“My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.”
William James, American psychologist
William James was one of the first psychologists to address the notion of neuroplasticity back in his late 19th century text, “The Principles of Psychology.” The central idea behind neuroplasticity is that our brain can restructure itself based on our experience.
One great example of neuroplasticity is sensory substitution. For instance, if a person is born blind, often the visual parts of the brain will be taken over by another sense, such as hearing or touch. This is the brain’s way of re-allocating unused processing power only to what we are actually experiencing. It would be wasteful to leave potential neural networks dormant simply because we aren’t getting any input from that sense. Thus, brains have evolved over time to become more adaptive to these changes in our biology.
Neuroplasticity occurs inside us everyday as we encounter new experiences. Below you’ll see several photographs of neural circuity in the brain. From the left the pictures show us the neural circuity of a newborn, then a 3 month old, 15 month old, and 2 year old. As the child ages, their brain’s wiring becomes increasingly more complex and interconnected. Neuroplasticity is what allows us to take our experiences, then learn from them and form new memories. Huge changes are occurring in the brain during these early stages of cognitive development, but the truth is that our neural networks continue to build on each other until the day we die.
The more often neural pathways fire, the stronger the connections will become. This is called long-term potentiation, and it is the basis of all learning and memory formation. This idea is best encapsulated in Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb’s famous quote, “neurons that fire together wire together.”
The big implication here is that if our brain changes itself based on our experiences, then by changing our experiences we can actively reshape our brains. One way to consciously change our experience is to learn how to apply mindfulness, the ability to be intentionally aware of our experience as it is unfolding. And by being more aware of our present experience as it is happening, we begin to form a secondary ability that UCLA psychiatrist Daniel Siegel calls “response flexibility” – the capacity to pause before we act. He describes it as follows:
- “It creates a spaciousness of the mind to notice that an impulse has arisen and to disconnect from the automatic behavior that usually follows when someone is an impulsive person. So mindfulness creates a space between impulse and action that allows us to be more flexible in our responses.”
For more of Siegel’s thoughts on mindfulness and neuroplasticity you can check out the video below (or for even more information check out his book Mindsight):
Because mindfulness allows us this flexibility in our decision-making, it also gives us more flexibility in how we choose our experiences, and a more plastic brain.
Earlier this year a study was published that showed just 8 weeks of mindfulness training can create significant changes in regions of the brain associated with attention, memory, stress, and empathy. Two of these regions include the pre-frontal cortex, which allows us control and shift our attention, and the insula, which makes us more self-aware and empathic.
Being mindful is the exact opposite of our “fight, flight, or freeze” part of the brain, the part of our brain that is activated when we feel threatened or in danger. This state of mind isn’t necessarily bad, but unfortunately, due to our busy and very fast-paced world, we have been conditioned to activate “fight, flight, or freeze” as a reaction to novel stimuli that don’t actually pose a threat or danger. However, when we are able to remain mindful, calm, non-impulsive, and feeling safe, we can free up our mental resources and use them more effectively for things like learning and problem-solving.
The takeaway here is that by practicing daily mindfulness we can take advantage of the neuroplasticity of our brains and thereby improve the state of our lives.
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