Four Ways to Harness Neuroplasticity at Any Age

It was a long-held belief that neuroplasticity only occurred during childhood. The young brain was likened to a sponge that absorbed everything – new languages, skills, art, and music, and all kinds of beliefs and information. For a child, every experience easily changed how the brain was wired. In contrast, it was thought that the adult brain was a static organ – you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

That’s no longer the view held today! In a nutshell, neuroplasticity is simply the ability of the brain to reorganise its structure and function in response to experiences. So while it’s true that the brain is more malleable and faster at picking up new information in childhood, the brain remains plastic and receptive throughout adulthood. With the right state of mind, you can harness neuroplasticity in order to master new skills and change old habits at any age. Here are four ways to do it!

1. Focus

New information isn’t automatically filed away in your brain; the brain has to recognise that the experience was noteworthy and memorable to you in order to record it. That won’t happen if you’re not experiencing the moment fully because you’re multitasking or distracted.

The more focused and engaged you are, the more stimuli you take in while you’re present in the task. The connections between the neurons that put all these stimuli together become more coordinated, like a stadium filled with 50,000 fans cheering in unison rather than whooping sporadically. The same set of neurons need to fire together in sync every time you need to replicate your skill.

To illustrate, imagine a basketball player practicing making perfect free throws. The player takes in everything: the sight of the net at the correct angle, the feeling of the ball in their hands, the exact degree that their muscles contract and release, even their breathing. The more the player’s brain concentrates on recreating these exact sensations every time they make a free throw, the more likely the player will be able to consistently land the shot.

2. Visualise

Neuroplasticity is powerful in that changing the way you think can actually affect real change in your responses to experiences, particularly when you’ve trained your brain to think positive thoughts. That’s because when you mentally practice something, you engage and strengthen the same neural pathways that you would had you been doing it physically.

For instance, studies involving stroke patients who envisioned being able to move paralysed limbs again showed that their bodies were able to stimulate nerves and route blood back to the damaged tissue as if it were normal, and regain use of their limbs.

3. Practice

Practice is the part of neuroplasticity that’s most challenging, because you’ll have to actually go out into the world and act upon your goals instead of only envisioning them.

That’s not always the easiest thing to do – you don’t always have the time, you won’t always have the energy, and practice doesn’t always yield awesome results.

Going back to the basketball player, neuroplasticity isn’t just about being focused on how a flawless shot felt once – it’s about calibrating your body to recreate those exact sensations again and again. Yet, deliberate practice isn’t just about repetition. It requires mindfulness and purpose, the wilful intention of committing the behavior to memory and improving your performance with every attempt. It’s hard work to train both brain and body, but if the end result is perfectly committing a new skill to memory, it’s going to be worth it.

4. Be positive

Neural pathways are much more engaged when there is emotion involved. You ingrain a behavior more when you find value in what you’re working on, or if an experience moves you. Similar to sensory input, the more emotion you take in while learning a skill, the more neurons you activate and the stronger the pathways become.

And here is where determination and focus must come in. As part of our survival instinct, the human brain has something called negativity bias. It’s a phenomenon where the brain remembers negative experiences and emotions more than it does positive ones, in order to signal us not to repeat the negative behaviours.

That’s why failure can be demotivating, because the neural pathways for embarrassment or rejection are typically stronger than the ones that process success. To combat negativity bias, it’s important to focus on filing away positive experiences, as well. When you strengthen neural pathways associated with a particular event, it weakens other related pathways that are not in use. Starting a new habit of thinking positively literally allows old habits to die, and can change your outlook completely over time.

All ages, new tricks

When you’re under duress, your brain allocates most of its energy towards surviving the ordeal, so small decisions that don’t need much brain power fall back on habits. Like an athlete relying on muscle memory when faced with the colossal stress of the Olympics, you’ll want those habits to be good, healthy and correct ones.

Neuroplasticity is at its core, the triumph of mind over matter: when you make up your mind, you change your brain matter. Instead of insisting an old dog can’t learn new tricks, tell yourself instead that it’s never too late to learn something – and your brain will most likely believe you.

Disclaimer: This post is not a substitute for legitimate neurological treatment, and is for entertainment, insight, and perhaps inspirational purposes only.

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