Why Neuroplasticity is a Big Deal – The term “neuroplasticity” is being heard often these days. Why? What is the big deal about it? Why should we care? This guest post by Robert Lilly addresses those questions.
The term “neuroplasticity” is being heard more and more these days. Why? What is the big deal about it? To understand that, let’s begin by first defining what neuroplasticity is. According to MedicineNet.com, neuroplasticity is “the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.” According to Wikipedia the term refers to “changes in neural pathways and synapses which are due to changes in behavior, environment and neural processes, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury. Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held position that the brain is a physiologically static organ, and explores how – and in which ways – the brain changes throughout life.” In addition, from the National Library of Medicine – Medical Subject Headings: “The capacity of the NERVOUS SYSTEM to change its reactivity as the result of successive activations.” In other words, it refers to the brain’s ability to grow and change as a result of stimuli throughout a person’s entire lifespan.
OK, so now we know what neuroplasticity is, but why should we care? What is it about that capacity of the brain to change itself that is generating so much excitement? To understand that, we must back up a little and take a look at mainstream science’s previous understanding of the brain and brain functioning. Strict materialist/reductionist views on consciousness, emotions, etc. state that all of these are nothing more than byproducts of brain activity with no causal efficacy—epiphenomena. Furthermore, it was believed that genetics and early life experiences determined how the brain would be formed, and that after a certain age no further development takes place. In other words, it was believed that past a certain age we were stuck with the programming/conditioning/brain structure that our genes and our early life experiences created for us. After that we’re nothing more than automatons, living out fixed responses coming from a static brain configuration.
Neuroplasticity (along with its cousin epigenetics) tells us that while genes and early life experiences do indeed play a major role in the programming/conditioning of our brains, and therefore our consciousness, emotions, etc., brain adaptivity does NOT cease after a certain age. We can change neuronal connections and pathways. We can form new programming/conditioning, which results in different internal experiences. Furthermore, it is not only external events that influence the ongoing development of the brain, but internal events as well.
It has been demonstrated that through an act of will new thought patterns can be cultivated, resulting in new neuronal connections/pathways in the brain, and best of all, new internal experiences. So, even if the materialists and the reductionists are right about consciousness, emotions, etc., being nothing more than byproducts of brain activity, somehow the brain can change itself—mental activity has causal efficacy. Practices such as mindfulness meditation, hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and more, have been proven to create changes in both brain structure and the experience of the person doing the practice!
So, why is neuroplasticity a big deal? It tells us that we do not have to be victims of our current brain structure/programming/conditioning. We have a choice! We can choose to think differently, feel differently, experience life differently.
For further information on neuroplasticity see:
The Brain: How the Brain Rewires Itself – Sharon Begley, Time Magazine
TEDTalk: My Stroke of Insight – Jill Bolte Taylor Ph.D.
Neuroplasticity: Changing our Belief about Change – Joanna Holsten
Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves – Sharon Begley
My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey – Jill Bolte Taylor Ph.D.
The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science – Norman Doidge, M.D.
The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force – Jeffrey M. Schwartz M.D., Sharon Begley
Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom – Rick Hansen Ph.D., Richard Mendius M.D.
Click here for a more extensive list of Popular Neuroplasticity Books