Our Changing Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of the Mind
Likely the most complex structure in the world, the human brain may be one of the greatest mysteries waiting to be unravelled by modern science. Despite endless research, we are far from fully understanding it secrets. Yet technological advancements over the last several decades have brought us closer to deciphering the workings of this exquisite piece of biological technology. The result? Findings that are challenging many of our long-held perceptions about how the brain works, and opening up intriguing possibilities.
A new discovery is making waves in the scientific community and causing scientists, doctors and researchers to rethink what they thought they knew about the mind and body. It's called "neuroplasticity," and the implications may revolutionize the fields of medicine, psychology and countless others.
Traditionally the human brain has been seen as relatively hardwired and fixed, an immutable structure that is, for the most part, unchangeable. This perception led to the belief that our most common psychological problems were irremediable. Common issues such as anxiety or bi-polar disorder were deemed incurable, life-long conditions that one would have to learn to live with. The effects of accidents, strokes and other medical problems were seen as untreatable, conditions one would have to manage but could never resolve.
But the discovery of neuroplasticity has raised the question: Are we prisoners of our hardwiring and doomed to suffer because of the structure of our brain or can untreatable condition actually be treated?
Named "one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the twentieth century" by Canadian psychiatrist Norman Doidge, neuroplasticity refers to ability of the brain's to alter its structure in response to experience. Neuroscience demonstrates that the brain is constantly forming new neural pathways, removing old ones, and altering the strength of existing connections. This means that the brain is able to adjust and adapt physically at any age to compensate for an injury or illness and to adapt to new situations or changes in the environment. The brain is not fixed, but rather, it's like clay - a malleable structure that moulds itself in response to information and experience.
In the past, it was believed that if one had a stroke and lost movement of an arm for example, they would never be able to regain motion. No efforts for treatment were made because it was believed that the brain was irreparably damaged in a certain area. Yet now we know that if someone has a stroke and is rehabilitated, the damaged area may forever remain damaged, but another part of the brain will change and adapt to take over the functioning for the affected limb. The brain adapts!
It is now known that through repetition and practice of behaviours the brain changes. New neurons grow or connections between existing neurons are strengthened. If you practice a new skill, the area of the brain responsible will change. For practice to make perfect, the brain actually alters its physical structure. Even into old age, learning a new skill changes the structure and function of the brain.
But we don't actually have to "do" anything to rewire the brain. Through decades of work treating patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Jeffrey Schwarz, author of "The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force," made an extraordinary finding while using the therapy he developed. Schwartz discovered that his patients were effecting significant and lasting changes in their own neural pathways. It was a scientific first: by actively focusing their attention away from negative behaviours and toward more positive ones, Schwartz's patients were using their minds to reshape their brains. They used their mind to change their brain.
One of the main tenets of neuroplasticity is that the brain can be rewired through stimuli that is either external or internal. Experience, learning and behaviour can cause changes in the brain, but so can thought and imagination. The implications of this are striking: if your brain changes due to thought and imagination, you can use your mind to rewire it for positive change. It's not just the brain that controls the mind - it's the mind that controls the brain.
In his bestselling book, "The Brain the Chanes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science," Normad Doidge details countless examples of extraordinary feats of brain rewiring. The New York Times made the following comment: "The power of positive thinking finally gains scientific credibility. Mind-bending, miracle-making, reality-busting stuff...with implications for all human beings, not to mention human culture, human learning and human history."
Want an example of the power of the mind? The December 2007 issue of Men's Health detailed a study in which participants were asked to visualize themselves doing bicep curls. They did no weightlifting whatsoever, yet their average bicep size grew by 13%!
To make it to the Olympics athletes often spend just as much as or more time visualizing their performance as they do practicing. They know that we can train the body through the mind, but why have we limited this extraordinary human ability to the world of sports?
Imagine: every time you learn or experience something new, your brain is being rewired. New connections are forming and old ones are withering away. Recent connections are strengthening and ones you no longer need are disappearing. In every moment you have the capacity to reinvent yourself. If you choose what to put in your mind you can decide what to reinforce and what patterns and habits of thinking, emotion and behaviour you will no longer nurture.
As a personal trainer for the mind, each day I help clients rewire their brains to remove the neural pathways that lead to anxiety, depression, fear and form new connections that automatically leads to peace, joy, passion, wealth and success. Through an active and dynamic process of "mind coaching" we provide the brain with new stimuli - new experience and information that translate into new mental programming. We literally train the brain.
As a result of neuroplasticity, people recover from strokes, overcome learning disabilities, free themselves of emotional conditions and train their minds for greater success. Neuroplasticity reveals that we have the power to rewire our brain by providing it with the right information and experience.