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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!

Keep read­ing…

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2 Responses

  1. 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. 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!

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters, and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm and think tank tracking health and performance applications of brain science.