as the days go by, you will slow down the rate of natural brain degeneration that comes with age. Rewire your brain and improve brain function while you can.
It’s likely you have already been practising some of these techniques by default. Now you can continue doing them consciously while knowing the benefits. And if you were about to give them up, please don’t. Combine the tips above for the best effect.
Life is for living. Keep living. Don’t give up.
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Disclaimer: I have based these strategies on neuroscience research as referenced above. Therefore, the ideas expressed herein are true to the best of my knowledge. They are not meant to replace expert medical advice.