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To Harness Neuroplasticity, Start with Enthusiasm

We are the archi­tects and builders of our own brains.

For mil­len­nia, how­ever, we were obliv­i­ous to our enor­mous cre­ative capa­bil­i­ties. We had no idea that our brains were chang­ing in response to our actions and atti­tudes, every day of our lives. So we uncon­sciously and ran­domly shaped our brains and our lat­ter years because we believed we had an immutable brain that was at the mercy of our genes.

Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth.

The human brain is con­tin­u­ally alter­ing its struc­ture, cell num­ber, cir­cuitry and chem­istry as a direct result of every­thing we do, expe­ri­ence, think and believe. This is called “neu­ro­plas­tic­ity”.  Neu­ro­plas­tic­ity comes from two words: neu­ron or nerve cell and plas­tic, mean­ing mal­leable or able to be molded.

The impli­ca­tions of neu­ro­plas­tic­ity are enor­mous: we have the abil­ity to keep our brains sharp, effec­tive and capa­ble of learn­ing new skills well into our 90s, if we pro­tect our brains from dam­ag­ing habits and give them ongo­ing stim­u­la­tion and appro­pri­ate fuel. One way to illus­trate this is to think of the brain and mind as a large boat, com­plete with cap­tain and crew, sail­ing the ocean blue.

The cap­tain makes the deci­sions and gives the orders, which the loyal crew fol­low. With­out a cap­tain, the boat would be direc­tion­less. With­out a crew, the day-to-day run­ning of the boat would be impos­si­ble. The crew know their role and don’t need the cap­tain to tell them how to do their job or to remind them of their job on a daily basis. They’re very well trained. The cap­tain only noti­fies the crew if he or she wants some­thing to change and takes charge when­ever lead­er­ship is required. As for the boat, it needs to be kept in good nick and fuelled on a reg­u­lar basis.

The cap­tain, the crew and the boat form a sin­gle, inter­de­pen­dent unit, each party influ­enc­ing the other two. If the cap­tain and crew don’t do their job prop­erly, the boat can get dam­aged and end up in dis­re­pair. If the boat is dam­aged, the jour­ney is more ardu­ous; in par­tic­u­lar, rough seas are more dif­fi­cult to han­dle. If the cap­tain is apa­thetic, incom­pe­tent or drunk, there is an absence of lead­er­ship. And if the cap­tain and crew are in con­stant dis­agree­ment, they won’t get very far.

How does this relate to the brain and mind? The cap­tain rep­re­sents the con­scious mind; the crew rep­re­sent the sub­con­scious mind; the boat is the brain; and the ocean is life.

The con­scious mind is the think­ing part of our­selves. It sets goals, makes deci­sions and inter­prets expe­ri­ences. The sub­con­scious mind is the part of our­selves beneath our con­scious aware­ness that keeps us alive and run­ning. It’s what keeps our hearts pump­ing, our lungs expand­ing and our hair grow­ing. We don’t con­sciously say to our­selves, “Pump, breathe, grow!”—these things are han­dled sub­con­sciously, through the auto­nomic ner­vous sys­tem. The num­ber one pri­or­ity of the sub­con­scious mind is our sur­vival: phys­i­cal, emo­tional and psy­cho­log­i­cal. This is why our sub­con­scious plays a pow­er­ful role in dic­tat­ing behav­iour. It pri­ori­tises our emo­tional well­be­ing over our con­scious wants. It’s why some­times we con­sciously think we want one thing, but still end up doing another. One rea­son that diets don’t work is they don’t address sub­con­scious issues that may be at play. We always sab­o­tage our efforts if the sub­con­scious pay-offs for not chang­ing over­ride the con­scious desire to lose weight. Finally, the brain is the ves­sel through which our con­scious and sub­con­scious minds operate.

Based on the anal­ogy of boat, cap­tain and crew, the fol­low­ing is an overview of how we can boost our brains.

1. Don’t dam­age the boat.
On day one in med­ical school, I was taught Pri­mum non nocere—“First do no harm”. No boat owner would know­ingly dam­age their boat, so it fol­lows that no human would know­ingly dam­age his brain. Apart from the obvi­ous injury caused by falling off lad­ders and falling into ille­gal drugs, things which harm the brain and reduce our cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties include smok­ing, stress, sleep depri­va­tion, soft drinks, seden­tary lifestyles, exces­sive alco­hol, junk food, high blood pres­sure, high cho­les­terol lev­els, obe­sity, lone­li­ness, pes­simism and neg­a­tive self-talk. Goal num­ber one is to avoid these dam­ag­ing entities.

2. Dock the boat in stim­u­lat­ing sur­round­ings.
Our brain func­tion improves in every mea­sur­able way when we find our­selves in envi­ron­ments that are men­tally, phys­i­cally and socially stim­u­lat­ing. Adven­ture pre­vents dementia!

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