We all know what it's like to try to make change and to find that months, weeks and perhaps years down the line, nothing is any different in our lives. You probably know that making change is difficult, but as you may have heard me say many times: Change is hard, but change is possible, you just need to know how.
Neuroplasticity is the ability that our brain and nervous system have, to make change. If you want to make real change, it is key to understand how this process works.
I have shared elements of my personal story previously: I was told later in life that my brain was ‘fixed’ and that it was unlikely I was going to be able to tackle some of my mental health and physical health challenges that I was experiencing. I had been thinking, feeling, and acting the same way for very many years, and that neural circuit was hardwired into my brain.
It was not until I understood how neuroplasticity works that I was able to begin to make real change and positively impact the outcomes in my life.
Sometimes we all reach a point in our lives where we must accept that despite being motivated, disciplined, possessing grit and the ability to work hard it is not always enough to be able to make the change that we know we need. I reached a point in my life where I realized that:
“When willpower alone fades, it is brain power that makes real change.” – The SuccessRx Coaching program (Alice Penn MD).
The brain is designed to conserve our energy, so many of the actions, thoughts, and feelings that we have day-to-day are automatic, reflexive, or habitual. They are done without us really requiring much energy.
You may have heard the saying, “age is not a number”. But when it comes to the brain, 25 is a number. A relevant number! Before the age of 25, it is a lot easier to create new neural pathways, to learn new things and to embed down these new neural tracts. After the age of 25 change is a lot more difficult. It is possible, but it is harder, and you must be deliberate and choose to make change.
I often explain neural pathways, like animal tracks. Here in South Africa, if you go on safari, or perhaps if you have been thick vegetation in nature, you will have noticed animal tracks through the thick vegetation. Animals walk up and down these same tracks daily. It is of course easier to do so than to crash through the thick vegetation. These same paths are evident for years and years and our neural pathways in our brain and nervous system are much the same.
It is easier to keep going along those well-worn paths and tracks than it is to create one. If you want to create new neural pathways, if you want to make change, if you want to learn something new, if you want to change the way you're thinking and feeling and acting, you need to take deliberate action to form a new track, to form a new neural pathway.
And much like it would be for an animal to create a new pathway to walk down through thick vegetation, this takes energy and effort.
Before I dive into explaining neuroplasticity and how to create those new tracks, it is important to understand that the nervous system, (made up of the brain, the spinal cord, and the nerves) has a two-way communication system.
Nervous system 2-way communication:
1) The first system is ‘bottom-up’:
We pick up information through our senses and it moves from our sensory receptors up to our brain. Our brain then generates a response reflexively. We may see something, feel something, smell something, or touch something, and our brain will respond in a certain way.
This sort of ‘bottom-up’ communication is usually reflexive or habitual. It happens without us being aware of it. It is therefore a ‘low energy’ communication pathway.
Most of what we think and do, is reflexive. It is habitual. It does not require a lot of energy.
However, not all behavior is reflexive. We can create deliberate action.
2) The second system is ‘top-down’:
‘Top-down’ is deliberate action. It is choosing how we wish to respond, act, think and feel.
It is the conscious activation of our prefrontal cortex - the front part of our brain.
It is the deliberate creation of thoughts and actions. And unsurprisingly because it is deliberate, and not habitual, it requires energy. And as it requires energy, and our brains want to conserve energy, you need to overcome yourself and how you feel in order to take that deliberate action.
What is neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is the process by which neuron connections change in response to a stimulus.
Neuroplasticity shapes how you think, your behaviors and how you perform.
You can self-direct your neural experiences and make change.
Just remember that new pathways require ‘top-down’ activation, and this takes your energy and attention.
Neuroplasticity is a two-step process:
1) To make change, you need to have ‘top-down’, deliberate action. This requires more energy and as you prepare to take the new action, you will notice a feeling of resistance coming up. This is the brain trying to slow you down and get you to conserve energy.
To overcome this resistance, you need a fair degree of alertness, focus and attention, and at times agitation and strain to overcome that resistance. This strain/agitation is essential because the alert and focused state is what highlights and marks the neuron cells for change.
Neuroplasticity is controlled by various neuromodulators:
Adrenaline (epinephrine) - makes us more alert, allows that little bit of agitation and focus and puts our attention on the new action or new behavior that we are trying to undertake.
Acetylcholine is also released: it opens up neuroplasticity and creates an even more intense focus or spotlight on those cells that you are marking for change.
2) The second step is essential to neuroplasticity, but the one that many people forget about: deep sleep or non-sleep deep rest (NSDR). Real change does not occur while we are awake and performing the new behaviors.
The real change is embedded down when we are asleep. So deep sleep is critical to be able to embed down the new neural pathways that you are working on.
When it comes to neuroscience, repetition is essential. You must keep repeating this two-step process, the agitation, the strain and the focus to undertake the new behavior, followed by deep sleep. Toggling between the two over and over again is what will embed and lay down those new neural pathways.
I am always reminded of the Thomas Jefferson quote:
“If you want something that you have never had, you need to do something that you’ve never done.”
If you want to make change, you must take deliberate action in order to create new thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. You need to do something different. And in fact, you need to do this in repetition to lay down those new neural pathways.
Do not be fooled into thinking that your brain is fixed and that you are one and done. There is always hope. You just need to understand how the brain works and harness the neuroscience.
The number 1 mistake people make when trying to make change:
So many people try to change their behavior beginning with big change, trying to implement radical and stretching goals. If you want long lasting change, you need to start small. No matter what your type-A personality brain tells you!
You need to start with something that is a little challenging, but that you can overcome, so that you can start to lay down new neural pathways. If you choose something that is too challenging even if you are a hardworking person, it is not likely that over time you’ll be able to keep the change up consistently. You need to perform the two-step neuroplasticity cycle repeatedly, in order to lay down the new pathways. So, start small with your new behaviors and new actions. 1% better each day is 37 times better in 1 year. Start small because consistency is key.
If you are serious about making change and laying down new neural pathways, you may want to make use of the 24-hour body clock or circadian rhythms:
Perform new behaviors that require focus in the first eight hours after waking - there are certain neuromodulators and hormones that are more active and circulating in higher levels at that time of the day. They will help you focus and be more alert, better able to overcome the resistance you may feel to making deliberate action.
Nine to 15 hours after waking is a good time for more creative tasks or those that you find a little easier to do.
The most important part of the day is your sleep. You need deep-sleep in order to lay down those new neural pathways.
The take home message:
· Change is hard but possible.
· Neuroplasticity is a two-step process. The activation, focus and agitation, alternating and toggling between deep sleep.
· Focus, alertness and some agitation/strain are essential.
· Deep sleep is where the magic happens.
· Start small and use the first eight hours of the day to undertake new behaviors and new actions.