Neural plasticity refers to the brain’s capacity to change as a result of experience and it is something that excites me. For years, we believed that, when the brain reached adulthood, it was in a fixed state and could not be changed unless by deterioration caused by aging. However, we now know that the brain can indeed change. When responding to the same event, new neural pathways are created and different brain areas can be used. This means that we can respond in a calm way, not a stressed way, to whatever life throws at us. Wondering how to rewire your brain for calmness and happiness? Keep on reading!
We strengthen neural connections all of the time whether we like it or not. When we feel anxious or stressed and respond to something that happens to us with panic, we are strengthening that panic response. The stronger the neural pathway, the more automatic the response is. That’s why we need conscious, deliberate effort to branch out and create new neural pathways. Before we look at ways to become calmer, let’s look at how neuroplasticity works and why it is important.
One way to think of neuroplasticity is to compare it to driving a car. The roads we use frequently are familiar to us, they don’t require a lot of conscious attention to follow the route. We can keep our eye on the road. And, at the same time, we have enough spare cognitive resources to think about other things, like what did the previous evening or what we are going to do when we reach our journey’s end. Occasionally, we may even arrive at our destination and think ‘how did I get here?’ as we have been on automatic pilot.
Has that ever happened to you?
Familiar routes do not require a lot of attention because the repeated experience has resulted in strong neural connections in our brain. However, if we start a job in a new location, or move to a new area, it takes time for us to find our way about. At first we have to really concentrate, we have to remember the route (if we are not using satnav). Then, we have to stay very alert, looking out for landmarks that tell us where we should turn left or right, at the same time being aware of the usual hazards such as pedestrians and other drivers.
Can I rewire my brain?
Now that we agree that neuroplasticity is like driving a car, think about the following. Sometimes, on a new journey, when things look unfamiliar we doubt ourselves, ‘have I taken the correct turning?’ ‘Is that building on my route?’ Eventually, with experience, we become more accustomed to the route. We even learn some shortcuts until once again our neural pathways have been strengthened and our thoughts about the route become automatic.
Are there any proven neuroplasticity cases? Yes! Advances in brain imaging techniques allow us to see this in action. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), we are able to see brain changes throughout adulthood. These changes result from new experiences. So if we give ourselves new experiences that induce a calm response we will become calmer throughout our daily life.
This is why neuroplasticity excites me. New experiences create new responses in the brain. Neurons that fire together, wire together. This means that the connections between neurons get stronger through repeated experience. So if we want to become calmer it is possible by changing our behaviour and adding some new experiences into our lives, or doing more of a desired experience such as meditation. An additional bonus of this is that when we are no longer responding to events in a panicked fashion, those old neural pathways are weakened due to lack of practice.
Rewiring the brain: what research says
Now let’s look at neuroplasticity research. Experts agree that meditation instills a calm state. A study by Harvard researchers followed a group of insight meditators versus a control group. Insight meditation involves focusing your attention on internal experiences. Compared to the control group, the meditators had higher cortical thickness in certain brain areas. These areas were associated with sensory processing, attention, and interoception (interoception provides information about our body’s internal state). This demonstrates that meditation and neuroplasticity share a close link. By practicing meditation, you can change your brain’s structure, increasing the thickness of the cortex. And the thicker the cortex, the greater the density of cell bodies.
Isn’t the brain wonderful? But there’s more. Meditation can also increase white matter, this is the mylinated axons in the brain. Mylination increases the speed of processing so it can help our responses become more automatic. A study in the PNAS journal found this increase in white matter. Participants completed a 4-week programme of integrative body-mind training (IBMT). The results? An increase in white matter in the part of the brain that contributes to self-regulation and control, the “anterior cingulate cortex”. This is truly wonderful as regulation and control are exactly what we need to feel calm.
If you are wondering how to rewire your anxious brain to feel calmer, make good use of its wonderful ability to change. Adding meditation to your daily routine or meditating more than you usually do is a great option. You can explore Synctuition’s sound journeys to meditate easily and efficiently. With time, you will rewire your brain. Your old neural pathways will fall out of use while new ones will be created and strengthened until they become automatic. Until you are able to respond to events in a calm manner, yes, even stressful events.
Wondering how to rewire your brain for calm, happiness, and greater purpose?
Great news! Bryony is excited to announce the launch of Positive Psychology For Life Part 3. This six-week online course builds upon the learning from Positive Psychology For Life Parts 1 and 2. But don’t worry! It’s not necessary to complete Part 1 or Part 2 before taking this course as it has been designed for people who have an understanding of Positive Psychology and those who are new to it. What will you explore in this course? Several crucial topics to live a positive and fulfilling life, including Optimism & Change, How we can use Forgiveness, Post Traumatic Growth, Finding Purpose & Meaning, What Does Ageing Well Mean, and Positive Psychology & Meditation. The course starts on June the 3rd. Find out more here!