What Is Neuroplasticity? (And How You Can Benefit)

The inspiration for this write-up comes from Norman Doidge’s book “The Brain that Changes Itself“, which has had a profound impact on my life. Here are some important introductory excerpts from the book:

For four hundred years… mainstream medicine and science believed that brain anatomy was fixed. The common wisdom was that after childhood the brain changed only when it began the long process of decline.

Neuro is for “neuron,” the nerve cells in our brains and nervous systems. Plastic is for “changeable, malleable, modifiable.”

The idea that the brain can change its own structure and function through thought and activity is, I believe, the most important alteration in our view of the brain since we first sketched out its basic anatomy.

The neuroplastic revolution has implications for , among other things, our understanding of how love, sex, grief, relationships, learning, addictions, culture, technology, and psychotherapies change our brains.

…neuroplasticity isn’t all good news; it renders our brains not only more resourceful but also more vulnerable to outside influences.

In essence, neuroplasticity is the belief that the brain is ever changing, and can be molded by many different influences, good or bad. This is encouraging because it means that to a certain extent, we have power over our minds and an ability to strengthen and make improvements to not only our minds, but the actual physical structure of our brains.

If patients facing paralysis, debilitation from strokes, chronic vertigo, OCD, ADHD etc. can benefit from neuroplasticity, can it not also be applied to everyday ailments like depression, self esteem issues, or anxiety? Let’s find out.

Cool Studies/ Cases

As touched on above, there have been many recorded instances of very serious ailments being treated with neuroplasticity techniques. I will touch on a few from Norman Doidge’s book “The Brain that Changes Itself.”

A Damaged Inner Ear

The vestibular apparatus is the part of the inner ear responsible for balance. and when damaged, can have catastrophic effects. For example, a lady in the book had a damaged vestibular apparatus and felt as if she was perpetually falling. She had completely lost the ability to stand without support, essentially living her life as if she was walking on a tightrope. And even once she falls, she feels as if a trap door is about to open underneath her, making her fall again. 

You can imagine the mental strain this would have on a person, especially if there was no hope in sight. Luckily though, her case caught the attention of renowned neurosurgeon and pioneer of neuroplasticity, Paul Bach-y-Rita, who created a device that essentially rewired this lady’s brain back to normalcy. After using the device off and on for a year, she was cured and could resume life without a need for the device. A once completely hopeless case cured by neuroplasticity. More on the device and how it works here.

A Brain Labeled Mentally Challenged

Barbara Arrowsmith was born with an asymmetrical brain that gave her exceptional auditory and visual memories, but also a severe mental handicap, to the point where she was labeled as ‘retarded’. She had a wide array of physical and learning disabilities, including:

  • A longer right leg, a right arm that never straightened, a left eye that was less alert, and a twisted and asymmetrical spine.
  • Not being able to properly pronounce words.
  • A lack of spatial reasoning, which is needed in order to know where things are located in space. She was constantly running into things, and lost her belongings all the time.
  • A lack of kinesthetic perception, which gives us awareness of where our bodies and limbs are in space, making her extremely clumsy. 
  • A field of vision so narrow that she could only see a few letters of a page at a time. 
  • Most severely, she had trouble understanding grammar, math, logic, and cause and effect. For example:
    • she couldn’t tell the different between “the Father’s brother” and “the Brother’s father.”
    • She couldn’t read a clock because the hands didn’t make sense. 
    • She couldn’t tell the difference between left and right. 
    • She was dyslexic and would read “saw” as “was”, and wrote on a page from right to left.

Anyways, you get the picture. She faced some extremely difficult challenges. 

As it turns out, none too extreme that the brain couldn’t adapt. After getting through university by banking completely on her incredible memory, she came across the concept of neuroplasticity (not without some serious hardships in the meantime – she at one point contemplated suicide.) She began the slow and gruelling process of strengthening the weakest parts of her brain, one by one, by making mental exercises for herself.

She got so good at these exercises that she surpassed the abilities of normal people. She would eventually go on to found a world renowned school for children with disabilities called the Arrowsmith school, and have an extremely successful career. Here she is in 2013 giving a TED talk.

Sexual Attractions

Our sexual and romantic attractions can be shaped by our environment and experiences early on in life. This can result in the development of healthy preferences, or preferences that are potentially dangerous and borderline disturbing. Like in the case of a man in Norman Doidge’s book who was only attracted to women who were emotionally unstable and sexually violent. Psychologists attributed this to being raised by a drunk violent mother who sexually abused him. This caused his brain maps responsible for sexuality and violence to ‘fuse’, leaving very little separation and a strong association between the two.

Through a long process involving speech therapy, he was able to separate those two maps, breaking the association between violence and sex, and begin investing in healthy relationships.

The same can be said about love. A monogamous married couple looks very different at 70 then they did at 20, yet remain in love. This is because love is plastic as well. Romantic and sexual attraction evolves with age, making it very much possible to remain attracted to someone even when their appearance changes so drastically.  

Then there is the case of porn, and how that effects your attractions and relationships. It’s almost too big of a topic to cover in just a sub-paragraph, so I’ll dedicate an entire article to it down the road. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that watching porn has negative effects on sexual satisfaction and performance, relationships, and mental health, due to the way that it wires your brain.

Stroke Recovery

A stroke is when blood flow to the brain is blocked and the brain is starved of oxygen and nutrients. This leads to damaged tissue and the death of brain cells. Long term effects of a stroke vary depending on the region of the brain in which the stroke occurs, but can lead to a long list of very severe effects.

In the case of Micheal Bernstein, a doctor from Alabama, these effects included complete paralysis in the left side of his body. After receiving the typical post-stroke rehab, he was still in need of a cane, had paralysis in his left hand, and limited abilities with his left leg.

Dr. Bernstein decided to pursue a new method of therapy called Constraint Induced therapy which retrains stroke victims how to use their extremities by doing basic exercises like stretching elastic bands and washing windows. Within weeks he had regained partial use of his left arm and not too long after that he was back at his office. He made an almost complete recovery, allowing him to play tennis three times a week

OCD

There are a lot of misconceptions about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), one of which is that it’s merely obsessing over small details, or being a perfectionist. In fact, OCD can be a serious illness that can completely derail an effected person’s life. 

For example, someone with OCD may be convinced that after hearing a thud while driving, they have run somebody over, so will do a loop around the block to make sure there’s no corpse in the road.

Or they will have a deep fear that something terrible is about to happen to a loved-one, so they will obsessively call people in their lives to make sure they’re okay. 

Or in the case of Lily Bailey, a model and writer from the U.K, obsessive thoughts that she could kill someone just by thinking it. She also had chronic feelings that she was a bad person, even though she hadn’t done anything wrong. 

These obsessive thoughts can seriously interfere with one’s life and are considered a mental illness.

But techniques centered around neuroplasticity have shown promise in quelling these thoughts by training the brain to rather focus on something besides the worry, like a pleasurable activity. This releases dopamine, which in turn rewards this new thought, growing new neuronal connections. After enough practice, this new neuronal connection begins competing with the old one, which eventually weakens and gets replaced.   

How It Can Change Your Mind(set)

With this knowledge, that curing extreme conditions is possible by forming new habits and rewiring your neural pathways, it makes approaching other ailments like anxiety and depression a little easier. If you’re able to change your perspective on treatment methodologies, and approach it knowing what is and isn’t possible, the entire game changes. Not to say that all ailments are treatable, but many are.

With enough repetition and practice, we can have control over many of the things that can negatively impact our day-to-day.