Part 3: Basic Neuroplasticity
Our brains are NOT hardwired after all! They are "plastic" meaning we have the ability to reshape, rewire, and recondition our brain and nervous system!
What is neuroplasticity? This lesson gives us an orientation to the neuroscience behind PTSD, trauma, attachment wounds, and everything we learn over the course of our lives, even the good stuff! The name sounds complicated, and make no mistake, the structure of the brain and central nervous system can be as complicated as we want it to be. But our purpose here is just to give enough basics about neuroplasticty and neural networks to lay a foundation for understanding and utilizing the remaining parts of this series for your benefit.
Using Neuroplasticity to Rewire the Brain
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s amazing ability to adapt to the internal and external environments it is exposed to over time. This is no longer just a theory, it is backed up by brain imaging technologies. Until now, researchers had to spend a large part of their time justifying the theory of neuroplasticity before they could even present their ideas and findings. Now they can spend that time researching and studying how the brain heals itself, adapts to changing situations and circumstances, and what happens when we “change our minds” about something.
The implications of this ability to rewire the brain are truly staggering. It was not so long ago that the prevailing wisdom was that we are “hardwired” and that, after 30 years of age, change is not very likely. Now that we know that is not the case, new ways of using neuroplasticity are rapidly being developed. So how does it work? I know it sounds complicated but when you understand how mirror neurons function, it is really very simple. According to Hebb's Law, there are only two principles that you need to know in order to make changes in your own brain and nervous system. Those two principles are:
Neurons that fire together, wire together
The video above outlines these two principles of neuroplasticity and is probably one of the most informative six minutes you will spend in your life. The video below shows biological changes taking place in real time such as synaptic pruning, new learning, and neural networks in action. As you watch it, keep in mind how interesting it is that your own brain can become fascinated with itself!
Rewiring the Brain in Real Time
There are two things you can do to increase and enhance the first principle of Hebb's Law, create intensity and use repetition. You can increase the intensity of an experience, belief, imagery, or affirmation by making it as vivid and real as possible. The more intense an experience is, the fewer repetitions it will take to burn it into your brain. The video below will explain why it is that we frequently don’t take action when we want to and know that we need to practice.
In the next video (The best one yet!) neuroscientist and meditation expert Dr. Joe Dispenza explains how to reprogram your brain. The video above outlines the major principles of neuroplasticity and validates the science of brain change by changing what thoughts and feelings you expose it to over time. It also explains why and how we are the authors of our own pain, why we find it difficult to muster the self-discipline and motivation to change.
“We Feel the Way We Think, & Think the Way We Feel”
Mirror Neurons: How We Create Our Cognitive Maps and Mental Filters
What do we do when a baby smiles? That’s right, most, if not all of us cannot help but feel good and smile back. What do we do when a baby has been fed, had a diaper change, a proper nap, and we have tried everything to soothe the baby, but the baby won’t stop crying? We feel frustrated, and most likely many of the same sort of feeling that the baby is expressing.
That’s because our brains have little computers in them called mirror neurons. These neurons record 'movies' of how our role models act in certain situations. The movies are called imprints and they become part of an overall template for thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
In a less-than-nurturing family regular, attentive, and consistent role models with healthy coping is not always available. Sometimes it is hardly available at all, and in other families, it is inconsistently available at best. When dysfunctional role modeling exists in parent-child relationships there is trouble in paradise.
Mirror Neurons are at the Root of Many Challenges:
Poor Attachment Styles
Unmet Childhood Dependency Needs
As we learn more about neuroplasticity, mirror neurons, and the biological location of change we refer to as neural networks, we develop more ways to apply that knowledge in the therapeutic relationship between therapist and client.
I have selected Integrative Psychotherapy which is an assimilative eclectic blend of complementary therapy approaches provided on a foundational framework of Erik Erikson’s eight developmental stages of life. Here are my top 10 therapy tools for shifting back to Growth Mode:
Internal Family Systems
Mindfulness & Meditation
Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP)
These approaches to helping have several things in common. Primarily that they are all useful with the idea that people have many different parts or aspects of self. Also, these parts of self come together to make up a whole system of Self. The system is functional and referred to as integrated when all parts work in harmony together.
The system is considered to be dysfunctional and fragmented when parts of self are frequently in conflict with each other or otherwise cause problems in our life when they “get triggered.” This Parts-of-self orientation is highly consistent with neural networks and how the brain and nervous system encodes information.
In Part 4, we will look at the role of neuroplasticity in emotional wounding, also known as fragmentation of the self, as well as it’s role in the healing process, also known as integration of the self.