Neuroplasticity – our incredible adaptable brains

I think this is one of the most motivating and empowering ways to think about how we, and our children, live our lives. It is something I am passionate about so please get in touch with any questions or observations you may have!

What is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to adapt and change depending on experience. Every time we do something new – a thought, emotion or action – we create new pathways between neurons in our brain. And every time we repeat something, we make that pathway stronger. Here is a brilliant and short explanatory video.

What is happening in my brain?
When we learn something new, cells called oligodendrocytes produce something called myelin in the part of the brain where the learning occurs. Myelin is a fatty substance that is needed for effective transmission of nerve signals. It is critical to the healthy functioning of our brains, for example damaged myelin is associated with disorders such as multiple sclerosis.

What does all this mean for me?
What it means is that we can literally re-wire our brains! Neuroplasticity is the physical basis for why repeating a thought or action over and over again increases its power. We literally become what we think and do!

It takes commitment, and will be hard while the neural pathways connected to existing habits and actions you want to change are still strong, but with perseverance those pathways will weaken and new, more positive, pathways will be created. Positive changes are just as powerful as bad habits. Research suggests that it takes around 1 month to create a new habit such as switching from drinking coffee to drinking lemon water first thing in the morning, and more like 6 months to change a belief or attitude.

Some practical suggestions

  • “Practice makes perfect” – Explain this concept in simple terms to your kids. Children often get frustrated when they can’t do something first time, but explaining that the brain gets stronger every time they repeat it can help encourage perseverance
  • Exercise for the brain – make sure you and your kids get at least 30 mins of physical activity a day – exercise has been shown to increase neuroplasticity
  • Brain food – eat food that feed the brain (and particularly myelin) including healthy fats such as omega 3 – fish, nuts, seeds, eggs
  • Think about the language you use – if you and your kids are prone to saying ‘I’m not good at that’, ‘I can’t do that’ try to remember neuroplasticity and reframe it to ‘I can do anything I put my mind to’ and ‘it will get easier the more I practice’
  • Take baby steps – one of the habits I want to break is reducing how often I check emails/social media on my phone. So I leave my phone upstairs in the mornings until we get dressed, and leaving it in the other room when I cook and during mealtimes so it can’t distract me. That’s enough for now – but once that becomes habitual I can go further and trust I have the self-discipline to do it
  • Read the book Mindset by Carol Dweck– it certainly made me feel empowered and that life is not just at the mercy of environment and genetics! If you don’t have time to read the whole book, this article provides a great roundup.

I’ll leave you with this wise quote from around 380BC:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”. Aristotle

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