The way we interact with our environment is the key to rewiring our brain.
Brain plasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize as we interact with the world. In the book Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain is a non-fiction book, the neuroscientist and author David Eagleman, gives insight into what happens if someone has half a brain, why we dream, and other mind-blowing explanations.
We are accustomed to thinking the areas in the brain are fixed in place, being each one responsible for a specific part of the body. However, it’s rather very dynamic. We are only born with rudimentary neurons, not fully preprogrammed. And as we start interacting with the environment and move our body, the brain’s circuitry rewires based on feedback from our senses and members.
Here’s an analogy from the book:
Imagine this: instead of sending a four-hundred-pound rover vehicle to Mars, we merely shoot over to the planet a single sphere, one that can fit on the end of a pin. Using energy from sources around it, the sphere divides itself into a diversified army of similar spheres. The spheres hang on to each other and sprout features: wheels, lenses, temperature sensors, and a full internal guidance system. You’d be gobsmacked to watch such a system discharge itself.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we had the technology to do this? A technology that works just like our brains.
Neurons are the basic functional units of our nervous system and through which information is passed along
Neurons are the basic building blocks of your brain, and there are about 86 billion of them. A single neuron fires between five and fifty times per second, and on average, each neuron receives five thousand connections from other neurons. So, in the time it takes you to read this sentence, billions of neurons will have fired inside your head — a complex system, to put it mildly.
For every action, thought, and feeling you will ever have, it’s neurons firing that allow you to make sense of the experience. This is the biological basis of learning. The more you practice a certain behaviour — say, mindfulness, or worry — associated neurons become more practised.
These neurons are then required to fire more often and more quickly. To save energy, the brain creates new structures specific to the job at hand. This is the essence of learning, and what we call neuroplasticity.
The reptilian brain is the part of the brain that in previous posts I’ve referred to as ‘The Chimp‘.
The human brain can be loosely divided into three regions: the reptilian brain, the limbic brain, and the cortex.
The reptilian brain, the oldest of the three brain regions from an evolutionary perspective, is responsible for the body’s vital functions, such as body temperature, heart rate, and breathing. This structure is also in control of our instinctual and self-preserving behaviours, which ensure the survival of the species.
This primitive part of the brain, which is also responsible for reckless and impulsive behaviour, can be highly problematic. its need to survive is so powerful that it often fights with the logical part of the brain, the cortex.
It’s like two different people having an argument. “Go on, have a drink.” “No, I better not.” “Ah, sure I deserve it.” “Yeah, but you’ll regret it later.” If you’re an anxious person, as I was, the reptile brain sees feelings of anxiety as a threat, even when it doesn’t know what’s causing them.
Through experience, it knows that a drink can relieve anxiety, if only for a short while. So when you say yes to that drink, the reptilian brain has won. I often think back on my drug-induced years when my impulsive behaviour was controlled by my reptilian brain. There was never a fight, just a winner — the crocodile always got his drugs.
The limbic brain
The limbic brain is comprised of several structures, found above the reptilian brain. The main components include the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus.
The limbic brain supports a variety of functions. The hippocampus is essential for memory formation. The amygdala, located next to the hippocampus, plays a key role in emotions like fear, anxiety, and anger. The amygdala is also responsible for determining the strength of stored memories, whereby memories with strong emotional content tend to stick.
The hypothalamus, which links the brain to the endocrine system, is a vital component of our stress response. It produces chemical messengers that can both stimulate or inhibit stress-releasing hormones.
The cortex, the most recent addition of the three brain regions, consists of grey matter surrounding the deeper white matter of the cerebrum. Grey matter contains the bodies of neurons, and white matter consists of the connecting fibres between different grey matter cells.
The cortex is the part of the brain involved in higher-order functioning, such as abstract thought, problem-solving, appraisal of danger, and language. With unparalleled learning capacities, this highly flexible structure has enabled humans to do things no other species has done.
The stress response
In times of stress, the three core structures of the limbic system — the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus — work together in tandem.
Consider this example. You are walking through a field when you see what looks like a snake. Stored memories in the hippocampus remind you that you’re scared of snakes. This lights up your amygdala — the fear centre of your brain — which activates your hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus then sends a signal to your pituitary glands, which in turn, sends a message to your adrenal glands releasing cortisol throughout your bloodstream. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone, which prepares your body for fight or flight.
Neuroplasticity is the creation of new connections
Our brains are malleable, like playdough, and our experiences determine their shape. This process is best compared to physical exercise. For example, thirty reps in a gym won’t make your muscles bigger, but thirty reps every day for a year will. The same is true for your brain, and over time, its shape will change.
As a perennial worrier, I always felt tense, uneasy, and anxious. If my mind wasn’t scanning the world for potential threats, it was looking for ways to relieve my unrelenting anxiety. Over time, I literally transformed my brain into a finely tuned anxiety machine.
It’s the same for any negative feelings, thoughts, and emotions. Whatever you rest your mind upon, be it anger, self-doubt, or fear, your brain will eventually take that shape.
When a message gets to the tip of an Axon branch, it jumps over to the Dendrite branch of the next neuron, and that connection, between the Axon tip and Dendrite tip, is called a Synapse.
In other words…The way we interact with our environment is the key to rewiring our brain.
The brain is the big, wrinkly organ in your head that is responsible for many vital functions. Scientists have tinkered with various models, psychological experiments, and brain imaging machines to figure out exactly how it works. It is composed of a dynamic network of cells that communicate through chemical signals and electrical impulses. Somehow these signals and impulses give rise to various coordinated actions and thoughts. It is responsible for brewing coffee in the mornings. It is responsible for overthinking in the shower. For anxiety. For happiness. For pleasure.
Neuroplasticity & Mental Wellness: Our Path Forward
Mental wellness refers to our psychological and emotional health. The term also encompasses the general sense of well-being in the physical, social, occupational, spiritual, financial, and environmental aspects of our lives. It is an active lifelong process that involves making conscious and intentional choices toward living a healthy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. It enables us to realize our potential, cope with daily stresses, work productively, and contribute meaningfully to our community and society.
Wellness practices have existed for centuries and millennia in promoting health and harmony. However, we were unable to provide a “hard science” explanation for their underlying benefits until the past few decades, thanks in large part to the advent of revolutionizing research technologies in brain imaging and molecular genetics. During the 1990s, coined the Decade of the Brain, our understanding of the most complex structure in the universe underwent a radical paradigm shift. At the time, the scientific community was quite convinced the brain was fixed and incapable of change when we reach our adult age. Moreover, we thought everyone was born with a fixed number of brain cells that would decline inevitably with age, without a chance to regenerate. This bleak belief implied that we were not able to change much nor significantly improve ourselves once we reach adulthood. As the saying goes,” You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
We now have substantial scientific evidence that explains how wellness habits promote our brain to change and rewire itself through a lifelong process termed Neuroplasticity.
Fortunately, we were all proven wrong. We discovered stem cells actually exist in the adult brain. Furthermore, these newborn brain cells have the capacity to develop into mature functional neurons to aid in memory and learning in a remarkable process called Neurogenesis. In other words, we can add gigabytes and upgrade our brain’s operating system in our old age!
We now have substantial scientific evidence that explains how wellness habits promote our brain to change and rewire itself through a lifelong process termed Neuroplasticity. The strengthening and integration of the neural connections in the higher-level brain regions, namely the prefrontal cortex (PFC), are fundamental in the benefits of wellness practices.
In gaining a deeper understanding of neuroplasticity and its practical applications, we can better harness its immeasurable potential, empowering ourselves and each other toward meaningful growth and positive change. We will ensure that we not only survive in our fast-changing modern-day world but learn to thrive both individually and collectively in a shifting landscape of unpredictability and uncertainty. With the awareness, knowledge, and practice of self-directed neuroplasticity, we can achieve mental and overall wellness.
refers to our brain’s intrinsic and dynamic ability to continuously alter its structure and function throughout our lifetime.
Neuroplasticity simply means a change in the nervous system. It refers to our brain’s intrinsic and dynamic ability to continuously alter its structure and function throughout our lifetime. Neural changes occur on multiple levels, ranging from the microscopic to the observable and behavioral. It happens on different time scales, spanning mere milliseconds to years and decades.
What are neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that communicate between the neurons in your brain. Whenever you think, move, learn, feel, perceive or do pretty much anything at all (even when you think you’re doing nothing), electrochemical impulses are rushing along pathways of neurons to make things happen. There are approximately 86 billion neurons in the brain and they do not actually touch each other! Instead, they have small synapses where they ‘connect’, gaps of about 40 nanometres between them. For context, there are one million nanometres in a millimetre! The presynaptic (sending) neuron releases these neurotransmitters into the gap, which are picked up by the postsynaptic (receiving) neuron, triggering a response. All this happens a LOT faster than you can say ‘Give me the happy ones please brain!’
Serotonin: The Moody One
We mostly hear about serotonin with regard to mood, particularly that low levels cause depression. People who take anti-depressant drugs are likely to be taking SSRIs — Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors — which work by preventing presynaptic neurons from taking back the serotonin they release into the synapse so there is more available for the brain to use. As well as mood, serotonin is involved in appetite, sleep, memory, impulse inhibition, and sexual desire. If you’re low on it, you might experience depression, anxiety, aggression, irritability, impulsivity, insomnia, or poor appetite.
How to get enough
The essential ingredient for serotonin is tryptophan, found in salmon, eggs, spinach, and seeds, or available as a supplement. Other players in the synthesis and regulation processes include magnesium, zinc, vitamins D, B6, B12, and L-methionine, and deficiencies in any of these could affect your serotonin availability.
How to ‘hack’ it for happiness
Dopamine: The Hedonistic One
Dopamine is most commonly discussed for its role in pleasure, reward, and motivation. The neurons in your brain that go crazy when you eat cake, have sex or take drugs are full of dopamine receptors. It is involved in motivation, satisfaction, and reward-driven behaviour, as well as movement, sleep mood, and learning. Too much dopamine is linked to aggression, poor impulse control, binge eating, addiction, and has been linked to psychosis and hallucinations in schizophrenia. Low dopamine is seen in movement disorders like Parkinson’s Disease, and may also result in low motivation, energy and sex drive, brain fog, and mood swings.
How to get enough
Dopamine is made from Tyrosine, which your body creates from phenylalanine, which can be found in meat, fish, eggs, tofu, almonds, avocadoes, milk, nuts, and seeds. Tyrosine is also available as a supplement. Other players in the dopamine game that you’ll want to get enough to include copper, iron, and vitamins B3, B6, B9, and C. When you eat food that is high in sugar you’ll get a surge of dopamine, however, this can lead to the same kind of desensitisation and tolerance as drug addiction, with your brain needing more and more to get the same dopaminalicious reward. Poor sleep and chronic stress will also deplete your dopamine.
How to ‘hack’ it for productivity
Dopamine’s main purpose is actually motivation rather than pleasure, making sure you enjoy activities like eating and reproducing so you continue to do them. Think about how enjoyable it is planning a holiday, or clothes shopping for a hot date you’re excited about. Set goals, and use your pleasurable dopamine-surge activities as rewards instead of distractions.
GABA: The Chill One
Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) is that neurotransmitter that walks into the chaos and reminds everyone to relax. It is inhibitory, produces a calming effect, reducing anxiety, stress and fear, and helping you sleep. Benzodiazepines like Valium work by enhancing the effect of GABA. If you don’t have enough you may suffer from panic, anxiety and even seizures. GABA is produced naturally in the brain, and low levels can be caused by an inadequate diet, genetics, and prolonged stress.
How to get enough
Vitamin B6 is essential for GABA production. You can buy GABA as a food supplement, but scientists aren’t convinced it actually does anything.
How to ‘hack’ it for relaxation
It probably won’t surprise you that yoga, meditation, and deep breathing improve your GABA functions. You’ll get the best results if you incorporate them as a regular practice, rather than just when you need them.
Norepinephrine: The Alert One
(also known as noradrenaline)
Multitasking norepinephrine functions as a neurotransmitter and a hormone, released into the blood in response to stress. It is involved in attention and alarm response, including the body’s fight or flight response, to help mobilise you for action in the face of danger. It is also implicated in emotions, sleeping, dreaming, and is important for memory and learning. Low levels are associated with lethargy, lack of focus and attention, and depression. Overactivity can amplify our normal stress reactions and cause symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, irritability, and mood swings.
How to get enough (and regulate it)
Norepinephrine is made from dopamine! It starts with phenylalanine, and goes one step further than dopamine, requiring all the ingredients dopamine requires, and then oxygen and vitamin C to undertake that next transformation. Chronic stress causes prolonged activation of the norepinephrine system, which uses up all your resources, stealing energy from your healing and maintenance systems to prepare for this apparent ongoing threat. Finding ways to reduce stress (see GABA: The Chill One) will regulate your norepinephrine.
How to ‘hack’ it for attention and memory
Coffee will do it!
Oxytocin: The Loving One
Oxytocin is both a hormone and a neuropeptide. A neuropeptide is like a large-sized neurotransmitter and is usually associated with slow, prolonged effects instead of quick ones. Oxytocin is known as ‘the love hormone’ and induces feelings of affection and trust while inhibiting the brain’s fear response. There you go… this is probably the scientific basis for that hippy notion of fear being the opposite of love! It plays a crucial role in childbirth, breastfeeding, and parental bonding.
How to get enough of it
You can purchase oxytocin as a nasal spray, and it has been shown to promote trust, kindness, emotional recognition, and sensitivity. But beware of the ‘dark side’ of the cuddle chemical… a 2009 study has shown it can also increase aggression, envy, jealousy, and gloating!
How to hack it for those loving feelings
Some studies have shown you can increase oxytocin by meditating, patting your dog, or hugging.
Endorphins: The Feelgood One
Most famous for their part in the ‘runner’s high’, endorphins are another neuropeptide. When you feel amazing after a good workout, that’s your endorphins in action. They act as a natural pain reliever, working on the same neuroreceptors as opiates like morphine. They are released as a response to stress or pain, and also during eating, exercising and sex. They improve your mood, lower your stress, and boost your self-esteem.
How to get enough of them
Endorphins are produced naturally in the body. We don’t know a lot about endorphin deficiency, but some studies have shown they can become depleted through habitual alcohol use or after traumatic experiences.
How to ‘hack’ them for good feels
You can give yourself a boost of endorphins by eating dark chocolate or something spicy, having a glass of wine, creating music, dancing, doing a workout, meditating, getting a massage, having a sauna, or volunteering. Even just having a good laugh will get them working, so watching a good comedy might give you what you need.
Just to reiterate, this is a simplistic explanation and neurotransmitters work in complex ways with each other, with hormones, and with various parts of the body and brain to create different moods and psychological states. We still have a lot to learn about the true nature of these interactions — the brain is a fun and complicated thing to study! But there’s nothing to lose in friending up with your neurotransmitters and giving them the nutrition and stimulus to encourage them. They might even reward you with those oh-so-good brain feels we like so much.
Half a brain
Imagine that at six years old, one loses one side of the brain. What do you think would happen? Sure, all the movements from the side respective to the brain’s empty half would be lost. Possibly speech as well. While that would occur initially, afterward, magic would happen.
This was the case with a boy named Matthew. After multiple seizures that got more and more frequently during the course of three years, he was diagnosed with a chronic inflammatory disease: Rasmussen’s encephalitis. It affects not just a small part, but the entire half. The only treatment is (or was at the time) a Hemispherectomy. The empty part is filled with fluid and appear as a black void.
After just three months of physical and language therapy, Matthew was back to the same developmental stage as before the surgery. Today, after many years, Matthew lives a normal life, with just a limp and not being able to use the right hand properly. This happened because the brain rewired itself. the half divided in two: one responsible for the right part of the body and the other for the left. It took the form of a full, regular brain.
Another case is with the girl Alice. She was born with only the left half of the brain. But no one knew until she was three and a half years old! No abnormality was ever noticed. The parents only found out when she went for a brain scan, due to having small seizures. The seizures were controlled by medication, and Alice had a normal childhood.