Neuroplasticity Laureen Campana, NP, MPH
Updated: Nov 14, 2019
The human brain is a dynamic organ that changes constantly in response to our internal and external environments throughout a lifetime. This fluidity of function is referred to as neuroplasticity. For decades, the medical understanding was that the brain was an inflexible organ, or “neuro-rigid.” When neuronal electrical pathways were established, they were set in place for life. If brain cells (neurons) died, they were not replaced, and the damage was considered permanent and irreversible. We believed that certain areas of the brain were dedicated to particular functions such as speech, smell, vision and touch. If these areas were destroyed in any way, that area of the brain and its corresponding function was lost. Conversely, if body function was lost for some reason, it was believed that the related area of the brain became dormant. Thankfully, we now know otherwise. Those long-held tenets have been refuted. The latest research has proven that we continue to develop new neurons throughout our lives—about 10,000 per year. We can create new neuronal pathways and we can override older patterns. These positive changes to the brain can take place in two different ways. Internally, they can be built through meditation, prayer or focus (as in a mindfulness practice). It is a “brain-to-body” effect, working on the electrical pathways within the brain. Externally, the brain is capable of building new channels through the body (external to the brain) or through environmental interactions. These external stimuli (for example, learning how to play an instrument or taking lessons in a new sport) purposefully move the body in ways that strengthen—or become more precise in action—which results in the development of new neuronal pathways in the brain.
What does this mean for you? Let’s look at these internal and external influences and see how they lead to changes in the brain.
Internal impacts How have we seen contemplative practice affect brain function? Dr. Richard Davidson is a neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds in Wisconsin. Davidson studied the emotions of compassion, kindness, altruism and empathy using the same scientific method that has been applied to the study of anxiety, fear and depression.
Davidson’s research shows us the mind is an emerging property of the brain. Certain parts of the brain regulate other sections of the brain. The areas of the brain related to compassion, learning and memory, understanding the emotional state of empathy, and perspective, for instance, were highly developed in monks who had a deeply dedicated contemplative practice. Conversely, the areas of the brain devoted to fear and anger were markedly subdued.
Davidson’s research further showed the following:
The brain is the only organ in our body that has been designed to physically and functionally change over time with training and experience.
Epigenetics, or the expression of our genes in response to our internal and external environments, can be modulated by contemplative training.
Behavioral interventions produce specific changes to defined areas of the brain in a much more refined manner than most pharmaceuticals that are currently available.
Most importantly, these techniques can be applied in the “real world” to create real change. While Tibetan monks are the Olympians of contemplative practice, one of Davidson’s research associates found that meaningful changes occurred in novices who meditated for just 30 minutes a day for two weeks.
Research psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz works with people diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Sufferers of this disease know it as a crippling expression of brain function that leads to hours of unwanted repetitive behaviors. Dr. Schwartz’s research discovered that using willpower to redirect thoughts can create new brain pathways that can markedly decrease the symptoms of OCD. The practice of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is another example of an internal influence that can rewire your brain. Essentially, CBT looks at how emotions, thoughts and behaviors all influence one another. Through CBT, therapists are able to guide patients to become more aware of their destructive thinking and misperceptions. Patients learn alternative patterns of thinking and to spot when disturbing thoughts arise. Finally, they learn how to “reframe” their thinking. CBT has been shown to help patients with depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders and other mental health conditions. External impacts Feldendkrais Method founder Moshé Feldenkrais looked to external stimuli to help reduce the spasticity in children with cerebral palsy and to resurrect areas of the brain damaged by stroke patients. He found that by initiating repeated subtle movements of the body, new neural pathways in the brain could be built. Using his method, patients with spasticity were able to refine their physical movements, and stroke patients developed new neural conduits, aiding in their recovery.
As we age, it requires more repetitions over a longer period to master something new. Your brain must share space that it did not have to share up to this point. In younger brains, the sharing occurs more organically since the brain space is being newly populated, so to speak. But, as we now know, neuroplasticity allows for new learning to occur anytime in a human life.
What can we do today to use our own brain’s neuroplastic ability to enhance our health?
Begin a simple practice of meditation; it will benefit your health in a very short time. Sitting quietly each day without the chance of being disturbed and noticing your breathing is the beginning. Breathe in, “I am calm.” Breathe out, “I am peaceful.” Return the focus of the mind to one thing—in this case, your breath—each time you find your mind start to wander.
If you prefer to move with your meditation, seek out a local tai chi class or take a look at the web resources below. Tai chi employs both repetitive body postures and a meditative state.
Change up your daily habits. Try brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, or better yet, brush your teeth while standing on one leg!
Try a new skill: knitting, playing the cello, learning Italian…really, any NEW experience helps you reap these positive brain changes. It is the repetitive nature that is needed to learn these new skills that provides the boost to our brains.
I encourage you to do a little sculpting of your brain for your overall health and well-being.
Boldrini, Maura et al. "Human Hippocampal Neurogenesis Persists throughout Aging." Cell Stem Cell. Volume 22, Issue 4. April 05, 2018. cell.com/cell-stem-cell/fulltext/S1934-5909(18)30121-8
Doidge, MD, Norman. The Brain that Changes Itself. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print. normandoidge.com/
Doidge, MD, Norman. The Brain’s Way of Healing. New York: Penguin, 2015. Print. normandoidge.com/
Lutz, Antoine, Richard Davidson et al. "Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice." PNAS, vol. 101 no. 46, 16369–16373. Aug 26, 2004. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC526201/
Schwartz, MD, Jeffrey and Sharon Begley. The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. Print. amazon.com/Mind-Brain-Neuroplasticity-Power-Mental/dp/0060988479
Anat Baniel Method (Feldenkrais Method): anatbanielmethod.com
Center for Healthy Minds: centerhealthyminds.org/about/founder-richard-davidson
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Andrew Weil, MD: drweil.com/health-wellness/balanced-living/wellness-therapies/is-cognitive-behavioral-therapy-right-for-you/
Tai Chi for Health Institute: taichiforhealthinstitute.org
Laureen Campana, NP, MPH
Laureen is a graduate of the Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Arizona. She is currently the Coordinator of Health Services at Columbia College. She is on the executive board of the Health Services Association of California Community Colleges, an organization that works to improve the health of all California community college students. She has practiced tai chi for more than 25 years and teaches a course in tai chi at Columbia College.
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