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Rewiring Your Brain: Unlock Its Potential Through the Power of Neuroplasticity

By Fleet Maull, Ph.D.

Scientists used to say that the brain was mostly static and unchangeable once we reached adulthood. It was believed that sometimes in our twenties, the brain reached maturity, stopped developing and became fixed in its habits, and from there, only degenerated as we aged. However, research on neuroplasticity has shown that this is not the case. We now know that the brain can evolve, change, and adapt over time, and that neuroplasticity is present throughout our lifespan—although it is more pronounced during early development. The exciting concept of rewiring the brain, also known as designing the mind, brain hacking, and biohacking, is based on our growing understanding of neuroplasticity. By actively rewiring our brains, we can improve our cognitive abilities and overall well-being. In this blog post, we will delve deeper into the topic of rewiring the brain, exploring what it means, how it works, and the steps we can take to harness the power of neuroplasticity for healing, optimizing well-being, as well as personal growth and development.

The brain is a completely holistic enterprise, making it difficult to describe functional areas or specific aspects without oversimplification. However, there are still useful ways to discuss what we know. It's essential to remember that the brain and the human nervous system are the most complex systems we know of in the universe. The brain alone contains over a trillion cells, with approximately 100 billion of those being neurons. These neurons communicate with each other, forming connections, neural pathways, and circuitry that allow us to do everything from walking and talking, to tying our shoes, speaking languages, doing mathematics, driving cars, and riding bicycles. The ability to perform such a wide range of activities is due to the brain's development of neural connections, pathways, and networks

When it comes to understanding the brain, one of the most effective metaphors is the current personal computer. While the mechanical clock was once a popular analogy, our technology has since evolved, and it now makes sense to compare the brain to computers, as they are designed to mimic its capacity. In fact, current supercomputers are becoming more and more like the brain, using advanced language models to develop artificial intelligence, which is growing rapidly.

Prior to these developments, computers used to be simply machines operating on circuitry that could be switched on or off, and programmers would write programs to instruct them to perform specific operations. However, computers are rapidly evolving, making them more and more like the human brain. They are basically learning machines—they can develop their own programming and software based on their exposure to data, and the programmer cannot even see into the programs the computer is running. But still, they have not yet matched the capacity and intelligence of the human brain. A computer, however, remains a useful metaphor for understanding the brain, particularly in talking about rewiring the brain. in which we can imagine the brain as a complex circuit board with wiring and neural networks that we can re-organize to improve its function. So this analogy has some usefulness.

We should, however, remember that the brain is a highly complex, organic system, whose activity resembles waves of energy moving through its neural architecture. In an optimized brain, these waves of energy and processes flow like a beautiful symphony, with everything working in harmony. What we call "mind" is an emergent property of our brain’s complex neural activity and its interactions with other energy fields. Dan Siegel, MD, a leading theorist and practitioner in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, describes mind as a flow of energy and information within (our own neural processes and bio-energetic systems) and between (in relationship with others and the natural world).

Neuroplasticity Let's now dive into the fascinating world of neuroplasticity and how our neural networks form. In early life, humans have a high level of neuroplasticity, allowing us to learn and absorb information quickly through imitation and association. For example, children exposed to multiple languages can become fluent in several languages at a young age. As adults, we may find it challenging to learn a new language because our neuroplasticity has decreased, but we can still enhance our neuroplasticity by making the effort to learn new things.

The process of developing neural networks occurs when “neurons that fire together wire together,” as stated in a well-known quote from Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb. By repeatedly associating activities, certain neurons in the brain continuously fire together, allowing neurotransmitters to cross the synapse between them. Over time, these connections become stronger and form stable neural networks. We can think of these neural networks as well-developed pathways or roadways. The more well-developed and robust they become (neuronal thickness and myelination), they are then like newly paved, well-lit roadways that are easy to follow. We learn by repeating activities again and again and associating certain inputs with certain behaviors and outcomes or rewards, which over time become habits that are supported by neural pathways in the brain. Our ability to tie our shoes, for example, is a learned behavior supported by specific neural pathways in the brain.

Both positive and negative habits are formed in this manner— positive habits like remembering to brush our teeth every morning and negative habits like overeating or being prone to lose one’s temper. These all correspond to neural pathways in the brain. We've repeated behaviors again and again, and as a result, these neural pathways become deeply ingrained, leading to almost automatic behaviors. Many of us have had the experiences, for example, when driving on the highway, of mindlessly taking the exit we normally use every day to get home, despite the fact that our intention is to drive to a different destination requiring a different route.

Sometimes we describe these habits and their underlying neural pathways as grooves and ruts in the brain. A groove is a positive metaphor, as in “grooving your golf swing” or being “in the groove. We develop the muscle memory and the neural pathways that allow us to execute a golf swing beautifully and efficiently without thinking. We also know how it feels to have a habit that's not so great, in which we feel stuck— like being stuck in a rut, which is a more negative association. But whether they're grooves or ruts, these are literally pathways developed in the brain. They are neuro-physical realities.

Neuroplasticity, however, allows us to change these habits if we choose to do so. These pathways can be modified. The brain can form new neural connections, reorganize existing ones, and even generate new neurons in certain areas of the brain through a process known as neurogenesis.. This process allows us to learn new things, acquire new skills, create positive habits that are actually serving us, and even recover from brain injuries. In fact, studies have shown that even in old age, the brain retains its ability to change and adapt.

Our ability to rewire our own brains and the methods for doing so are sometimes referred to as “self-directed neuroplasticity," an approach that combines the insights from positive psychology with what we know about the brain and neuroplasticity—how the brain learns and changes. We can learn to intentionally direct our thoughts and actions to promote positive changes in the brain and its functioning.

The term "self-directed" refers to activities that we can do on our own to promote neuroplasticity and rewire the brain in ways that benefit us. By engaging in these activities, we can enhance the brain's ability to adapt and change, leading to improved functioning and a greater sense of flow in our lives. Rather than getting stuck in the rigidity or chaos that can result from a dysregulated, stressed-out brain, we are able to navigate challenges with greater ease and take on new opportunities with confidence.

So, what can we do to optimize our brain health and promote neuroplasticity? The good news is that the same things that are healthy for our body are also beneficial for our brain. Regular exercise, a balanced diet rich in nutrients, and adequate sleep promote neuroplasticity and brain health. Aerobic exercise may actually be the most effective means for increasing neuroplasticity. Additionally, stress management techniques like mindfulness meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises can increase neuroplasticity, neurogenesis, and healthy brain functioning while ameliorating the negative effects of stress on the brain. Engaging in activities that challenge the brain, such as learning a new skill or language, playing an instrument, or solving puzzles, can also promote neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. These activities encourage the formation of new neural connections and help maintain existing ones.

Let’s look at some of these in more detail:

Exercise can boost the production of a growth factor called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which promotes the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that plays a crucial role in memory and learning. Moreover, exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which supports healthy cognitive function.

Proper hydration and diet: By drinking enough water and other fluids, we actually improve cognitive performance. Additionally, studies have shown that a plant-based diet can play a preventive role in reducing the risk of dementia, a condition that impairs brain function over time. It also protects the brain from the effects of aging on memory and cognitive performance..

Restorative Sleep

Our body has its own internal healthcare system that operates at night during deep sleep. As we sleep, the brain sloughs off damaged cells through our glymphatic system, effectively cleaning itself. A good analogy for this process is the defragmentation of a computer's hard drive. Dreams are also important for brain health. During REM sleep, the brain consolidates memories, processes emotions, and stimulates creativity. Dreams can help us process and make sense of our experiences and emotions, and can even provide insight and solutions to problems we may be facing. It is important to spend a sufficient portion of our sleep time in deep sleep and REM sleep, which together amount to what is called restorative sleep.

Quality Relationships: The science now confirms what we intuitively know—long-term, quality relationships positively impact our health, well-being, longevity, and happiness. They provide us with a sense of belonging, social support, and emotional stability, which are important for the healthy functioning and optimization of our brain and nervous system.

Mindfulness: Another strategy for increasing neuroplasticity as well as for rewiring the brain in positive ways involves mindfulness meditation and other forms of mind training. By placing our attention on an object--usually the body and the breath--and then noticing our attention wandering and bringing it back, again and again, we're building up neural networks that support greater focus, better concentration, and the ability to have our attention remain with a particular object--what is called attention stabilization. The practice of mindfulness also can increase emotional balance. Many of us experience intense emotional reactions, which Daniel Goleman refers to as the "amygdala hijack," where the emotional part of our brain takes over our thinking brain, sending us into fear- and survival-based fight, flight or freeze reaction. Regular mindfulness practice improves our capacity for emotion regulation, allowing us to have greater cognitive control and emotional balance, and ultimately giving us more control over our behaviors and our lives.

Practicing self-directed neuroplasticity with consistency can dramatically influence how we experience and lead our lives. In essence, we can become neuro architects, learning to reshape the neural architecture of our own brains in positive life-enhancing ways. When you think about this, it’s quite an amazing opportunity!! We have the power to shape our own brain and become the best version of ourselves. With consistent practice, we can create lasting changes in our brain and behavior, leading to greater fulfillment and a better life. We have the power to exercise self-agency and become lifelong learners to sculpt the brain that will optimize our lives in any direction we choose.

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