What Is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is the capacity of nerve cells to biologically adapt to circumstances—to respond to stimulation by generating new tendrils of connection (synapses) to other nerve cells, and to respond to deprivation and excess stress by weakening connections.
Neuroplasticity underlies the capacity for learning and memory, and it enables mental and behavioral flexibility.Research has firmly established that the brain is a dynamic organ and can change its architecture throughout life, responding to experience by reorganizing connections—in short, by wiring and rewiring itself. Scientists sometimes refer to the process of neuroplasticity as “structural remodeling of the brain.”
The importance of neuroplasticity can’t be overstated: It means that it is possible to change dysfunctional patterns of thinking and behaving and to develop new mindsets, new memories, new skills, and new abilities.
Bouncing Back: Neuroplasticity in Everyday Life
The ability of the brain to change and grow in response to experience enables people to bounce back from setbacks and adversity—to be, in a word, resilient. They can bend without breaking.
The disruption of neuroplasticity by severe stress or adversity is characteristic of such conditions as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. There is quite literally a loss of synapses. In those disorders, people get stuck in neural ruts of negative thinking/feeling/behaving or fear-based memories.
All psychotherapy is intended to foster resilience; the goal is to help people examine distressing feelings and experience and redirect them into more functional patterns, restoring cognitive and behavioral flexibility.
Aging is thought to decrease resilience through the cumulative detrimental effects of stress on neuroplasticity. The dynamic capacity of the brain to rewire itself in response to experience makes a case for lifelong stimulation as a way to maintain optimal brain health and to decrease the risk of dementia and degenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.
How to Stimulate Neuroplasticity
It is not only possible but necessary to use your mind and your body to reshape your brain. Enhancing synaptic connectivity through any of a variety of means actively promotes cognitive and mental health and blunts the impact of negative stimuli.
One of the most powerful ways to open up “windows of plasticity” in the brain is physical activity. Aerobic exercise helps the brain as much as the heart. In the brain, it stimulates the release of the substance known as brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which sets in motion the growth of new synaptic connections and bolsters the strength of signals transmitted from neuron to neuron.
BDNF helps pave networks of neuronal correction, promoting mental and behavioral flexibility. Stress is known to weaken expression of BDNF. Studies show that walking an hour a day, 5 out of 7 days a week, increases brain matter in the hippocampus, the seat of learning and memory.
All drugs known to alleviate depression stimulate the release of BDNF and other biological molecules that promote nerve cell growth and neuroplasticity. Many other nonpharmacologic ways have been shown to directly stimulate and maintain neuroplasticity. They include:
• Engaging in positive social interactions
• Participating in novel activities
• Engaging in play
• Being in enriched and stimulating environments
• Practicing and repeating positive activities—even mentally rehearsing them
• Engaging in mental training strategies such as mindfulness meditation
• Developing a sense of purpose in life.