Neuroplasticity? Using Habits and Thoughts to Rewire Your Brain
How many of us have heard, “Just have a little willpower and you can lose those extra pounds.” I know I have, pretty much all my life.
I have felt like I was basically a big loser because I have no willpower and never have. I always thought something was wrong with me; I must be mentally weak if I cant stay away from the cookies in the break room or the chocolate cake in the refrigerator.
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However, new (or really semi-new) research out shows that there is a little something called neuroplasticity. The idea that the brain can learn new things even at an old age was something we thought wasn’t possible.
Most neurologists thought that what you were born with coupled with age made the brain static and not physically dynamic.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Sounds so... medical, doesn’t it? Neuroplasticity is defined as, “Capacity of neurons and neural networks in the brain to change their connections and behavior in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction.”
So each time you wanna learn a cool new move in the gym or you wanna study to be a rocket scientist, the physical brain changes - new connections are made.
Alzheimer’s runs in our family and my sister is always trying to make me do sudoku so that I won't get it. I freaking hate sudoku, but she may be on to something.
What if you forget someone's position at the company or their name? That means connections that were once there are now weak or have no connection at all.
So this means learning new things is actually a physical manifestation, at least in your brain. It was thought previously that once we were an adult, that was it. It was thought after we became adults that new neurons or connections just didn’t happen.
Trying new things for a period of time may change a pathway and make it stronger.
You create new pathways and connections when you do stuff that is new. However, you need to do it for a period of time.
So that one time at band camp where you played the flute horribly probably won’t make a strong connection. But if you play and get better and better, that neural pathway is stronger, new connections are made and you go on to play flute in an orchestra.
I thought this was a bunch of bunk. Totally - I mean your thoughts can change your brain matter? Come on.
Seriously there are neurologists that specialize in neuroplasticity. It has many benefits, because if you can make new changes and connections in the brain, then your behavior dictates what connections your brain has.
I have experienced this first hand - no really. I have all kinds of new connections, and I didn’t even really mean to.
When losing my weight, I had tried a million times before, but it never “stuck.” Unwilling behavior change over a long period of time (6 months) had me make what I was doing a habit, which it had not been before.
Viola, the connections had been changed and I kept going. Pretty soon, I hit my goal weight. I have always credited this lasting change to this “habit” of eating right for an extended period of time.
So how do you start?
Let's not get all existential and stuff. Let's look at the small stuff you can do.
Tip #1 - Change Your Behavior
Change your behavior for an extended period of time. This means you do it for the long haul. Duh, that's a no-brainer.
However, you don't even have to like it, You just have to do it.
I wasn’t excited about losing weight in a contest. I was excited about the money, and that made me change the habit of what I ate, but don't think I was especially ecstatic over it.
Tip #2 - Forget Your Fear
Fear hinders you from making changes. You know what I am talking about - the fear of failure. Here is an example.
Let's say you saw the girl of your dreams, but you turn all chicken when faced with asking her out. Because, what if she says no?
The thing is, you gotta look beyond that. By changing your thinking about failure, the actual act of failing becomes irrelevant.
So thinking you may crash and burn when you ask the girl of your dreams out, but you do it anyway, will translate to other parts of your life. You will take failure out of the equation and be able to move forward with more things that could (or couldn’t) enhance your life.
Tip #3 - Use Mental Imagery
I know, kind of lame, or at least I thought it was lame until I started trying it. I am, by nature, an extremely fearful person. Fear hinders me in a big way, and even doing number two as much as possible, it's still there.
Here is where mental imagery helps. I think about what it will feel like to win a game, meet my goal on stage in a contest or just be super successful. It helps me with fear and gets me excited about meeting my goal.
Tip # 4 - Do Stuff
Mental imagery is all fine and good, but it goes without saying that you actually need to physically do stuff to make it a reality. This goes back to point number one, however, it is hard, like super hard to do it.
One of the best books I have read that coincides with neuroplasticity is, “The 5 Second Rule” by Mel Robbins. She says when she is procrastinating on something that she knows she needs to do, she counts backward from five.
This is actually a brain activity. If you count up, it's not as effective. Reason? When you count down you run out of numbers and you have no other choice (for your brain, that is) but to do the task.
My mom used to count up - “I am going to count to 3...” and it wasn’t as effective, because there may be a 4 or a five number counted before my ass got spanked.
The brain is an amazing, ever-changing organ. It was once thought that after a certain critical age, our brains didn’t change, but come to find out, that is a bunch of bunk.
Our thoughts and habits can change our brain connections and neural pathways, making us able to learn and grow as we get older. Even the way we think can change our brain chemistry (neurotransmitters) and neural connections and pathways.
This is great news because we all can be what we decide to be. How many of you have heard millionaires interviewed say that they aren’t really that smart, but they worked hard toward their goal - most of us, myself included thought, “Yeah, right.”
I mean, I work hard, why wasn’t I a millionaire? They just either got lucky or had everything handed to them... Well, I also didn’t do the above four things, either.
I am still a work in progress with those and am excited that my pathways can get stronger in new habits that I am forming.
I am also encouraged that my pathways that I have had since childhood has evolved and changed. I am no longer morbidly obese, and willpower had nothing to do with it.