World-renowned neuroscientist Dr. Tara Swart is out with her new book, ‘The Source’ after the resounding success of ‘The Secret’. The Source is a powerful guide to unlocking the potential of your mind and seizing the life-changing opportunities that pass by us every day, by applying cutting edge neuroscience. We bring you an extract on rewiring neural pathways in a malleable brain.
With effort and by keeping our brains in peak physical condition, we can forge fresh ways of thinking, strengthening our higherlevel ‘executive’ brain functions (complex decision- making, problem-solving, planning, self-reflection) and learning to master our fright-fight-flight primal brain responses. People often ask me how long it takes to form a new habit (which is underpinned by a new or altered brain pathway). Of course, it makes a difference how complex the habit is. For instance, it takes a lot longer to improve emotional intelligence than it does to master a new gym routine. But neuroplasticity promises that with dedicated effort, change will come. This principle of neuroplasticity – the power to create new pathways in the subconscious and conscious parts of our brain – under pins all of my work as a coach and it is the key to any deep and lasting shift in our habits and thinking.
It’s important not to overcomplicate it. Everyday examples of neuroplasticity are all around us. When a colleague and leadership expert that I teach with at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) decided to find out more about the latest neuroscience research that was going on there, she shared the story of meeting one of the neuroscience professors who asked her what she had for lunch the previous Tuesday. As she focused on remembering, then told him the answer, he said, ‘That’s neuroplasticity! You just strengthened the connection for that particular memory simply by recalling it.’ This may seem like a small thing, but it is a simple example of how we strengthen connections in the brain with every thought or memory. Try it yourself, right now. Call to mind a day: last Friday, for example, or a memorable day further off: a significant birthday.
Think through it in sequence. What happened? Where were you? Who else was there? How did you feel? Is this a happy or a difficult memory? By recalling it, you have fired up another connection between the neurons in the memory area of the hippocampus deep inside the brain. The more you relive a memory and/or the more intense the emotions associated with that memory, the stronger the connection becomes. This is a result of repetition as well as the intensity of emotion, making it either a fond memory that easily floats to the front of the mind or a dreaded memory that you want to forget but keep reinforcing by mulling over it. Either way, remember the phrase ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’. For better or for worse.
The first step in embarking on the mind-expanding and life-enhancing exercises in The Source is to understand that the brain is dynamic, flexible and capable of rebuilding its pathways with dedicated effort. Whenever I hear somebody say, ‘It’s just the way I am’ (I hear this a lot when I ask people what’s keeping them stuck or limiting their goals), I challenge this belief. It’s so important that you fully grasp what neuroplasticity means; in particular, what it will mean for you. It needs to make sense to you personally.
RECLAIMING YOUR POWER
What is the first thing that comes into your mind when you think about what you would like to change about the way your brain works? Imagine what life would be like if you operated from a different paradigm – greater trust, abundance or flexibility. Would you be happier, healthier and have better relationships? Can you see a particular area of your life in which your brain is set into negative habits and pathways? Think of your brain as a tangible structure like the hardware of a computer – the keyboard, monitor and drive. Your mind then is the intangible software that you run on this computer. But in this metaphor, you are not a computer that sits on your desk powerless to change. Instead, you are both the coder who upgrades the software to transform the data (your thoughts) and the engineer working behind the scenes to finetune the hardware itself (your neurons). You also control the power supply that fuels the computer, with energy determined by the choices you make about what to eat and drink, when and how to exercise and meditate, who to interact with and where and how to live. You are the architect, designer and housekeeper of The Source, with the power to create, maintain and destroy your neural connections. This process is neuroplasticity in action. Anyone who doubts this power can look to science to provide remarkable examples of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity, at its most positive, is the key to self-empowerment. It ensures that with effort, we can overcome deeply entrenched negative behaviours and modes of thinking, including addictive and destructive habits and relationship patterns.
I’ve seen people rehabilitate from the physical effects of strokes and brain tumours, from addictions to drugs and alcohol and eating disorders – and, just as importantly, the more everyday challenges of life such as divorce, heartbreak, bereavement, redundancy, relocation or total career change. Neuroplasticity also ensures we can achieve forgiveness. Letting go of a past loss or hurt can be the hardest change to make in the brain but often this very pathway is the one that is driving the shame, mistrust and inability to forgive that keeps us stuck. Our brains are constantly evolving, refining and learning in response to everything that we experience – events, emotions and people – and we need to be aware of this and manage what we expose our brains to and how we deal with the impact. We can do this in real time, overwriting past hurts and cleaning up what is present.
The adaptive, regenerative power of the brain is incredible. Whenever we feel trapped by our thoughts or long-established behavioural patterns, it is helpful to remember this. Even some of our most basic ‘intrinsic’ traits can be rewired. From the 1990s onwards, neuroplasticity research exploded. In studies that inspired a million ‘tiger moms’, brain scans revealed that playing an instrument leads to great increases in neuroplasticity and new connections all over the brain. The neuronal mass of a number of regions of musicians’ brains is far denser than that of non-musicians. This and the similar global brain function effects of early bilingualism indicates there’s a neurological ‘butterfly effect’ at work, with changes in one pathway of the brain triggering changes elsewhere. The positive benefits of neuroplasticity- inducing activities are complex and varied.
Dr Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, award-winning author and a medical doctor. She works with leaders all over the world to help them achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance, improving their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions and retain information.