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Neuroplasticity: How the Brain Changes Itself

Imagine it, a young, deaf woman walking up to a microphone on a broad stage, a lone figure with hundreds of onlookers, facing four scrutinizing judges, looming behind a long and imposing table. They ask her why she’s come, and she begins to tell her story. If you’ve seen this episode of America’s Got Talent, this story may start to sound familiar. She is the singing contestant who lost her ability to hear when she was eighteen years old. A singer, with a passion for music in all its forms, robbed of her treasured ability to hear music - and with it, her ability to sing. But here she is, standing on this stage, informing those four judges that she is about to sing. To sing a song. A song she wrote, called “Try.” And so she does, bringing everyone to tears, a cascade of golden confetti from the ceiling just moments after she finishes. Her voice - absolutely beautiful, inspiring and clear and true, and more on key than many others could claim for themselves.

[See Her Story]

But she can’t hear, so how is this possible? Part of the how comes from her courage and determination to not lose this crucial part of herself. The other part comes from her brain and its incredible ability to adjust, to adapt, to grow, and to change. To learn how to translate vibrations as sound and colored lights to indicate her pitch as she sang. To keep the music alive in whatever way was left to it. How? How could her brain change to make this possible? Through something called neuroplasticity. And the beauty of it is that we all have this ability. Every single brain is capable of growing and changing, of figuring out how to make the seemingly impossible possible again. And better yet, there is technology out there that allows the brain to do this even faster and easier than it could all on its own. But we’ll get to that part later. First, let’s talk a little bit more about this new-fangled term: neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity and the Brain

What is neuroplasticity, exactly, and how does it work? Well, neuroplasticity, simply put, is the brain’s natural ability to modify, change, and adapt its function, and even its very structure, in response to one’s experience [6]. The brain does this through the neurons and neural networks that comprise it, reorganizing its functions, connections, and structure.

So what kinds of experiences can influence neuroplasticity? Both good and bad experiences, such as sensory stimulation, victory, defeat, childhood development, stroke or traumatic brain injury, relational dysfunction, or just brand new information. Neuroplasticity is what allows us to learn new languages, to master a new sport or skill, to create habits, and to break them. Neuroplasticity is responsible for our learning good habits and behaviors, through positive reinforcement. Neuroplasticity is also responsible for our maladaptive traits, those things we learned in response to negative stimuli or trauma, such as avoidance behaviors, the ruts we get stuck in that we wish we could change about ourselves.

Neuroplasticity is different from neurogenesis, which is the brain’s ability to birth brand new neurons [2]. Rather, neuroplasticity allows the brain to wire in new connections and pathways with neurons that are already there, changing the wiring of those neural connections [2]. Neuroplasticity utilizes neurogenesis when needed; they can work hand-in-hand. This can happen both structurally, when the strength of connections between the neurons changes, or functionally, when there are lasting changes in those connections due to learning and development [2]. [1]

Neuroplasticity allows the brain to wire in new connections and pathways with neurons that are already there, changing the wiring of those neural connections.

It sounds important, but how important is it, really? Well, neuroplasticity is at the root of essential human experience: learning, memory, and what it means to be human are all influenced and made possible by neuroplasticity [4]. Without it, no one could develop past infancy or recover after a brain injury [5].

Types of Neuroplasticity

So let’s dive in a little deeper. There are five types of neuroplasticity: developmental plasticity, homologous area adaptation, compensatory masquerade, cross-modal reassignment, and map expansion. These refer to the various ways and reasons a brain might change its structure or function. [1]

  • Developmental plasticity and homologous area adaptation occur in the first years of life, as the brain forms its first neural connections and sensory stimulation strengthens them. If the brain is damaged in some way in those early years, the matching, or homologous, area of that brain in the opposite hemisphere will shift take take over the lost function; an incredible feat, but one with consequences, for as that brain area takes on new functions, something must be lost to make room. For example, if the back right side of the brain is damaged due to a fall or bad hit to the head, the left side of the brain will adopt some of its functions, like spacial awareness or balance, but because the brain has finite space in which to exist, natural functions of the left side of the brain may be lost, such as calculation, leaving that child to grow up with difficulties in learning mathematics. [1]

  • Cross-modal reassignment occurs when a change is needed in the functional assignment of a brain area - for example, how a person who loses their sight can “gain it back” through touch. Here, somatosensory input (touch) is redirected to the visual cortex, allowing the blind person to still carry out the cognitive functions of sight without using their eyes, but instead by feeling it. This is how they can “see” you by feeling the contours of your face. Another example would be our friend from the start of this article, who learned to use lights to “hear” so she could know she was on key when she sang. [1]

  • Map expansion denotes the brain’s ability to grow or shrink areas of the brain according to repeated behaviors or stimulus. An example here would be learning an instrument - as the skill is grown, the region of the brain associated with learning that skill grows, but once practice stops, that region again shrinks, giving credence to the phrase “use it or lose it.” [1]

Natural Neuroplasticity

One question might be - does neuroplasticity change with age? It was once believed that the brain stopped growing and changing around a certain age. After all, we’ve all heard the old adage: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, right? But in recent decades of study, it was discovered that this wasn’t true and that the brain was malleable up until the day you take your last breath, just in differing ways and speeds. In childhood, from birth really, the brain is developing and growing at an incredible rate, creating and changing thousands of connections from neuron to neuron.

Those connections begin to be pruned as the child grows into adolescence and then into adulthood. In adulthood, neuroplasticity is still present, as the brain continues to be capable of making remarkable changes, but the strength and rate of change is reduced with age. It takes more work, with adults, to maintain or make new connections, enhance memory and cognitive ability, or renew old skills, than it does for children. [2]

Leveraging Neuroplasticity (Enter Neurofeedback)

So can you leverage neuroplasticity? Is there a way to take this remarkable feature and wield it to our advantage? In the beginning of this article, I mentioned that there is technology in the world that is able to leverage neuroplasticity to effect intentional change. After all, as neurologists have been saying for years now, “cells that fire together, wire together.” Once the neurological field learned that the brain remains plastic into adulthood, excitement broke out across the field of study. And technology that was born fifty years ago took off as scientists at last understood its potential. It, too, has grown and morphed since its years of conception, and continues to improve even today, becoming stronger and more precise. This technology and methodology is called Neurofeedback. It is rooted in behavioral psychology, and works by using operant conditioning paired with visual and audio feedback to allow the brain to communicate with itself. With consistent repetition and reward from the feedback training, the brain morphs and molds its own physiology, rewiring neural connections and pathways, which in turn alleviates maladaptive behaviors such as anxiety, depression, rage, fear, trauma triggers, and more.

With consistent repetition and reward from the feedback training, the brain morphs and molds its own physiology, rewiring neural connections and pathways, which in turn alleviates maladaptive behaviors such as anxiety, depression, rage, fear, trauma triggers, and more.

None of this is possible without neuroplasticity; it is the reason neurofeedback works as intricate technology interfaces with natural human ability to promote long-term improvements within one’s nervous system to occur. How exactly, though, you might ask? Does it require speaking, working, trying? No. In fact, the technology uses brainwave-sensing sensors in conjunction with a movie. By creating an instantaneous feedback loop between the brain and changes to the movie’s audio and video aspects, the brain is able to recognize itself, the movie becoming a digital mirror and allowing the brain to truly see, for the first time in its life, how it’s really functioning in real time. As the brain begins to work itself out, this is what you see: the movie plays, the screen size shifts, the brightness of the screen dimming and rising, the volume fluctuating through the headphones. These are not random occurrences or something the practitioner is doing. Instead, these cues change in direct response to brain change. This is what the brain sees: itself. If it tries to function like it has been on its maladaptive neural connections (felt as anxiety, depression, fear, worry, inattention, etc.), the screen size might shrink, the volume decrease, or the brightness of the screen might dim. Recognizing that, the brain changes, rewiring neural pathways, and is rewarded with a larger picture, full volume, and brighter screen. Learning is accelerated and improvements manifest for the person training.

With enough repetition, and thanks to neuroplasticity, regardless of age, neurofeedback encourages and enhances these new, healthier neural pathways take root within the brain, and anxiety, fear, worry, avoidance behaviors, depression, inattention, pain, trauma, whatever you might be struggling with begins to dissipate, as something better, brighter, stronger emerges, allowing you to feel better, sleep better, relate better, remember better, and function better.

So next time you listen to a deaf woman sing with a clear voice, on pitch and in time, or watch a motor accident victim learn how to walk again, or even just the next time you pause to take in the sunshine and allow it to refresh your mind with gratitude and warmth, take a moment to thank your brain for its gift of neuroplasticity and how it means you don’t have to wait to get better anymore.

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