Plasticity, Mind Power and the Human Brain
My approach to learning and development has materially changed over the last three years. I used to view myself on a gradual decline since the peak of degrees and professional qualification learning in my early 20’s. I accepted the ‘more brain cells die than grow when you’ve hit adulthood’ type of argument. I also used to think of new behaviours/ skills and knowledge as being left-brain learned and retained in memory. That the majority of permanent, hard-wired change had taken place during early development.
Plasticity has changed all that. It is defined by the excellent Franklin Institute resource on The Human Brain as ‘the tendency of the brain to shape itself according to experience… plasticity is the basic mental drive that networks your brain, giving you cognition and memory – fluidity, versatility, and adaptability’. Many neuroscientists now believe that the brain changes at a structural level when you learn new skills or have experiences that are sufficiently new that they need you to store the memory differently. Effectively, the density of the connections and pathways in your brain increases; your brain isn’t slowly dieing if you keep it stimulated.
Can you apply the theory of plasticity to changing behaviours, habits and ways of thinking? So, harness the power of your mind and its plastic properties to be a ‘different you’? I think the answer is yes, as long as the fundamentals of focus, consistency, persistency and action are applied. What do I mean?
Movement is why our brains exist. As the FI states, ‘The original need for a nervous system was to coordinate movement, so an organism could go find food…..behind all the myriad forms of life today, the primary directive remains. Movement’. So, when tied into the tendency of the brain to shape itself according to experience, I believe we have a suggested route for making change stickier:
The majority of self-help/ self-development/ change-yourself style of books can be intellectually and theoretically robust and then only invest a small amount in the focus and repeated behavioural changes required to re-mould you for the ‘different you’ to take effect. The journey I have taken over the last three years started with left-brain theory and conscious attempts to make change happen by focus and thinking hard about doing. It has now reached a place where this theory is still valid; the application of mind power to the act of change is still valid. What has changed is the bit where I now realise you have to relax into repeated habit. You can’t beat yourself up for failing to change or for breaching your will-power. Just get back to it the next day, or the next opportunity to act and exhibit the changed behaviour. The conscious act of flagellation for failure to change seems to push my goal cowering into the corner; even more reticent to come forward when another change reinforcement opportunity arises. Do the quicksand thing: relax, lie on your back and don’t struggle when you fail to be perfect. The fact you’re trying to change something as important as a behaviour, habit or way of thinking is a very worthy pursuit.
The tedious truth is that consistent, persistent actions repeated and repeated are what embeds the change. The ability to pick yourself up without self-criticism and try again to change. The reason why your conscious criticiser needs removing from the process is that it’s the action that matters. The ‘changes in the synaptic connections between brain cells….necessary to acquire and store new information’ are strengthened by the act. Thinking about the change is proven to help a lot – but the dendritic branches in your brain are strengthened by movement, by action. And the great thing is that even if you can’t help beating yourself up, thinking that you’re failing and can’t change – it’s rubbish. You don’t matter. Get out of your own way. Carry on taking the opportunities to exhibit the changed behaviours.
So the brain games, challenges and teasers continuing to flood the market to give us the neurological exercise we need is all valid. My personal plea is that rather than knowing how to add things up faster, or learning a swathe of random factoids, look at yourself first. Analyse your destructive or limiting behaviours. Model a new set of behaviours you’d love to adopt. Then take that brain plasticity, a bit of mind power and, in Gandhi’s words, ‘be the change you want to see’.