For many years, scientists and common folk alike believed that the brain was “fixed”.
We (collectively) believed that a person’s brain was like clay: when wet it could be molded and shaped into whatever object necessary, but after that – forget it.
Children were considered new opportunities to mold and shape into specific pieces.
People who had strokes, personality problems and all other sorts of neural defects were considered lost causes.
“Just medicate them, there’s nothing more we can do.”
Even today, many people think the elderly are a lost cause.
Due to the ever-changing field of neurobiology and neuroscience, we know that simply isn’t true.
The human brain is always changing, always morphing, always growing, and transforming itself. This process is known as “neuroplasticity” and it is the master key to personal development.
In this article I’m going to go in-depth on:
- The one gift we were given
- How brain plasticity works
- The rules to neuroplastic change
- Factors that influence brain plasticity
- How you can start using this method immediately
The Gift and the Promise of Neuroplasticity
I want you to think back to your childhood, around a major holiday like Christmas or even your birthday.
How excited were you? Pretty pumped to open your gifts, right?
I want you to think about neuroplasticity and brain change as a gift.
You have the opportunity to shape your brain into anything you want (within reason).
If you want to be socially intelligent, you can go and do it.
If you want to be better at math, you can go and do it.
If you want to get rid of an addiction, you can go and do it.
We are not destined to a life of drudgery and low achievement due to what genes we have or don’t have.
This is an incredible gift, but many people don’t realize it and accept mediocrity. Since you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re not one of those people.
Here are the rules of neuroplastic change.
The Rules of Neuroplastic Change
We’ve already established the baseline: neuroplasticity can change the brain. This has profound implications for your physiology and psychology. But in order to take advantage of it, you need to follow some key rules.
Here are those rules:
You need focus
I harp on all the time about focused attention is important to new pursuits.
Focus on whatever you’re doing helps to create neuroplastic change. You take in more information whenever you’re paying attention. This allows you to craft what Anders Ericcson calls “mental representations”.
Mental representations are pieces of data in your mind that help you perform actions with ease.
You have mental representations for everything from how to drive a car to what a dog looks like to how to read.
The quality of your “mental representations” create proficiency in whatever skill you’re trying to build. You can only build quality mental representations with experience and focused attention.
Create an environment where you can focus and give a certain task your greatest efforts. If that means shutting yourself in your room for a few hours, do it.
You need to be deliberate
Anders Ericcson is also known for “deliberate practice”. Deliberate practice is a type of practice that is purposeful and systematic, centering around strengthening weak areas, focused attention, and feedback.
You will improve quicker at a skill if you are able to get feedback from a third party and improve your weak points.
If you want to be a great guitarist, hire a teacher (third party) and devise a lesson plan to get better (weak points).
This is exactly what programs like the Suzuki Method and other programs designed to improve expertise center around.
You need motivation
Motivation helps brain plasticity along by keeping you engaged in the task you’re working on.
One way in which you stay motivated is by the creation of goals or targets. Every step of the way, create targets to hit.
Going back to guitar, you should have goals for each week, each month, and each quarter. You may focus on improving your speed, learning a lick or a run, or learning a part of song.
Share these goals with your teacher. They will be able to keep you motivated and accountable.
If you don’t have a teacher, write your goals down and look at them daily.
This is why children who have music instructors make far more progress than those who don’t. It’s hard for children to motivate themselves internally. Not surprisingly, many adults are the same way.
You need to realize what type of change you’re creating
Neuroplastic change is neutral. Whether you use that change for positive or negative reasons is up to you.
Every time you do something, you make it easier and more likely you’ll do it a second, then a third time.
Your brain is constantly trying to adapt to its environment. If you create an environment where junk food and cigarettes are prevalent, your brain will create a habit pattern centering around those things.
In order to create habits, your brain coats certain synapses with a substance called myelin. This allows the nerves to fire greater and faster, making that action easier to perform.
You need to be uncomfortable
Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. – Jim Collins
Sometimes, it’s fine to settle for “good enough”, especially when you’re just starting out on a venture.
However, if you want to achieve expertise – good is not good enough. You always have to strive for better. That requires stepping a little bit outside of your comfort zone.
You’ll know when you’re hitting it when you experience mental strain or physical fatigue. When you feel that, you press even harder.
That’s how you make a new standard for performance and make your baseline even better.
The BEST conditions for changing your brain
Those are the rules for getting the most out of brain plasticity. If you can combine it with these conditions, you will learn and grow faster than you realize.
We’ve already established that focus is important. But what if you were in an environment where you couldn’t help but focus?
Libraries exist because they are the perfect place to study and work.
Monastaries exist because they are the perfect place to plumb the depths of the mind.
Gyms exist because they are the perfect place to exercise the body.
All of these places have a different element to them, but they revolve around placing your attention on a specific area of your life.
Don’t place yourself in environments that are detrimental to your practice.
You wouldn’t go to Arby’s or McDonald’s if you’re trying to lose weight.
Traveling sparks neuroplasticity because your brain is trying to adapt to a new environment.
Your brain has a mental concept for every place it encounters. When you enter a new environment, your brain is trying to find a way to best adapt to that and create new habit patterns.
Frequent travel keeps you on your toes because it keeps you just outside your comfort zone.
Along with travel, peak experiences keep your brain in…well…peak condition.
Your brain, your subconscious mind is naturally resistant to change in a normal scenario. A peak experience combines two things: emotion and novelty.
We all remember “firsts” in our lives.
Because usually, there is a high degree of emotion associated with them.
Emotions brand the subconscious mind with a hot iron. Emotions make you more susciptble to influence.
This is why kids learn so quick.
During adolesence and your 20s, you are having a large amount of “peak experiences” in a short amount of time:
- First kiss
- First time having sex
- Graduating from high school
- Going to college
- Study abroad
- Graduating from college
- First job
- First apartment
“Firsts” inherently focus the mind on the activity in question because the brain is trying to learn in order to store information for that concept for next time that action is performed.
This is a major reason why some people make major lifestyle changes after moving to a new town or doing a psychoactive drug, like LSD.
The lack of peak experiences explains why a lot of people get “stuck in a rut”. They’re doing the same thing over and over again with little variation. The brain has no reason to change because it’s given no reason to change.
Addressing common objections to brain plasticity
To many people, the idea of getting better at a certain skill or attribute promotes some skepticism.
Why wouldn’t it? Most of us are products of an education system and cultural philosophy that doesn’t promote or doesn’t even know about these principles.
As a result, we put a bunch of stock in such things as “prodigies” or genetics or divine birth instead of hard, focused work.
Here’s what the research says about that.
According to Carol Dweck, a fixed mindset is the belief that we are born with a certain template and that template is all we get. We can’t change it, we can’t influence it, we can’t do anything to it.
This flies directly in the face of neuroplastic change.
Many of you no doubt had teachers and educators who had a fixed mindset regarding ability. You may have been encouraged or discouraged in certain areas because some teacher thought you had no natural ability for it.
If you’re bad at math and you believe you always will be, you won’t do the focused work necessary to change that belief. As a result, you’ll always be bad at math.
Instead, the growth mindset matters. If you believe change is possible, then, of course, you will change. If you don’t, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The fixed mindset disregards hard work and instead relies on “personality” and “genetics” to explain achievements.
I obviously don’t agree with the fixed mindset, or else I wouldn’t be writing this article.
Do genetics matter? Of course, especially in sports. If you’re 5′ 9”, you most likely won’t be playing in the NFL or NBA. Does that mean you are destined for a life of subpar performance and athletic mediocrity?
Genetics matter, yes…but for a lot less than we give them credit for.
Many people mistakenly believe that certain people just emerge from the womb with the ability to play violin or be an all-star wide receiver.
Once again, that isn’t so.
Anders Ericsson discusses this in his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.
“…No one has ever managed to figure out thow to identify people with “innate talent”. No one has ever found a gene variant that predicts superior performance in one area or another, and no one has ever come up with a way to, say, test young children and identify which among them will become the best athletes…doctors…musicians.” – Anders Ericcson, Peak
No skill was ever developed to a high degree just by having a set of genes that compliment that skill.
For example, star wide receiver Jerry Rice had wasn’t born the set of skills to become one of the NFL’s best players, he had to develop them.
Believing in and relying solely on natural talent to explain high achievement is in and of itself a manifestation of the fixed mindset.
Many people also like to use prodigious achievement as an example of natural talent.
For many years, we were born with this idea that there are many children who are simply divinely blessed.
But is that really the case?
Mozart is frequently used as an example of a prodigy.
He had perfect pitch (the ability to easily differentiate between notes) and supposedly composed many works before he hit puberty.
Not exactly. A closer look will tell you what’s going on.
Mozart’s father was a composer. He taught Mozart multiple instuments. He taught Mozart music theory. He also worked with Mozart on the ability to analyze and write music.
Many of the works young Mozart “composed” was written in his father’s hand. This is not unlike a parent helping a child with a science project.
The brain is also heavily influenced during the ages of 2-5 years old. The child has yet to develop a prefrontal cortex (the decision-making part of the brain), so it absorbs everything it comes into contact with.
Mozart inevitably would have developed perfect pitch, the ability to compose music, and the ability to understand music in this environment.
How could he not?
Many hours went into making Mozart, “Mozart”. He had a special advantage having a composer as a father and he started earlier than everyone else.
There are many children who are trained in the Suzuki Method upon birth, making Mozart’s progress look like nothing special.
There is also the curious case of savants:
Savant syndrome is a condition in which someone with significant mental disabilities demonstrates certain abilities far in excess of average. The skills at which savants excel are generally related to memory. This may include rapid calculation, artistic ability, map making, or musical ability. Usually just one special skill is present. – Wikpedia article on Savant syndrome
Savants generally have developmental disorders such as severe autism, making them unable to interact with others.
Many savants have an extraordinarily high degree of skill in one particular area, usually something relating to mathematics, artistry, or music.
A high degree of skill in these areas comes from the result of many hours of focused practice. Anders Ericsson yet again:
“Francesca Happe and Pedro Vital, two researchers at King’s Collge London, compared autistic children who develop savantlike abilities with autistic children who did not develop such abilities. They found that the autistic savants are much more likely than the nonsavants to be very detail-oriented and prone to repetitive behaviors. When something captures their attention, they will focus on it to the exclussion of everything else around them…These particular autistic people are more likely to practice obsessively a musical piece or memorize a collection of phone numbers…in the same way people engaging in purposeful or deliberate practice do.” – Anders Ericsson, Peak
He then goes on to talk about how someone who is trained in a similar method to a savant can develop the same abilities.
What’s stopping us from taking advantage of neuroplasticity?
After this article, you may think this is all well and good.
But I can guarantee that most of you reading this will forget all about it and go on your merry way, with a fixed mindset.
Why? Why does this happen?
Because change is a bitch.
Most of us would rather die than change. It’s only until we encounter a serious issue or a problem (a peak experience) that we feel impelled to make any sort of change.
It’s a lot easier to believe in “genetics” and “prodigies” than it is to do the hard work of changing your paradigms and how you operate in the world.
There is a banquet of excuses and you’re invited to the table.
But I’d like for you to consider another invitation….
The Invitation and the Calling
This invitation is not as appetizing as the banquet of excuses, but it is more fulfilling.
We have the ability to chisel away at our lives piece by piece and sculpt how we want to operate in the world. We can choose who we want to be.
Think of it as buying a “starter pack” for a hobby. The starter pack has specific items in it that enable you to play the game easily.
If you want to advance, it’s up to you to buy the specific accessories that help you advance in the direction you want to go in.
If you want to become a surfer, where’s the best place to live? The coasts. What’s the best way to live? With a life centered around surfing.
If you want to become a musician. what’s the best place to live? Somewhere where there’s a high degree of musical talent. What’s the best way to live? With a life centered around music.
Once you understand how environment and peak experiences affect neuroplasticity and brain change, you will be much more discerning with your choices and decide what to keep in your life and what not to keep.
Everyone is called to take advantage of this. Will you answer it?
I want to hear from you, now. How will you take advantage of neuroplasticity and use it in your own life? Let me know in the comments.