The dawn of neuroscience traces back to the movie The Mummy. Okay, kidding, but it does trace back to Egyptian mummification practices, which removed the brain, assuming it was the heart. In a sense, they were not entirely wrong, since there is an undeniable harmony between the two. The functions of our heart are inextricably linked to those of our brain. Every time you fell in and out of love, your brain had to go along with it. Yet, as researchers discovered more about the brain, they found more intricate connections and possibilities for research than just between heart and brain. With neuro-imaging, for example, scientists found a wealth of information on the nuance of brain function relating to the entire body.
One of the most popular of these discoveries is neuroplasticity. In short, neuroplasticity is your brain’s inherent ability to restore itself. Stressful events such as death of loved ones, financial turmoil, as well as periods of malnutrition or worse can have visible effects on the brain’s chemical composition. Stress, trauma, and disaster have negative effects on a neurobiological level. However, neuroplasticity proves that stress does not have the final word, you do.
Looking at the word neuroplasticity, we see “neuro” which relates to the brain. Plasticity is not referring to plastic in this case, but is defined as “the capability of being molded, receiving shape, or being made to assume a desired form.” Therefore, neuroplasticity acknowledges the inherent control that people have over their thoughts and the ability we have to shape our reality.
The brain has been shown to rebuild itself even after physical injuries, “Neuroplasticity allows the brain to ‘rewire’ itself in order to restore or maximize brain functioning by rebuilding neural circuits and allowing an uninjured part of the brain to take over the damaged part.” In general, resilient systems are those that are interdisciplinary and complex. Think of how a big corporation lasts even though one department may take a hit, while small businesses don’t have that luxury (business resilience will be discussed in an upcoming post). Your brain, by nature is a resilient system, just like one of the major corporations. While one section of your brain takes a hit, others can jump in to help restore it.
This is the most exciting part, because it means there is inner biological growth we can control just by changing our thoughts. One of the most acclaimed psychological researchers, Deepak Chopra, MD, and Harvard University neuroscientist Rudolph Tanzi, Ph. D. write that “Neuroplasticity is better than mind over matter. It’s mind turning into matter as your thoughts create new neuronal growth.” (Chopra & Tanzi, 2012, p. 52) That sounds pretty unreal, but what does that mean? Let’s take a look at a scan of a brain to get a better visual. The bright yellow shows proper brain functioning. Think of it like turning a light bulb on- all of the functions of the light bulb are being used, and the effects are tangible. The darker brain scan can be compared to using the same light bulb, but not turning it on. The point of this is not to look at depressed people and see them as limited, but rather that they haven’t figured out how to use the function that they inherently have.
Your own biology is in fact proof of inherent resilience. Not only is it able to recover from trauma, but to reverse the damage it causes. Every brain does this, whether it’s Einstein’s, mine, or even yours! But, is there anything you can do to actually develop this resilience?
Yes! Here are three ways you can help your brain grow, and become more resilient:
1. Create something beautiful. Cooking, painting, and planning an event are all examples of creating positive connection pathways. The trick is that you yourself have to appreciate each step and train yourself to see the positive aspects in what you are doing.
2. Find and stick to an exercise routine that you actually like. When I tell people I run, I often get a really confused smile in return and a comment along the lines of, “Yeah, I like to run to Burger King from my car.” I actually love to run and believe you should love what you do, so find something that’s doable and will leave you more fit.
3. Do something that scares you (within reason). Fear often blocks pathways in your brain and overcoming those fears will actually open up new pathways (think of the light bulb analogy.) Maybe you are scared of going to a new country or even something like speaking to people in the grocery store. In any case, take a healthy risk. I dare you.