What is neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to form new synaptic connections between neurons. It’s what enables us to learn new things.
We’re at our most neuroplastic as babies, but as we get older and become more efficient at doing things we already know how to do, we get less neuroplastic. In recent years, however, scientists have discovered that adult brains are far more malleable than they’d previously thought.
Why does it matter to me?
Because it means you’re able to improve things that you didn’t realise you could. Whereas before you may have thought there was no point trying to improve because you were congenitally unimaginative or irredeemably scatterbrained, now you have no excuse.
‘Neuroplasticity is happening anyway, we don’t have to do anything to make it happen,’ explains Dr Jenny Brockis, author of The Future Brain: The 12 Keys to Create Your High Performance Brain.
‘If you are exposed to new stimuli, your brain will rewire itself in response. But if you choose to, you can literally upgrade how well your brain functions in areas like memory or focus.’
How can you use neuroplasticity to upgrade your brain?
We are creatures of habit, whether we like it or not. If we’re in a situation often nough, our brains will form such strong pathways that our responses become automatic. Think riding a bike or using a keyboard.
Unfortunately, our brains can just as often form unhelpful habits as helpful ones: giving a speech automatically causing unnecessary anxiety, for instance. If we want to harness our inherent neuroplasticity to replace bad habits with good, we simply need to practice applying the good habit in a given situation instead of the bad one, until it becomes our ‘new normal’.
It’s hardly rocket science (or indeed brain surgery...), but it works. To increase your chances, Brockis advises picking one thing to work on at a time.
‘New synaptic connections are incredibly fragile when they first form, so you’ve got to nurture them and make sure they stay intact by going back to them and practicing. It’s a bit like when you learn to drive a car for the first time – it’s clunky and horrible at first but with repetition and time it becomes much easier,’ Brockis says.
Don’t expect a one-off fix, however. Vigilance and discipline are required. ‘We don’t break habits, they just get weaker if we can replace them with a new, stronger habit. But when a bit pressure comes along, the stress levels go up and we default to the old ways. The brain’s hardwired to go back to the simplest route it knows best.’
What if you don’t get the chance to practise your new good habit?
Rewiring how your brain responds to something that happens regularly (your nightmare morning commute, let’s say) is a lot easier than when the trigger happens less frequently.
Public speaking, for example, is something that for many people only comes along once or twice a year. It’s not impossible to use neuroplasticity to your advantage in these situations, however. Visualisation has been proven to activate the same parts of the brain as actual practice does, while focusing on a positive past memory can help to improve your mindset.
Are there limits to neuroplasticity?
The short answer is we don’t know. The research is still in its infancy. However, it would seem unlikely to expect you could transform yourself from, say, a numbers dunce to an arithmetical genius, just through a spot of practice. Some things are just hardwired.
But progress is possible where before we assumed it wasn’t. It’s a particularly relevant message for older workers, who might face the prospect of having to retrain mid or late career. ‘The more we use our brain to continue to learn new things the more plasticity we retain. That old saying of "use it or lose it" was right,’ says Brockis.
Old dogs can learn new tricks then, but only if they keep trying.