What Does it Take to Change the Brain?

changesI’ve written about neuroplasticity here before a few times, but since it is a fascinating, complex topic (like everything about the brain, right?) I thought I’d share a few more thoughts about some of what we are learning helps or hinders our ability to change.

Neuroplasticity—Keys and Enhancers

Neuroplasticity is, simply put, the capacity of the brain to change throughout life. It can occur on a variety of levels, ranging from changes due to learning or growth, to large-scale changes in response to injury (see Norman Doidge’s entertaining The Brain that Changes Itself for more on the latter). While for most of the 20th century, general consensus among neuroscientists was that brain structure is relatively unchanging after early childhood, current understanding is that many aspects of the brain remain plastic—that is, changeable—even into adulthood.

And so,  we can (and do) change. But what does it take? And why do some people succeed at developing new habits where others fail miserably? Well, extensive research points to certain keys to neuroplasticity, without which it is more difficult (and sometimes impossible) for the brain to make neuroplastic changes. In addition to these keys, there are additional aspects which also assist with or enhance the process. In both cases, the more keys/aspects, the better.

Five Keys to Neuroplasticity*

The following five keys are necessary to the process of making new neural connections. The more one of more of these keys is compromised, the harder it will be for the brain to stay flexible, healthy and cognitively sharp, especially through aging and stress.

1. Exercise

Exercise improves blood flow and increases oxygen levels, which increase neuron growth. (The brain is only 2% of our body mass but it consumes 20% of our oxygen and nutrients.) Exercise also increases the volume of white and grey matter in the brain, by increasing brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which is necessary to neuronal growth. A minimum of 30 minutes three times a week is generally recommended, although shorter workouts of more intensity and longer with less are helpful as well.

2. Sleep

A healthy adults needs between 7-9 hours of sleep (Teens need 8.5 – 9.25 hours). During sleep our brain has the chance to integrate learning and also combs through information and decides what is needed and what is not. Neural impulses are literally reversed from our waking state, which serves to both clean out unneeded information and prime the cells for learning and memory in the future.

3. Food

The brain needs Omega-3s and vitamins from foods to create new neural pathways. It’s also critically important to stay away from foods and substances that inhibit neural growth and/or create inflammation. According to new research, aspartame and other artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, alcohol, vegetable oils and many grains may all contribute to non-optimal brain states. Promising research finds coconut oil, berries, B vitamins (and much more) helping to build neural connections in the brain.

4. Novelty

New experiences stimulate neuronal connections. If we don’t know how to do something, the cognitive patterns for it don’t exist in our brains, thus new connections must be made. In order to maintain the benefits, however, these experiences have to increase in challenge in order to create new growth. Additionally, we simply don’t pay attention to things that are boring!

5. Focus and Attention

The close paying of attention (as in study, meditation and focused attention) increases neurotransmitters (such as BDNF, mentioned above in the Exercise section) responsible for creating new neural connections. In addition, many studies have linked meditation practice to differences in cortical thickness or density of gray matter.

Four Enhancers to Neuroplasticity

The following four enhancers are extremely helpful to the process of making new neural connections. The more we have of each, in combination with the five keys, the easier it is to learn, remember, and change.

 1. Relationships

We learn and change best in safe, supportive relationships. Feeling socially connected diminishes stress and can even reduce inflammation, while feeling judged or “less than” others creates fight or flight responses in the brain which inhibit learning. When we feel we are being heard and understood, it increases the connective neural fibers in our brains—fibers that are crucial for bringing together disparate areas for increased cognitive function.

2. Mistakes

A critical part of the learning process is the ability to try, fail, recalibrate and try again. This is literally how the new neural connections we make get either strengthened or pruned. According to Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code, training “at the edge of our abilities” produces results up to 10 times faster than regular practice. That is, making mistakes leads to better skill acquisition. Directly linked to the key of novelty, making mistakes is inherent to increasing the difficulty of the task. As long as we are making mistakes, the task is probably challenging enough.

3. Humor/Play

Humor relaxes and bonds us, and is a wonderful ally in helping to overcome the brain’s strong negativity bias. Laughter has been shown to release oxytocin, which not only makes us feel more bonded and connected and trusting, it’s also a great anti-inflammatory agent. Good humor also often plays upon the unexpected, causing us to think in new ways (novelty). Similarly, being playful puts the brain in an open state for learning. All baby animals and humans learn through play, which allows mistakes to be made and learned from in a safe environment.

4. Multi-Sensory Input

The more multi-sensory neural connections we have associated with a behavior or skill, the stronger the “pathway” becomes by engaging more aspects of the brain. For example, when we remember a vacation to the beach, we may access sounds, smells, sights, even the feeling of sand on our toes. This anchors in the experience more strongly than simply seeing a photo of sand and waves. When we are intentionally working to create positive new neural pathways, bolstering this process by bringing in as many of our senses as possible is a fabulous strategy.

 

*A huge thank-you to Dr. Daniel Siegel for first sharing the Five Keys to Neuroplasticity with me.

Coming soon: a complete bibliography of studies supporting these keys and enhancers. Stay tuned!

 


The most wasted of all days is one without laughter

The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.

~e.e. cummings.

Most of us are aware that laughter is relaxing, and that humor makes the learning process much more fun. There’s social science research that students whose professors bring humor into the classroom have greater retention of the material, and those professors also tend to have far greater student engagement overall. (It’s interesting to note that in order for this to be the case, the humor must be relevant to the topic at hand. Just generally “being funny” doesn’t have the same impact.)

During my speaking engagements on neuroscience and coaching, I love to bring in humorous examples, cartoons and an overall sense of lightness. I do this because it’s both my personality to have fun no matter what I am doing, and because I know at times people can get intimidated by a topic requiring so many six-syllable words. (On that note, here’s my tip of the day: If you do nothing else, tell your Head tiltsclients you are engaging their brains in positive neuroplasticity during the coaching process. This will make their left hemispheres quite impressed with how smart you are, and you’ll be able to get away with almost anything.)

I also typically use a dose of appropriate humor in my coaching sessions, because I have found over the years that Bill Cosby was right when he said:

“Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.”

Recently, however, I got curious about the impact of humor on our brain and biochemistry. I wanted to know where laughter can be found in the brain, and also why humor helps us shift things, reduce stress and even heal (The late Dr. Norman Cousins, who, among other things, was a researcher into the biochemistry of human emotions, credited laughter to helping him fight cancer. His regimen? Hours and hours of old Three Stooges movies).

The question of where laughter is located in the brain does not have a clear-cut answer, but it does seem to have something to do with activation of a certain area of the pre-frontal cortex, (PFC) the most highly developed part of our brains. This may help explain why laughter can help shift things so effectively and easily. When we activate our PFC we can actually begin to think and not Cerebral Cortex-Lizard Brain inboxsimply react. Laughter has also been shown to reduce biochemical markers of stress, specifically catecholamines and cortisol. It boosts the immune system and a good belly laugh will increase your heart rate and give you a bit of a work out!

Laughter is also a powerful social connector. According to a 2010 article by the Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute, “Laughter is thought to have predated human speech, perhaps by millions of years, and may have helped our early ancestors clarify intentions during social interactions. But as language began to evolve, laughter may also have provided an emotional context for conversations—a signal of acceptance.” Laughing with our clients creates bonding and trust. When we laugh with someone, we are evolutionarily primed to feel safe.

In looking at laughter from the perspective of consciousness as well as neuroscience, I have seen that those coaches who appear to calibrate at higher levels of awareness have an interesting ability to hold lightness and humor concurrent with seriousness and depth. The humor they bring is in the context of deep respect for the challenges their client is facing, and not intended to bring the client out of their experience. This is an important point — while making a joke of things might lighten the mood, the coach also needs to know when the client needs to be brought more deeply in to their experience.

Thus, like everything in coaching, even laughter isn’t the “right” answer, but it is a wonderful tool. And on that note, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite scientists–someone who definitely knew not to take himself too seriously.

220px-Einstein_tongue