Nothing has rocked popular culture’s perception of neuroscience like the advent of neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain’s structural makeup and functional patterns can change at any time in one’s life. The discovery of neuroplasticity stands in stark contrast to the centuries-old myth (beginning in the 1880’s) that once the brain reaches maturity, it enters a stage of neural decline, unable to repair any damage or regenerate after injury.
Since the 1960’s, pioneers of neuroplasticity have been working to demonstrate the adult brain’s ability to change. We have seen examples from stroke victims, the blind and deaf and those with cognitive disabilities that, despite significant physical damage, the brain can reroute functions and repair itself.
The great strides the scientific community has made in structural repair of the brain have led to a greater question: What more can we do with neuroplasticity?
Exploration of this question has led to hundreds of articles claiming that simply thinking positively can cure mental illness and alter our personalities; likening neuroplasticity to plastic surgery that gives us the minds we have always wanted. Many of these claims are far-fetched, ignoring the influence of genetics and minimizing the work involved in harnessing neuroplasticity. However, they are underpinned by the understanding that changing our thoughts affects neural structure and function.
In order to understand how to change our thought patterns, we must first understand how these patterns are established. As infants, we begin to learn about our environments and frame networks of neurons within our brains. Concurrently, we form emotional connection, triggering the release of neurotransmitters (chemicals that alter our neural activity) in response to certain stimuli, positive or negative. This neurochemical change will dictate action. The ways these actions are received by our parents and caregivers, as well as their own behavior, will reaffirm or diminish these connections. As we grow, we continue to utilize our established neural pathways in response to everyday stimuli (our home life, school, friendships, etc.). Eventually, these neural connections become so trained through repeated use that they are nearly reflexive. It should also be noted that one-time interactions that conjure extremely negative or positive reaction have a profound effect on neural pathways.
Now that we know how our thought patterns emerge, how can we change them?
In order to disrupt and reform these connections, we must take four steps:
1. Recognition: What am I feeling? Accurately recognizing your emotions is challenging. However, assessing your motivation towards a specific action can be helpful. Please note, it is important to accept your emotions, as they are neither good nor bad, but rather signals to be aware of.
2. Stimuli Identification: Why do I feel this way? Determining stimuli can be particularly difficult, as emotions often feel as though they’ve come out of nowhere. Tracing a timeline of your moods and noting any external changes that occurred during emotional onset aids this process.
3. Rebuttal: Are the stimuli equal to my reaction? Is this present stimulus an accumulation of all similar past stimuli or is it separate? Task yourself with presenting a logical argument as to why this course of action is and is not an appropriate response to your present stimulus.
4. Action: Move forward with a course of action that you feel is appropriate for the stimuli.
Repeating these steps allows you to gain more control over how your emotions influence your actions and, overtime, will actually change your cognitive functioning. This allows you to establish new behavioral patterns and emotional reflexes. Similar to the journey of a stroke victim regaining use of their arm, this process can feel impossible at the beginning. However, diligent practice and patience can help you.