Think Your Way to Good Brain Health - Part 1
The human brain is constantly evolving, not just through time, but through our own lifetimes. The brain you’re born with is not the brain you end up with.
Scientists used to believe that the brain was only malleable up to a certain age. It was thought that adults had a certain number of brain cells and they weren’t very good at re-organizing themselves.
But in the early 1900s, this idea was challenged by the father of neuroscience, Santiago Ramon y Cajal. He found that neurons were capable of changing their structures even into adulthood. His claims led to decades of research and the realization that brain organization is not set in stone. It can be “re-wired”, so to speak, depending on what a person experiences throughout their life, what they concentrate on, and how they nourish their body.
This is due to neuron plasticity– the ability of the brain to re-organize and adapt to outside stimulation. When you learn a new skill, adopt a new habit, or are exposed to a life-changing event, the physical structure of your brain changes. The neurons change. Neurotransmitter behavior changes. Your brain literally changes the way it operates based on what you expect of it.
There is a fascinating study on London taxi drivers (before the use of GPS), which showed they had heightened activity in the hippocampus region of the brain compared to non-taxi drivers. The hippocampus is involved with spatial location, therefore, by these experienced taxi drivers constantly having to recall landmarks and spatial clues, they literally built up this part of their brain.
With this knowledge of neuron plasticity, it becomes clear that we have more control over our brain functions that we ever imagined. Habits are simply the ingrained behaviors we’ve cultivated and they can be changed with intention and focus.
Types of Neuronal Plasticity
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is Newton’s third law of motion, but it also rings true in regards to neuroplasticity. Your brain organizes itself in two ways:
- Positive, or adaptive, meaning it configures to new experiences. This process is on overdrive when you’re a child, as your brain is learning everything from scratch, even how to interpret light and sound. Neurons are firing, synchronizing with other neurons, and forming connections. Positive neuroplasticity happens when you learn a new language or create a new exercise habit. It’s what enables people to recover from strokes, brain injuries, and even depression and anxiety disorders. It’s what makes your brain resilient.
- Negative, or maladaptive, neuronal plasticity is the opposite. The same systems that re-organize your brain to crave exercise can also create negative thought patterns and habits that wreak havoc on your life. Constantly thinking negatively about yourself creates a neuron pathway for this behavior. The more you engage in negative self-talk, the deeper that pathway runs, the neurons that “fire together, wire together” and it becomes a habit. Negative plasticity can also happen when a person retires, stops learning new skills, and settles into complacency. Because the brain is not using the same neuronal pathways, it begins to shut them down in a process known as “synaptic pruning”. It does this to be efficient and create new pathways that you’ll actually use.
Your brain doesn’t necessarily understand which habits are positive for your life and which are not. Its job is to learn from its environment and create neuron pathways to match it. The habits you choose to cultivate, whether they be hitting the gym regularly or biting your nails, literally change the way your neurons interact with each other.
Your brain accomplishes this mainly through neurotransmitters such as dopamine. When you do something you want to do, dopamine is released, making you feel good. Each time you repeat the action, dopamine gets released earlier, until just thinking about doing it causes a surge.
This is what we call “motivation” and is an essential process for remapping the brain. Neurons that fire together, wire together.
Can we really "rewire" the brain? Find out in Part 2 on Thursday!
To your longevity,
Anil Bajnath MD
CEO/Founder, Institute for Human Optimization
Chief Meidcal Advisor, Longevity Insider HQ
* Today's content is provided by the Institute for Human Optimization.