You can outsmart your brain – Neuroplasticity

Scientists used to think that the brain didn’t change after childhood. While it is true that our ability to learn new things is greater in our early years, it turns out our brains reorganize, physically change, and alter the function of different parts through our lives.

Each time we learn a new skill, make a new memory, rethink, respond, react, interact our brains change. Your brain is changing right now reading this post.

Why is this important?

Exercising and strengthening our brains is as important as keeping our bodies strong and limber.  The way you keep your brain in good shape spends on what you pay attention to, what you think, what you feel, and how you react to your environment.  You can change your brain with purpose by understanding how neuroplasticity works.

Two Main Ways You Can Drive Neuroplasticity

“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”*

Donald Hebb developed the idea that when two neurons fire at the same time repeatedly, chemical changes occur in both, so that they connect more strongly.  Because neuroplasticity follows this rule, it’s fundamentally reversible. Neurons that fire together wire together, but when neurons “fire apart” their connection becomes weaker. That means your brain works on a “use it or lose it” principle. Information and behaviors that you do not use weaken and may be completely lost. This is called called “synaptic pruning.

“It is almost just as easy to drive changes that can impair one’s memory or slow down one’s mental or physical control as it is to improve one’s memory or speed up the brain’s actions.”**

Brain change comes from external experiences

What we practice or are exposed to becomes part of our brain wiring.

Everything that happens in our life wires our brains.  What we repeatedly do becomes wired – everything from muscle patterns (remember when you first learned to walk, ride a bike?), to skills (learning a native language – when’s the last time you thought about how to form a sentence?) to smiling or frowning (do you have to concentrate on each of your facial muscles to express a feeling?).

To keep our brains growing, functioning well and avoiding decline, we need to give it challenges such as learning new skills, exploring new places, changing routines and interacting with people.

Brain change comes from internal experiences

Mental & emotional exercise changes our brains too. What we think and imagine can change our brains for the better or worse. Where we focus our attention directs the synaptic connections, the brains wiring, and develops and strengthens connections.

We can purposefully and actively create the connections we want. Thoughts and images we replay in our minds create stronger connections.  Make neuro-connections by thinking of things in sequence, create positive mental images, do crossword puzzles. (You already do this whenever you study for a test, read a book, rehearse what to say, worry about your future, ruminate on the past.)

Here are some proven ways to positively impact our brains:


Practicing mindfulness is learning to control your thoughts and develop ability to focus where we choose.


By decreasing stress, anxiety and depression meditation helps encourage neurogenesis (development new brain cells). This can happen in just a few weeks.


Neurons fire whether something is real or imagined. Imagining doing something is not very different from doing it in terms of  brain wiring. Athletes use this to “practice” by imagining a perfect performance over and over. It helps them actually perform better.  Research has validated that the practice influences physical changes from muscle strength to brain pathways.

Now that you’ve finished reading, give yourself a pat on the brain for all the new neuro-connections it has just made for you.

*neuro-scientist Carla Shatz

**Dr. Michael Merzenich,  author of  Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life 





11 comments on “You can outsmart your brain – Neuroplasticity

  1. Good column, Judy and Peggy. Worth rereading every few days to remind me of these kinds of exercises. I’m visualizing myself doing this next week and the week after. Thanks!


    • Jack, Thank you for the “hack” cuz Peggy and are are compiling a book of “Happiness Hacks”.
      I’m going to visualize you visualizing me meditating – that should cover both our brains.


  2. Visualization is a wonderful tool – I didn’t know how powerful this could be in determining success or creativity. I wonder if I visualize my weight being reduced, will it happen? OK, no clunks on the head – I know I have to actively un-eat and over-move – also called diet and exercise. But I can visualize myself improving my daily habits and that will result in better health.


    • Sharon,
      Visualization can help you keep your eye on why you want to lose weight, and keep you motivated to do so, even if it doesn’t remove weight all by itself. And you are right about better health!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating post as always. I learnt so much from this post. For example, i never knew that t by visualizing something it is almost the same as doing it, from a brain point of view. That is very interesting information. Especially I imagine for those that are impaired physically, but for all of us. And yes, I had seven years of piano lessons as a child yet cannot play one thing today. So if we don’t use it, we lose it, much like flexing our muscles.

    Thank you for this informative post and reminder of what we need to do to keep our brains humming.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Peta,
      Thank you for your comment. Comments like your encourage us to continue to spread what we have learned and that we find fascinating. I hope your brain is humming and you are visualizing wonderful experiences.


    • I hope it’s OK for me to reply to Peta.
      So, Hi, Peta,
      I also had many years of piano playing and lost the skill once I quit. However, I discovered it’s relatively easy to relearn – the muscle memory seems to be there and practice quickly restores note reading. I’ll never have the skill I had when I was a kid and everything worked better, but my desire to relearn contributes a lot. I hated lessons as a kid. Newer teaching methods make music lessons fun instead of drudgery. My grandkids are learning music theory along with finger skills, and are way ahead of me on that front. They can identify key, notes, chords, and change a song into a different genre. They’re also very capable of playing by ear – all part of the brilliant instruction of their teacher.


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