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Neuroplasticity is all about the incredible ability of our brains to adapt to new situations. We tend to think of our brains as static and unchangeable, but nothing could be further from the truth. Your brain is malleable like clay and the most exercisable body part you have – far easier to develop than calf muscles. You can learn to retrain and rewire your brain to serve you rather than hold you back – teaching an ‘old dog new tricks’, so to speak, and realising all of your potential.

Our brain never ever stops learning, developing and changing because it constantly optimises, reorganising itself by transferring cognitive abilities from one lobe to the other, particularly as you age. Ultimately, you and your mind are the architect of your brain. When you change your perspective, learn something new or become mindful of your habitual reactions to unpleasant emotions, you actually alter the neurochemistry and the structure of your brain.

Rediscovering the brain’s natural ability
According to Old Thought, brain neurons were believed to be unique because they, of all cells in the human body, lacked the ability to regenerate. “In adult centres the nerve paths are something fixed, ended, immutable. Everything may die, nothing may be regenerated,” wrote Prof Santiago Cajal in his 1928 publication Degeneration and Regeneration in the Nervous System.  

However, New Thought indicates that neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells) does indeed occur in humans, as published in a report by the journal Nature Medicine already in 1998. As Sharon Begley wrote in her book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: “…the discovery overturned generations of conventional wisdom in neuroscience. The human brain is not limited to the neurons it is born with, or even the neurons that fill in after the explosion of brain development in early childhood.”

Within each of our brains there is a population of neural stem cells which are continually replenished and able to differentiate into different brain neurons. We can all do our own brain stem cell renewal and regrowth therapy every moment of our lives, by opening up to new learning, new experiences, exploring new horizons and possibilities of thought.

We lead busy lives, often on autopilot, therefore we almost never pay any attention to the fact that we can retrain our brains at any given stage. In medical terms, this ability of our brains to adapt as needed and to form new patterns and shapes by creating new neural pathways, is called neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity defined
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s inherent ability to form new neural connections throughout life, allowing the nerve cells in the brain and body to compensate for injury and disease while adjusting their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment, leading to changes in behaviour, thinking and emotions.

Neuroplasticity makes your brain extremely resilient and is the process by which all permanent learning takes place, such as learning to walk, drive, play a musical instrument or master a different language. Neuroplasticity also enables people to recover from stroke, injury and birth abnormalities, even to overcome autism, ADHD, learning disabilities and other brain challenges, heal depression and addictions and reverse obsessive compulsive patterns.

Use it or lose it
Just as resistance training and physical exercise build muscles, nerve cells in the brain are growing and cross linking with other neurons throughout the body for better communication, through mental exercise and continuous learning. For new manifestations, new beliefs and attitudes to form, we have to retrain and refire our brains. Not by rehashing old, often negative memories and traumatic experiences from the past and projecting these into the future, but by changing out of our comfort zones of neural networks stuck in old grooves (those that can still remember LPs) to create a new physical reality for ourselves and to evolve into all we’re meant to be.

There’s also such a thing as negative neuroplasticity (neurorigidity), whereby you keep on doing what you’ve always done, with the results you’ve always been getting (not the ones you actually want). A Course in Miracles says we are far too tolerant of our mind wanderings and Einstein said that the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and always expecting a different result. If we want to experience positive neuroplasticity, the first step is a willingness to change – and that’s easier said than done, for human beings love things to stay the same; even if old behaviour patterns are not working any longer, at least they’re familiar and easy.

Mind training
The key to mind training is willingness to change. If you’re content to remain stuck in a rigid pattern, resisting change and insisting things stay the same, or saying to yourself that you’re too old to learn new things or develop new abilities, then neuroplasticity mind training is not for you. But by softening your mind and at least considering the possibility, a whole new world opens up to you.

Once the willingness is there, the next step is focused attention to become aware of old behaviour based on past memories with their accompanying emotional load. Then comes determination and diligence to change the old patterns and maintain overall brain health, remembering the 3Ps (practice, patience and perseverance). Keep on practising, day after day, stumbling and falling and getting up until you start reaching your new goals, finding longer periods of peace, joy and happiness – the key ingredients for a brain to remain malleable.

Cells that fire together, wire together: The more something is practised, the more connections are changed and made to include all elements of the experience (sensory information, movement, cognitive patterns). You can think of it as a new software program being installed for that particular behaviour, which allows it to be performed with remarkable efficiency and reliability over time. Remember when you started to drive and had to remember everything? Then, after a while, it became completely automatic and easy? You practised and finally it became a known and automatic software program.

The problem is that we do the same thing with programs that don’t serve us any longer, based on patterns that were necessary for past survival of your circumstances, and the challenge then is to change the old programming and relearn new programming for your current environment. This takes determination, practice and a willingness to keep exploring and challenging yourself to cope with an ever-changing life.

Whole brain function
Brain training will allow both left and right sides of the brain to work together to make use of your entire brain. Learning and practising activities that get us out of our comfort zones and force us to use both hemispheres, will help us to become more resilient and proficient at whole brain thinking, and from there to a mind that extends much wider than the physical brain. This will have a pay-it-forward effect on our bodies and the rest of our lives, while also inspiring others around us. We’ll explore practical exercises for brain training in a future edition.

For more info: www.DrArien.co.za

Arien van der Merwe

Dr Arien van der Merwe is a medical doctor, author and holistic health counsellor. She developed and presents continued professional development training through VideoLearn and Synergetica CPD Courses on Mental Health in Challenging Uncertain Times; Heart Health; Inflammation both Friend and Foe and Neuroplasticity. These online CPD Courses explore ways to support both ourselves, our nearest and dearest, as well as our clients/patients.

Dr Arien is the author of Stress Solutions, the ‘Relax & Unwind’ relaxation CD as well as the books Health & Happiness, Managing Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome and Herbal Remedies. Dr Arien teaches group and individual meditation and relaxation classes, as well as health coaching online (WhatsApp video consultations) and at her rooms in Pretoria.