NEUROPLASTICITY, EXPLAINED

By: MIGHTY PURSUIT TEAM

When you’re in the middle of a mental health crisis, it can feel like there’s no way out. No hope for a better future. No glimmer of light.  Millions, if not billions of people experience this reality on a daily basis. The utter feeling of helplessness has become too familiar to too many.   As we previously covered in our blog on mental health statistics, as of 2017, there were 792 million people worldwide diagnosed with a mental health condition. Keyword: diagnosed. Even at best, many of us have simply become accustomed to living out our days with a low-grade anxiety that we can never seem to shake free from. Will it always be this way? The good news is on the scientific front, it doesn’t have to be. Recent discoveries have shown the brain can quite literally change in a process known as neuroplasticity.  On a physical level, the structures in your brain that are contributing to your downward spiral, can be reorganized in such a way that will propel you into a new state of being. This isn’t magic and it isn’t easy, but it is quite remarkable.  In the following paragraphs, we’ll give an overview of neuroplasticity, reveal its ancient roots, and give you practicals on how to change your brain.

WHAT IS NEUROPLASTICITY?

When trying to find a definition for neuroplasticity, it can be easy to get lost or confused within the land of scientific jargon. So let's keep it simple, straight from Wikipedia. “Neuroplasticity, also known as neural plasticity, or brain plasticity, is the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization.” We have many neural networks in the brain, which is often used interchangeably with the term neural circuits. We have circuits related to memory, habits, social circles, stress and more. And to take a line from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s all connected. As UCLA neuroscientist Alex Korb explains in the Upward Spiral, “your brain works like a series of computers all connected to each other.. each circuit has a certain standard pattern of activity and reactivity, and it varies upon people.” Your unique circuitry is part of what makes you, you.  This might lead you to believe that your genes make you more susceptible to depression or anxiety. And this would be true, but it’s not the whole story. The beauty of neuroplasticity is there are a congruence of external and internal factors that could change your brain. Your thought life, belief system, social support, stress levels and even exercise habits can either 1) further entrench your circuit’s tendencies or 2) they can help you carve new neural pathways that will change the state of your brain. The key takeaway here is that your brain is not in a static state, as scientists once believed. You aren’t simply stuck in the mud of depression or anxiety, unable to change.  As Korb puts it, “decades of scientific inquiry have shown us how to modify different brain circuits, change the levels of various neurochemicals, and even grow new brain cells.” There are different forms of neuroplasticity, meaning different ways the brain can change itself.  There is functional plasticity, which is the brain’s remarkable ability to move certain functions from a damaged part of the brain to undamaged areas. Think in the instance of a stroke or traumatic brain injury. Psychologist Norman Doidge has numerous examples of this in his 2007 book The Brain That Changes Itself. The other form of neuroplasticity is structural plasticity, alternatively known as experience-dependent plasticity. This is incredibly relevant to the conversation on mental health In Hardwiring Happiness, UC Berkeley neuropsychologist Rick Hanson explains, ”all mental activity – sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious processes – is based on underlying neural activity. Much mental and therefore neural activity flows through the brain like ripples on a river, with no lasting effects on its channel. But intense, prolonged, or repeated mental/neural activity – especially if conscious will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure, like surging current reshaping a riverbed.” If we use this knowledge in the right way, this can be incredibly empowering. But there’s a flipside, which is the plastic brain taking negative experiences and toxic narratives to build neural structures that feel like we’re falling into a deeper hole.  For example, the more we process narratives of comparison from social media and the more we meditate on who we think we should be, that physically molds our brains. The more we think and process those narratives, the more it becomes ingrained in ours brain. In this cultural moment, we like to think we live autonomously, living our own truths, unscathed from outside forces. But this couldn’t be further from the truth, which is that outside forces are constantly molding our plastic brain. We can either respond to that information proactively or continue to live reactively as we unconsciously process our experiences daily. Hanson later adds: “If you step back from the details of these studies, one simple truth stands out: your experiences matter. Not just for how they feel in the moment, but for the lasting traces they leave in your brain. Your experiences of happiness, worry, love and anxiety can make real changes in your neural networks.. Your attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: it highlights what it lands on and sucks it into your brain – for better or worse.”

THE RENEWAL OF THE MIND

Neuroplasticity may be a more recent scientific discovery in how we understand the brain, but the concept of experience-dependent plasticity is ancient. Paul, one of the original apostles of Jesus, writes in Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Writing nearly 2,000 years ago from a spiritual perspective, Paul clearly does not have the brain’s plastic nature in view. But conceptually speaking, these are two sides of the same coin, the spiritual and the scientific. Paul explains there are patterns of this world (culture) that seek to mold us. Narratives, desires, experiences and attitudes. Writing in Greek, the verb used for “conform” is syschēmatizō, which literally means to conform one’s self (mind, character) to another’s pattern.  Going back to our earlier example about social media, there are patterns and ideas being put forth on social media, both consciously and unconsciously. Patterns as to who we should be, what we should want and how we should behave. That might mean living up to a beauty standard, achieving a certain level of status or success or something else. To conform to this would mean to internalize it and make it your own truth. This would shape much of your thinking, habits and attitudes. Physically, as we learned before, this is creating a structure in your brain. And for some, this would inevitably impact their mental health. Of course, this isn’t limited to social media. There are countless patterns and ideas being thrown at us everyday through all digital media, TV, music, our friends, colleagues and family. Not all of them are good or productive for our mental health. And sometimes, we don’t even realize this is happening, as we mentioned above. The alternative pathway is what Paul proposes with a cause-and-effect relationship between “transformation” and “renewal”. The key to transformation is through the renewal of the mind.  The Greek word Paul is using for renewal is anakainōsis, which means “to cause something to become new (i.e. better)”. So the obvious question becomes, what will better our mind? If there are unhealthy patterns flying at us everyday, we must exchange those for a different pattern or narrative. In another letter to the Corinthians, Paul fills in the gap here by saying “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5) “Obedient to” can alternatively be understood as “submit under”, meaning to submit your thoughts to Jesus. So ultimately the renewal of our mind comes by aligning our minds with the mind of Jesus, to think as Jesus does, to become like him and see the world through his lens. So if the world teaches us to be self-serving, Jesus teaches us to be humble. When the world says to be bitter and hold grudges, Jesus says to forgive. When the world teaches us to hate, Jesus’s us to love sacrificially. If the world makes us feel like things will never get any better, Jesus comes and promises us "the abundant life" (John 10:10). The process of transformation takes time. Renewal is hard work. But as we commit ourselves to this process, we become the truest and healthiest version of ourselves.

CHALLENGES TO NEUROPLASTICITY

When it comes to changing the brain, one of the biggest challenges psychologists have consistently outlined is a perceived negativity bias in our thought life.  There are a few theories for why this is, but generally speaking, most of our thoughts tend to be negative. It becomes almost second nature to hold onto the bad or the negative than to see the good in a situation.  In Hardwiring Happiness, Dr. Hanson muses, “suppose you got twenty things done today and made one mistake. What’s likely to stick with you as you fall asleep? Probably the mistake, even though it’s a small part of your day.” For many of us, this hits close to home because it’s our daily reality. Sometimes, it’s a literal challenge to fixate on the good rather than the bad.  Suppose you get in an accident and the prognosis is fairly good, meaning low-risk for long-term complications. You have some immediate injuries, but they will heal. Rather than be thankful for this and fixate on the good, you find yourself dwelling on the accident to begin with and the possibility of complications.  But negative thought patterns aren’t only influenced by the circumstantial challenges of life, they are also provoked by the cultural current.  In part, this connects back to the “patterns of this world” that Paul outlined. Consider that up to 90% of news coverage is negative, which was felt even more deeply during the COVID-19 pandemic. Various reports have cited research that 60% of people who use social media felt more negative afterwards. There are patterns from these channels that are molding what we want, how we feel about ourselves, others and the world around us. And most of the time, it’s not good. What we allow to consistently influence us becomes the meditations of our heart.

Remember Dr. Hanson’s words from the opening paragraphs, “Your attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: it highlights what it lands on and sucks it into your brain – for better or worse.”

What’s the endgame to this?  The more we think a certain way, the more we let the outside culture influence our thought patterns, the more we cement that line of thinking physically in our brains.  But the beauty of neuroplasticity is that the opposite rings true as well.

HOW TO CHANGE THE BRAIN

So how exactly do we change our brains and renew our minds? We’ve covered the high-level to this point, but it’s time to get into the practicals. What follows are simple, but effective strategies to building a healthier brain and changing your neural circuits for the good. 

Considering Your Worldview

If how we see the world is foundational towards how our brains are currently wired, then it follows that the journey of neuroplasticity starts with considering our most deeply held beliefs. How are those beliefs serving us, and how might they be affecting us negatively? That could be anything from how we see ourselves, the world around us, to even God. For example, on a macro level, if we are consumed with pursuing the cultural standard of beauty or becoming super successful, admired amongst our peers, this could lead to a fragile sense of self-worth, which then impacts our mental health and causes negative thinking. If you subscribe to the cultural adage of our day, to live your own truth, then that will influence how you experience reality. If you operate from a place of truly believing you are not good enough, for whatever reasons, then that will influence how you interact with the world. All of these things create physical structures in our brain that cause us to become stuck in negative thinking patterns. Stepping back and evaluating our worldview as a whole is extremely important for neuroplasticity. There is a process of exchange that needs to happen, as we swap our old narratives for a better story.

Understanding Yourself

Beyond that, it is important to consider how our brains have been uniquely wired. That includes our past experiences, traumas, and even if we suffer from a mental health disorder.  The process of becoming more self-aware does not happen on its own, rather it’s a skill that we have to develop. Sometimes the reason we’re struggling is because we live at the surface of our emotions, only noticing their effect (anxiety, etc.) and never discovering the root cause. If we’ve never seen a therapist, or don’t know where to start, this would be a good time to consider seeing one. A therapist could help you develop emotional intelligence (EQ), which refers to becoming aware of your thoughts and emotions, and learning how to manage them.  Research has thoroughly documented that EQ is a protective skill against mental health disorders and anxiety in general. This process isn’t fun, but if we don’t learn to become self-aware and more emotionally intelligent, our brain will stay stuck in its current state.

Interior Examination

Part of becoming emotionally intelligent involves interior examination on a daily basis. As author Rich Villodas puts it in The Deeply Formed Life, “interior examination is a way of life that considers the realities of our inner worlds for the sake of our own flourishing.” Our culture is actively causing us to avoid interior examination, especially with the distraction that comes along with the digital age. Not only do we miss out on understanding how we are feeling most of the time, but our brains are being shaped by the addictive nature of on-demand TV, social media and smartphones on a daily basis. When we neglect interior examination, it only serves to worsen the troubling patterns that are currently going on in our brains. In his book, Villodas suggests asking ourselves these questions when faced with troubling conversations, feelings and emotions.
    1. What happened?
    2. What am I feeling?
    3. What is the story I’m telling myself?
    4. What does the gospel say?
    5. What counter-instinctual action is needed?
 Going back to our first point about worldview, he is approaching this as a follower of Jesus. So his process of swapping out the story he’s telling himself for a better story involves evaluating what Jesus would say about his state of mind. For example, this could look like…
    1. What happened? Someone made a comment about my body online.
    2. What am I feeling? Insecure and anxious.
    3. What is the story I’m telling myself? I’m not good enough and/or I’m not attractive.
    4. What does the gospel say? I’m beautifully and wonderfully made.
    5. What counter-instinctual action is needed? Letting myself feel these emotions (instead of distracting myself), in addition to writing down the truth that I am beautiful. 
 Villodas notes in his own experience, sometimes the initial triggers of negative emotions start to diminish. As you internalize a better story (I’m beautifully and wonderfully made), your brain starts to form new pathways around that narrative.  So naturally you would experience less negative feelings over time from the initial trigger.

Taking Thoughts Captive

The Apostle Paul, takes the idea of interior examination further as he urges us to “take our thoughts captive” (2 Cor 10:5) and submit them to the litmus test of truth, which is the way of Jesus. In a previous blog, we outlined 12 of the primary cognitive distortions as defined by modern psychology. These are negative and erroneous thought patterns that alter the way we see reality, typically leading to anxiety and/or depression. Among them are black-or-white thinking, mind reading, emotional reasoning, fortune-telling, catastrophizing, “should statements” and labeling. Understanding the distortions is foundational towards naming them when they come into our brain. For example, when we are tempted to mind-read and become convinced that someone is thinking something about us, we can name that. We can say.. oh, I'm mind reading again. This is a cognitive distortion and it's not helpful. I actually have no idea what this person is thinking about me. It's impossible to know. Interrupting this pattern and reiterating the truth (we cannot mind-read) is critical. We can do this with all the cognitive distortions. We’d recommend reading our full blog on this here.

Taking In The Good

In Hardwiring Happiness, Hanson stresses the importance of “taking in the good” as part of neuroplasticity. He writes, “if you want to develop more gratitude, keep resting your mind on feeling thankful. If you want to feel more loved, look for and stay with the experiences in which you feel included, seen, appreciated, liked or cherished.” As it relates to our earlier example, if our initial trigger was someone making a negative comment about our body, we can meditate on the fact that many other people have made positive comments about our bodies in the past. This brings a balanced – and truthful – perspective to the situation. “You’re not looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses, but rather correcting your brain’s tendency to look at it through smog-tinted ones,” Hanson writes.  In nearly every situation, there is something good to take away from it.  Since the brain appears to have a negativity bias, this makes the process of taking in the good even more important. We need to be proactive in our gratitude and thankfulness, not reactive. This could mean meditating on and acknowledging even the 5% of your day that went well. It’s exchanging the bad for the good.  To be clear, we cannot force ourselves to have certain emotions or feelings. That would be impossible. Rather taking in the good means acknowledging the good even if we don't feel good in the moment. When we do eventually feel good and thankful, it also means staying present in the moment and soaking it in. Feelings are like waves, or cycles. They come in, and they go out. No state of mind is permanent. The problem is that we tend to notice and fixate on all the negative states of mind, rather than the times we feel positive emotions.  It’s important to flip this balance.

Natural Remedies

Lastly, there are a ton of natural remedies that aid the process of neuroplasticity and improve cognitive function. They include:
    • Exercising: As reported in Scientific American, exercise “promotes brain plasticity by stimulating growth of new connections between cells in many important cortical areas of the brain. Exercise also promotes brain plasticity by stimulating growth of new connections between cells in many important cortical areas of the brain.”
    • Eating a healthy diet: Diet plays a crucial role in overall brain health and can impact neuroplasticity by providing the necessary nutrients for optimal brain function and the formation of new neural connections.
    • Meaningful social interactions: Regular social interaction and maintaining a supportive social network have been associated with better cognitive outcomes and brain health. Meaningful social interactions can help keep the brain engaged and responsive.
    • Mindfulness and/or prayer: Mindfulness meditation has been shown to positively influence brain structure and function, promoting neuroplasticity. Regular mindfulness practice can lead to changes in areas of the brain associated with attention, emotional regulation, and self-awareness.
 All of these things can go a long way towards improving our brain health, and building a better future. For more, click here to visit our Mental Health Hub.

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