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!

Keep read­ing…


  1. Sandra Heusel on February 1, 2012 at 1:54

    So true!! This is what we prac­tice with our stu­dents every day at Eaton Arrow­smith School in Van­cou­ver, Vic­to­ria and soon to be Sur­rey, BC, Cana­da. By strength­en­ing their capac­i­ty to learn, as opposed to accom­mo­dat­ing for their learn­ing weak­ness­es, our stu­dents are build­ing stronger and tighter cog­ni­tive ships…which will lead them on a far more inde­pen­dent­ly run jour­ney through­out life!

  2. Kyle Ambrosas on February 1, 2012 at 7:53

    Great anal­o­gy! It real­ly ties every­thing togeth­er nice­ly. It’s inter­est­ing too, if you com­bine every­thing we are told to do to stay phys­i­cal­ly healthy with the things we are told to do to be hap­py, you basi­cal­ly get a healthy brain. 

    Bot­tom line, exer­cise and be hap­py and your brain will work real­ly well even when you are old!

English About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.

English About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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