Neuro-Plasticity: Want To Outsmart Your Brain?
Neuro-plasticity research now proves what many have long known: that you are never too old to change, and more so, that you can rewire your brain to think and act in ways that lead to greater success in work, love & life.
The first time I read that my brain was plastic I thought it was a joke. That was until I realized the author wasn’t talking about plastic as in a plate, but as in pliable.
As brain imaging technology has advanced, so too has our understanding of how the brain works. One of the most significant findings has been the discovery that our brain doesn’t stop growing when our body does; that is, that it has the ability to adapt and change right up to the end of our life. This means that just because we have well established ways of processing information and responding to our environment, we are still capable of developing new and more constructive ways in the future. While a deeper understanding of neuro-plasticity is extremely relevant for people who have suffered from a stroke or other traumatic brain injury, what has piqued my interest most is its application for those of us whose brains already work perfectly well. Most days, anyway.
Neuro-plasticity research now proves what many have long known:
that you are never too old to change, and more so, that you can rewire your brain to think in ways that lead to greater happiness & success.
I must admit though, my enlightened understanding about my brain’s “plasticity” has been both a help and a bother. No longer can I justify my inability to figure out how to back-up my computer with excuses like “I’m just not a technology person.” And though at times I’ve cursed my new found knowledge about my brain’s ability to master skills that have long eluded me, develop healthier habits, and learn new ways of responding to environmental triggers, ultimately this knowledge has been extremely valuable. I now know that the old adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is really just a false and convenient belief that spares us from the effort involved in learning new tricks – like backing up my computer!
Last week I attended a coaching conference where Dr. Jeffry Schwartz, UCLA Professor of Psychiatry and author of You Are Not Your Brain, spoke about his research findings on neuro-plasticity. What he shared reinforced my understanding and confirmed what I intuitively knew and wrote about in Find Your Courage. Which is, that by intentionally choosing to view your environment in new ways, rewrite your personal narrative, and step into action in the presence of your fears, you become more competent in whatever those actions may be, but also build your “courage muscles” so you can respond more effectively in other areas of your life. Whether in the conversations you have with your work colleagues, your confidence in asserting boundaries in your personal life, or your willingness to take on goals that you’ve previously shied away from, by practicing new ways of interacting in your environment, you are able to build new pathways in your brain and produce new (and better) results in your life.
Neuro-scientific findings, like those also detailed in Dr. Norman Doidge’s great book The Brain that Changes Itself, have proven that right up to the end of our lives we can build new neural pathways in our brain that ultimately rewire it. Of course just like creating a new pathway in the forest requires more than a one-time walk off the beaten track, so too does creating a new pathway in the brain take more than a one-off action. It takes repetition. Or in the case of developing a new habit that usurps an unhealthy old one, or even a new way of dealing with people and life – whether it is timidity, laziness or pessimism – it takes practice. Repeated practice. After all, it took your entire lifetime to develop the default ways of thinking and acting that you have today. Rewiring the way you think and act is going to take time.
Self-directed neuro-plasticity may sound all very high-brow and intellectual. But at its core it’s pretty simple: building self-awareness – the foundation for success in every arena of life. That is, cultivating your ability to observe yourself so that you notice, as a detached observer, what you are thinking and feeling and how each are feeding off each other in any given moment. This is crucial because you can only make new and more constructive choices when you are conscious of the ones you are making now.
Just like a one-time walk off the beaten path will not create a new pathway on the forest floor, neither will a one-time action create a new pathway in the brain. Rewiring the way you think and act requires repetition and time.
In my own efforts to build self-awareness, just this morning I noticed myself complaining to a friend about the fact that just a few days from now my four kids will be off from school for the summer. “There goes my productivity for the next 3 months,” I heard myself lamenting. In the car on my way home I thought about how powerless that statement was; as though my productivity is entirely at the mercy of my childrens’ summer holidays. By noticing myself verbalizing such a disempowering thought it opened up the window for me to choose to think a more constructive one. The truth is that the summer months provide me with a unique and valuable opportunity. Sure, my home (where I generally work) will be noisier, and my days less my own, but that doesn’t mean I can no longer be productive. I can use these summer months to hone my focus during the hours I put aside to work, practice greater flexibility in how I structure my day, and prioritize my time more effectively so I can be fully engaged in whatever I’m doing and whomever I’m doing it with – kids or clients.
The S.O.A.R2 Approach to Outsmart Your Brain
As you’ve been reading this you may have thought of some areas of your life where you aren’t feeling as powerful or positive as you would like. I invite you to practice self-directed neuro-plasticity and rewire your brain’s default way of responding by working through each of the following 5 steps which comprise my S.O.A.R2 Model for behavior change and resilience building (the basic building blocks for SOARing to new heights of success in work, love & life!)
- STOP what you are doing and notice the thoughts you are thinking and how they are making you feel. If you are feeling really uptight or anxious take at least 5 deep breaths to short circuit your primal brain’s “Alarm” reaction and avoid what is commonly called a “neural high-jack.”
- OBSERVE the way you are looking at your situation. What is it about how you are looking at this “problem” that makes you feel the way you do? Imagine yourself up high in the air looking down on your situation and notice how by elevating your perspective, it can alter how you see the “problem.”
- ASK yourself how the wisest person you know view your circumstances? What’s the valuable lesson this situation has to teach you? (And believe me, every uncomfortable emotion and difficult situation has something of great value to teach us.) Remember, we prove we are smart by our answers, but wise by our questions. The more you can embrace curiosity, the wiser you will become.
- REFRAME your situation, keeping in mind that the thoughts you are thinking are not reality, just how your brain is processing it. How, by viewing this from a larger perspective, could you see the “problem” in a whole new light? Focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t.
- RESPOND intentionally to your situation (as distinct from just reacting in the way you may have habitually done in the past). What is the most constructive way to respond to this situation?
Repeat process as often as necessary. (Note: This process, or a variation thereof, will be necessary for at least the next 50 years).
Let me know your thoughts by sharing a comment below. And if you’re on Facebook, please share this article with those you think would also like to outsmart their brain, and in the process, reshape their life!