The Many Ways Your Brain Can Change

By on January 29, 2021

When we think about neural plasticity, we tend to think about it in terms of learning. We think of new neural connections forming over time as a result of deliberate practice: neurons that fire together, wire together.

While this is an accurate depiction of brain plasticity, it does not tell the full story.

See also: Neuroplasticity – An In-Depth Guide to How it Works and How to Transform Your Brain

Brain plasticity simply refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt. It does this in a myriad ways. We can increase or decrease production of key neurotransmitters, alter the number of receptor sites for interacting with those neurotransmitters, alter the number and quality of mitochondria for providing energy, increase or decrease capillaries to change blood supply, mould white matter, and much more.

The implications of brain plasticity

Everyone Changes

This, in turn, shows us just how much our brain can change as a result of its experiences. Everything is training. Even social interactions trigger changes in the brain. Recently, I discussed the “winner effect,” and how repeatedly coming out on top in contests could increase androgen receptors in the brain (study), along with increasing activation of key brain areas such as the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex.

See also: The Testosterone Advantage – How to Tap Into the Effects of Testosterone in the Brain

Moreover, these “psychological” factors are inextricably bound to physical ones. Testosterone is the perfect example: increase testosterone and you will not only be stronger and leaner, but also more confident and assertive. Hypothyroidism will impact on your mood just as much as your ability to burn fat.

These changes compound. If you are a highly anxious person, you will engage in behaviors that increase that anxiety over time. Positivity begets positivity.

If you are a highly anxious person, you will engage in behaviors that increase that anxiety over time.

Our very personality is malleable. While there is a genetic component to levels of introversion or extroversion, even this will change in response to experience. This is simply the body trying to survive. The brain changes in the ways it thinks will increase the likelihood of survival by adapting to the environment it finds itself in.

Creativity vs Focus

Brain changes

This is why we can become better or worse at maintaining specific mental states. You can be a highly focused individual: who produces lots of cortisol, dopamine, DHEA, and neuropeptide Y as the situation calls for it. Or you can be a creative “absent-minded scientist” type, who spends more time activating the default-mode network and maintaining a theta state.

See also: How Optimal Brainwaves Can Correlate With productivity, Athletic Performance, and Creativity

As with functional training, I believe we can have our cake and eat it too. We can choose to become more focused AND more creative. More compassionate AND more resilient.

I believe the optimal brain, for most of us, is an all-rounder and not a specialist.

We can choose to become more focused AND more creative.

There are a few ways we could achieve this.

One is by engaging in multiple different hobbies and practices. I wrote recently about how coding, music, and writing could change the brain. One study, published in Neuropsychologica, demonstrated that musicians could perform significantly better on both the Stroop task and Simon task – suggesting that they might possess superior processing.

Sports have been shown to improve our ability to analyze complex visual scenes (study) and encourage the use of kinaesthetic senses for problem solving (study).

Neuroplasticity

If we want to be better at socializing, it follows we should practice spending time in a social setting. Should we want to think more deeply, we could practice writing. Or, if we want to become more resilient to stress, we need to practice hardiness and mental toughness.

See also: Mental Toughness: Think Like a Navy SEAL / Spartan Warrior

Note that the activities that are most useful for training are those that are multisensory and combine both a physical and cognitive aspect. Doing Sudoku can only help so much, as it fails to fully immerse the learner.

Meditation

Then there’s meditation, which has been shown to have far-reaching cognitive benefits. In particular, meditation has been shown to enhance concentration, working memory, focus, mood, and more.

Healthy Lifestyle Meditation

But most studies focus on just one type of meditation: directive meditation. That means you are focussing on something. That may be your breath, a candle flame, or an imaginary point in your mind’s eye. Either way, the aim is to continually bring your attention back to this central focus.

See also: Different Types of Meditation for Focus, Control, And Creativity

Less explored are “non-directive” forms of meditation, such as Acem Meditation or Cal Newport’s Productive Meditation, that involve actively working on a problem or allowing the mind to wander. I believe that a health brain training program should incorporate at least both these types of practice.

Conclusion

Brain plasticity means we can become anyone we want to be. We can alter not only the structure of our brains, but also the chemistry.

We can become anyone we want to be.

This can be either a force for good, or for ill. That is why we need to take conscious control over our brain plasticity. That is why we need to be conscious of our environments, goals, and states.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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