Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, is the brain’s ability to change and reorganize its own structure and functioning as a result of the different internal and external experiences throughout your life. Your brain changes according to your thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and the environment where you live.
The possibilities of the brain are endless. According to Dr. Dan Siegel, doctor and professor of psychiatry at UCLA, it is estimated that the human brain contains 100 billion neurons. A typical neuron creates about 10,000 connections with other neurons. Each neuron is activated between five and 50 times per second. The number of activation patterns in the brain is greater than the number of known atoms in the universe. Your brain is a deeply complex system.
In the last 20 years, through studies with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), it has been possible to verify and observe the wonderful ability of the brain to change and regenerate. Thanks to
Watch this video from the BBC showing the case of Jodie. At the age of three, her right brain hemisphere was completely removed due to a health condition called Rasmussen’s encephalitis.
Brain plasticity also makes it possible for the brain to recover from birth abnormalities or injuries caused by stroke. It also allows you to overcome traumatic experiences, depression, addictions, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other conditions.
Forms of Neuroplasticity
Brain plasticity allows your brain to:
• Continually create new brain cells (neurons) in certain regions of the brain
• Create new connections between neurons (synapses)
• Strengthen neural connections
• Desensitize neural connections
• Improve activity in a certain area of the brain
• Increase the connection between different brain regions
• Improve the neurochemical activity of the brain
Research on brain plasticity discards old scientific theories that assumed that neurons simply “died” over the years and were not replaced by new ones.
This has generated a more positive view of the brain and its capabilities. It has been found that adults can continue developing new abilities at any age.
Neuroplasticity in a Positive or Negative Sense
Imagine that your brain is like moldable clay that is sensitive to what is happening in your mind (beliefs, thoughts, attitudes, and emotions) and in your environment (family, friends, work, community, and society). In this way, neuroplasticity works in a positive, but also a negative sense.
Dr. Rick Hanson, an expert psychologist in neuroplasticity and mindfulness, states the following: “The human brain is like velcro for the negative and teflon for the positive.” With this metaphor, he means that we perceive the negative aspects of our lives more easily than the positive ones.
This “bias toward negativity” is found in most people. It is the product of 600 million years of evolution, pushing the nervous system to learn that it must defend itself from predators and enemies to survive. There was always the danger of getting hurt or dying.
Studies have shown that being subject to moderate or severe stress promotes the growth of various sectors of the amygdala, an area of the brain that assesses the presence of danger in the environment.
Under stress or product of traumatic experiences, the amygdala begins to magnify the threats, perceiving danger where there is none. The person reacts with distrust or excessive fear and can’t correctly interpret the signs of the environment or the intentions of others.
On the other hand, stress affects the growth of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that directs your thoughts, actions, the expression of your personality, and your ability to interact with others, among other important functions.
Habits also transform the brain. The brain has the habit of focusing on the same aspects every day, especially the negative. On an average day, thoughts occupy a person’s mind 95% of the time. Many of these thoughts are automatic and we have no awareness of them. It is estimated that we have 60,000 thoughts a day, and 98% of them we had the day before.
How you focus your attention activates your brain in different ways. Bad habits, negative thoughts, and an unfavorable environment also create connections, circuits, and structures in the brain.
The good news is you can decide to focus your attention
Positive Ways to Transform Your
Here are some
• Acquire a healthy habit, such as exercising three times a week.
• Cultivate positive thoughts and gratitude every day.
• Learn something new, such as playing a musical instrument or speaking a different language.
• Surround yourself with people who recognize you, respect you, and demonstrate love.
• Attend psychotherapy to overcome some difficulty or recover from traumatic experiences.
The repetition and practice of new habits and
Practices that Transform the Brain Positively, as Revealed by Science
Mindfulness practices are intended to pay attention to the present moment deliberately and without judgment. Generally, attention is focused on the breath, sensations, or sounds (mantras).
Studies have shown that the structure of the brain can change according to the way the mind focuses its attention. This activates specific circuits in the brain. Over time, new neurons and new connections between neurons are generated.
One study analyzed with MRI images people who had performed 19,000 hours of concentration meditation compared to those who were starting this practice. Expert meditators showed less activation in parts of the brain related to scattered and changing thoughts, that is, “background noise.”
Examples of these thoughts are: remembering events that happened along the day, pending things to do, or negative thoughts that are repeated daily. Expert
Another important investigation analyzed people who practiced insight meditation that focused on their internal experiences. It was found that this type of meditation is associated with greater thickness in the prefrontal cortex and the insula. These areas of the brain improve attention, sensory processing, executive function
The thickness in the cerebral cortex was also significant in older participants, which suggests that meditation might offset age-related cortical thinning.
Other studies have shown the positive effects of yoga in the treatment of depression as a result of changes in the brain. After participating in a 12-week yoga and meditation program, participants were evaluated for certain biological markers of neuroplasticity.
Results showed a reduction in depressive symptoms and a significant increase in levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein associated with nerve tissue growth.
The yoga and meditation program also reduced DNA damage, decreased cortisol levels (stress-related hormone), and balanced oxidative stress (more antioxidants and less free radicals). In addition, it significantly increased telomerase, an enzyme that protects chromosomes and DNA, preventing cell aging.
Research indicates that exercising physically produces changes in specific regions of the brain and, as a result, benefits cognitive functions. These functions allow you to learn, organize, and remember complex information.
This occurs because physical activity releases neurotrophins, a family of proteins that helps the survival, development, and functioning of neurons. To maintain these
Other studies have found that after performing aerobic exercise the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) increase. This protein is then released into the bloodstream with possible neuroprotective effects in the brain.
A large number of studies have investigated the effects of learning music at an early age in the human brain. An important finding has been that the anterior half of the corpus callosum is larger in those musicians who began their training before the age of seven.
The corpus callosum is a band of nerves that has the important function of communicating both cerebral hemispheres. The right brain is associated with the processing of images and emotions, creativity, intuition, and holistic thinking. The left hemisphere is responsible for logical and mathematical thinking, and the use of language. In these musicians, both capacities of the brain would be more integrated.
Major neuroplasticity changes were also observed in the corpus callosum, auditory cortex, motor cortex, and cerebellum of musicians who spent more time practicing, especially in professional musicians. The cerebellum is the part of the brain responsible for movement, balance, and coordination.
Graham, L. (2013). Bouncing back. California: New World Library.
Hanson, R. (2016). Hardwiring happiness. New York: Harmony Books.
Kornfield, J. & Siegel, D.J. Mindfulness and the brain. Audio course. Boulder: Sounds True.