What is neuroplasticity?

In the book “Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology”, Dr. Daniel J. Siegel defines Neuroplasticity as: “The ability of the brain to change its structure in response to experience. Experience activates neurons which then can then turn on genes that enable structural changes to be made that strengthen the connections among activated neurons.”

If this explanation is hard to understand, join the club, I had difficulty understanding this definition as well. Consequently, I read through this book multiple times and I have read many other articles and books on Neuroplasticity.

Basic Definition of Neuroplasticity

To clarify, my understanding of Neuroplasticity is that our brains are over 50% hard wired by the age of 7. By then we have beliefs about ourselves, our caregivers, families, peers, our outer world and what is right from wrong. This makes up your value system. You are essentially a sponge that is soaking up external information around you without a filter. The issue is that you lack the critical thinking skills to debate what your actual perception of what right from wrong is. As a result, you are left believing that everything you see or hear is just the way the world is.  

Your brain is hard wired to follow the lead of the primary people in your environment. Therefore, as you can see, we are destined to be just like our primary caregivers without much choice. Based primarily on our home environment, our internal beliefs and value system are created in early childhood . As we get older, daycare and school environments become a factor in influencing brain development as well. 

Parents can hope that other adults, such as the teachers, would be influencing. However, most likely our peers and peer influence also known as peer pressure is playing a huge role in the development of who we are, what we think and what we stand for.  

Information Processing

Dr. Daniel J. Siegal says “these basic neurol connections set up early in life by either mechanism create the foundation for how the brain will participate in information processing as the child grows.” 

I understand information processing as what we see and hear around us. Then we process this information internally within our mind and make meaning of it. We will then select what information supports our core beliefs and what information does not. 

Often as children get older, they gravitate towards peer influence. They are seeking new information to process that may challenge or confirm their existing beliefs and value system within their hard wired brain.(mind) It is typical for children to end up being close friends with children that like the same activities as them, who think in a similar way and who look the same as them. We are wired to seek connection and validation of our existing core beliefs and values. We often want to be the ‘same as’, not ‘different then’ to feel accepted rather than rejected. 

Challenging of our belief system in Adulthood

This combination of our home environment and peer influence continue to contribute to how our brain is hard wired. Before we know it, we are an adult and set on a path of how we will interact with others. This influences how we select our job, our partner, our friends and how we will raise our children. 

As we enter the workplace or attend secondary education institutions, we will meet and encounter people of all backgrounds and core belief systems. These adult encounters will challenge our internal hard wired brains of what is right and wrong, how to parent, how to treat your life partner, who to vote for, what to believe in, spirituality, etc.

These encounters with other human beings will ultimately in some cases challenge our core beliefs and our pre-existing value system. This invokes an automatic emotional response within our mind, brain and body. Our emotional response can often be negative, we then become defensive, when we feel our beliefs and values have been challenged. I suggest that you want to actively acknowledge that you have become emotionally defensive, then take the time necessary to logically receive this new information that someone else has a different belief and value system than yours. Ultimately, it is fine when two adults, have two different sets of belief and value systems. I recommend attempting to avoid arguments and entering a ‘win and lose mentality’ when it comes to our core beliefs and values. These difficult conversations should come from a place of curiosity rather than a place of hostility. 

You can change your childhood beliefs by choosing your own beliefs in Adulthood

Without realizing it, when your core beliefs and value system is challenged, our hard wired brain engages our nervous system and we automatically enter survival mode. Our nervous system (fight, flight or freeze) initiates and we become defensive, or we shut down. You can read more about the nervous system in my blog entitled nervous system

When we enter adult life, we are effectively trying to navigate the world on our own, which will lead to encounters with people that may support or challenge how our brains our currently wired. This leaves us with an importance choice to make day to day within these encounters. We can challenge people and give in to our automatic emotional response. On the other hand, you can take a step back, take a deep breathe and effectively open your mind. This opens you up to new concepts and beliefs. You can choose to re-wire your brain the way you want moving forward. 

You can change your pre-determined childhood beliefs by choosing your own beliefs in Adulthood 

Science has proven that through neuroplasticity, you can re-wire your brain. Therefore you will think differently, feel differently and this will produce different results in your life. If you are someone who has realized that you want different results in your life, here are some tips on supporting neuroplasticity and the re-wiring process.

Aerobic Exercise: Be active, it releases important chemicals within our brains.

Good Sleep: We need it to optimize our function.

Good nutrition: Water, fruits, vegetables, protein and healthy fats are what fuel our body and brain.

Relationships: Set boundaries, say no, seek healthy connections

Novelty: avoid being in rut or becoming bored, seek new activities and experiences.

Mindfulness: Avoid multitasking, stay present in the moment, be aware of your cell phone use.

Time In: Reflect within yourself or meditation. Just sitting or laying and doing nothing. Listen to your thoughts, your feelings and your emotions. Have conversations with yourself.

Joy and Humor: laugh, play, do not take yourself or life so seriously.

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