There has been a lot of talk about neuroplasticity in self-help books, and it’s now catching fire in the coaching industry. So today I thought I’d take a deep dive into this topic, but first, we need to know what SYNAPSES are. It’s all about those synaptic connections, baby.
To function at all, the nervous system needs its cells, or neurons, to connect and chit chat in a love language of electrical impulses and chemical neurotransmitters. For you to be able to learn and remember ANYTHING, those individual neurons (we have about 100 billion of them) need some sort of ‘bridge’ to connect them.
Now up until the late 20th century, a lot of the scientific community subscribed to the idea that once fully developed, the human brain was static—fixed in its current state, and whatever hand you were dealt genetically was yours to own. As scientific methodologies evolved, new research began to indicate that the human brain was, in fact, plastic — capable of change throughout the course of one’s life.
Yes, your synapses are 100% malleable—they can be strengthened or weakened through, or in the absence of, repetition and enriched experiences. Suffering from an addiction? Strong ass synaptic connections. Forgot HS Spanish? Weakened synaptic connections that eventually get pruned (¿Cómo se dice….?).
To use an analogy, let’s say that strengthening your synapses would be akin to adding new lanes to a bridge across the Hudson River to facilitate commuter traffic between NJ and NYC, and then let’s say that weakening your synapses would be a little something like then-governor Chris Christie spitefully shutting down two of the three toll lanes of the George Washington Bridge in 2013 to make it harder for traffic (‘signals’) to get across the river (‘synaptic cleft’).
In addition to helping people who have suffered strokes or other brain injuries, the discovery of neuroplasticity came with major implications for the mental health field. What it meant was that people could recover from emotional trauma and mental disorders by learning to weaken dysfunctional neural pathways in the brain, creating new neural trails, and then reinforcing those new pathways in the manner described above.
You can think about neural circuits as a snowy hill that you are sledding down. Each time you sleigh down the mountain, your path in the snow becomes deeper, making it more likely that you will continue to take the same route the next time. Neural circuits that already have strong connections tend to get stronger the more they are used; it’s the ‘use it or lose it’ principle. This is why people get stuck in a rut and have a hard time getting out of their entrenched pattern of behavior.
To ‘un-link’ those neurons from each other, you need to create an alternate pathway; to enter uncharted territory with no reassuring landmarks. WHERE are you directing your focus right now? Are you clinging to the same old assumptions that once served you but no longer (or never really did) serve you?
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