Nurturing your ‘plastic’ brain

by | May 4, 2020 | Mental Health

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Have you ever heard of neuroplasticity? 

Neuroplasticity – or brain plasticity – refers to the ability of the brain to form new connections and pathways. 

It’s one of the most exciting concepts in psychology today – the idea that our brains can continue to change and evolve, and that even as adults we can in effect ‘train our brain’. 

Just as footpaths through a field become worn over time with use, leaving a mark upon the grass, so too the pathways of our brains become set and familiar from the habits we follow. 

But we’re discovering that neural pathways aren’t set in stone – in fact, they are more flexible and ‘plastic’ than we originally thought. While we can’t grow back limbs or recover from major injury to the brain, our brain can to a certain extent regenerate itself, through training to reroute connections and build new pathways. 

It used to be believed that our brains were only adaptable during childhood, and that by the time we reached adulthood they were hardwired to behave and respond a certain way. 

However, it turns out the adult brain is more adaptable than previously thought – it can be moulded like plastic, and really never stops developing throughout our lives.

The good news? This means we all have the ability to effectively ‘rewire’ our brains, and create positive change. 

By creating new habits and sticking with them, or thinking about things differently, we can focus on building strong paths linked with the thought processes, responses and habits we want to form within our lives. 

Your beautiful brain

Your brain is the most important organ in your body. It controls your bodily systems, and it’s the basis for your thoughts and feelings, joys and sorrows. Any small change in brain chemistry can lead to big changes in your mood, resilience, memory, concentration, thoughts, feelings, and desires.

It acts as a filter – shaping our understanding and responses to the world around us. Everything you do creates connections within the network of your brain, and the more you repeat something, the stronger that connection gets. These connections control your reactions, emotions, behaviours, and your overall well-being.   

Activities such as eating and drinking healthily, drinking plenty of water, relaxing, and exercising regularly can certainly help. However, it is also important to remember that what we think and how we think has a big impact on how our brain wires itself. We can train our brains through the way we think and the thoughts we allow ourselves to follow. 

Never too late to learn

Neuroplasticity is directly linked with learning. As we learn new lessons and take on new knowledge, our brain responds, forming new pathways, and in time adapting its default responses to the new lessons acquired. 

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but when it comes to the human brain that simply isn’t true. Although it’s harder for us to change the connections and pathways in our brains as we age, it is still possible to learn new things well into maturity – new languages, a musical instrument, a new skill. And practice really does make perfect.

When it comes to neuroplasticity – it’s use it or lose it. The pathways we use regularly become strong, familiar and established, whereas little-used paths don’t form reliable connections. 

Rewire and regenerate 

The implications for neuroplasticity are huge for physical and psychological issues – with the right treatment and tools, we can train our brains to alter patterns of behaviour that are dysfunctional.

Neuroplasticity can be especially important when recovering from certain injuries – when parts of the brain lose their function, for example from a stroke, there is a possibility that new pathways can take over some the functions that were previously managed by the damaged part of the brain. 

This ability of the brain to effectively ‘rewire’ itself is incredible, and goes to show the possibility of the brain and its plasticity, even when we’re mature adults. 

With the right approach, our brains can restore old, lost connections and functions that have not been used in some time, enhance memory, and even enhance overall cognitive skills.

By tapping into the possibilities of neuroplasticity, we can train our brains to establish positive thought patterns, and constructive, rather than destructive, ways of thinking. 

Our top 6 tips for increasing your neuroplasticity:

Don’t skimp on sleep: Your brain needs sleep, ideally between 7 and 9 hours of it each night, in order to reset and establish its connections. Sleeping well can improve your brain’s neuroplasticity and ability to build new pathways. 

Eat well: A healthy diet, rich in fruit and vegetables, is ideal for brain health. Certain foods are also said to be brain boosters – such as oily fish, nuts and seeds, fresh berries, leafy greens and eggs. 

Exercise regularly: Regular cardiovascular exercise three times a week boosts the blood flow to your brain, and can even increase brain volume. Even gentle exercise like walking can have a big impact on the health of your brain. 

Learn something new: Whether it’s a new language, musical instrument or dance routine, learning something new creates and establishes new pathways in your brain, improving its plasticity and ability to adapt and change. 

Reduce stress: Stress is the enemy of neuroplasticity. If you can, try to reduce the amount of stress in your life. If you can’t remove factors causing stress, then think about ways to reduce their impact on you – for example, regular meditation can help calm your brain and reduce the impact of stress.

Read a novel: Reading is a great way to relax and destress, and reading fiction has been linked with increased connectivity in the brain. 

Want to find out more? Book an appointment with us, to find out how you can change your brain for the better and lead a more productive and meaningful life. 

Written by Jennifer Byrne

Jennifer is a Registered Psychologist with over 8 years of experience. She provides psychological services under Medicare, is an Employee Assistance Program provider and an approved WorkCover NSW provider.

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