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Your Brain, Neuroplasticity & Having a Growth Mindset

🤸‍♀️ Stretch 39

Quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Today, we’re talking about one of my favorite topics.

✨ Neuroplasticity

This is our nervous system’s incredible ability to change and rewire itself throughout our lives—no matter how old we are.

(Once considered impossible by scientists, and now the most widely accepted conclusion of neuroscience research!)

I first learned about neuroplasticity from a book called The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, and I’ve been fascinated ever since.

And the more I learn about it, the more I realize how much we limit ourselves.

We have incredible potential to change, learn, grow, transform, and reinvent ourselves.

And I’m not just talking about the obvious things, like learning to play the guitar or speaking a new language. I’m talking about profound, internal change, like rewiring our brain for more positivity, willpower, self-compassion, confidence, and creativity.

What you think now as possible is maybe 1/10th of what's truly possible once you start leveraging the in-built plasticity of your brain.

So in this Stretch, we'll go into a quick primer on how neuroplasticity works + four principles to keep in mind.

😳 Pssst. My Creative Experiment for June/July is all about sharing on Twitter and Linkedin. Two years ago; I could’ve never imagined sending out a newsletter to 2,000 people. One year ago, I would’ve been terrified to post on Linkedin. What would ex-colleagues and friends think?! I still experience pangs of cringe, but I can easily push through them now. That shows me the power of neuroplasticity. Through ups and downs, I’ve been reinforcing neural connections that support confidence and emotional resilience. And that is possible for literally anyone with enough time and effort.

🧠 NEUROPLASTICITY—THE MOST UNDERRATED FEATURE OF YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM

Your nervous system isn't just capable of change.

It's designed to change.

That is the essence of the incredible breakthrough of neuroplasticity:

Your brain is not fixed.

Instead, it changes in response to your experiences, thoughts, and actions.

This allows you to think and behave differently. Learn new skills. Get over painful experiences. And adapt to practically anything life throws at you.

For a long time, it was assumed that only the young brain is plastic. (Something about an old dog and new tricks?)

But scientific research is now undeniable:

No matter how old you are, you can rewire your brain so new motor, cognitive, and emotional skills are burned into the neural circuitry.

And I think that’s an incredible power we don't use nearly enough!

First, a quick primer on how this works on a neurological level.

Within our brains are billions upon billions of neurons, interconnected to form a complex set of neural pathways.

Every time you perform an action or think a thought, electrical currents travel down these pathways, from neuron to neuron, delivering the relevant messages.

The more you perform a particular action or think a certain thought, the stronger the connection between the neurons, making the message travel faster.

That’s how an action or a thought, with enough repetition, becomes automatic (for better or for worse!)

And what’s even more incredible: the relevant brain areas will physically change size—growing and shrinking as connections are strengthened or lost.

Okay, that was a very quick explanation and obviously extremely simplified.

But I don’t believe it’s necessary to get more technical to appreciate how incredible this is.

For me, this mental image of billions of neurons—frantically sending messages around, strengthening and weakening connections—has been enough to change my entire mindset and approach to life.

I now sincerely believe I can change how I think, feel, react, and work.

Not because of some airy-fairy, feel-good inspirational Instagram post. That kind of stuff never resonated with me.

But because of real, peer-reviewed scientific research.

In my opinion, every self-development or productivity book should start with a chapter on neuroplasticity. You can’t talk about change or habit formation without it.

Now, of course, there are lots of nuances and caveats here. Our brain doesn’t literally change from every single thought and action.

There are certain things you need to be aware of if you want to achieve actual, long-lasting brain change as an adult.

So next, we’ll look at…

Four principles to keep in mind if you want to leverage neuroplasticity to your advantage

🧠 Neuroplasticity is the nervous system's capacity to change in response to experience (no matter how old you are!). The objective is to learn how to leverage this state and intentionally direct it to achieve your goals.

👀 After 25, your brain won’t change from every thought or action. To achieve long-term brain change as an adult, you need to pay deliberate attention. Attention + focus creates the perfect neurochemical cocktail.

😴 Accessing the state of neuroplasticity happens during waking states. The actual rewiring and reconfiguration of neural circuits happen during sleep and non-sleep deep rest. Prioritize rest.

😖 Real learning is meant to be chaotic. Making mistakes is critical because it makes the nervous system pay attention to what's not working and adjust accordingly. We’ve labeled these feelings of frustration as negative and as a sign to quit. Instead, this is when you need to make the most of the increased alertness and “embrace the suck” of learning something new.

1. Neuroplasticity in itself is not the goal

Neuroplasticity does not equal not brain change.

It’s a state of the brain and nervous system that allows for change.

It’s the nervous system’s capacity to change in response to experience.

I’m underlining these words because they are important to keep in mind as you’re reading.

The goal is to learn how to access this state and leverage this capacity, intentionally directing it to achieve particular goals or changes.

2. You need to pay deliberate attention

Our brains don’t change from every single experience. (Luckily!)

You need a cocktail of neurochemicals released into your brain to access a state of neuroplasticity.

The good news?

You can learn how to control the release of these neurochemicals subjectively.

You do this through deliberate attention.

If you want to learn as an adult, there needs to be a high level of engagement. You need to be curious. You need to be interested.

Alertness and focus are key here.

The three main chemicals in the neuroplasticity chemical cocktail:

  1. Epinephrine: aids alertness

  2. Acetylcholine: aids focus

  3. Dopamine: aids motivation and reward

Their job is to highlight the neural circuits that need to change, increasing the likelihood of long-term change.

🚩 Learn more about this:

3. You Need Rest

Accessing the state of neuroplasticity happens during waking states.

The actual rewiring and reconfiguration of our neural circuits happen during sleep and non-sleep-deep rest.

This is great news because it fundamentally means that there is no point in trying to engage your brain at maximum capacity at all times or sacrificing sleep to get stuff done.

We think we’re getting more done, but we’re actually just hurting the long-term learning process.

Solid research shows that 90 minutes is about the longest period you can expect to maintain intense focus and effort toward learning.

After 90 minutes, you need to give your brain some rest.

Rest includes deep sleep, naps, relaxation, or any state where you’re not focused on learning (like a walk, but no podcast!).

Also, space deep work sessions 2–3 hours apart. Most people can’t do more than 270 minutes of intense learning bouts per day.

🚩 Learn more about this:

4. Making Mistakes Is Good For You

Ahhhh, my favorite one. This piece of knowledge changed everything for me.

To access optimal plasticity, you need to create mismatches or errors in how you perform things.

You need to signal to the brain that something is wrong; something is different; something isn’t being achieved.

Making errors is critical for learning because it cues up the forebrain. It makes the nervous system pay attention to what’s not working and adjust accordingly.

As Andrew Huberman says:

“Errors are the basis for neuroplasticity and learning. Humans don't like this feeling of frustration and making errors. The few that do, do exceedingly well. The ones that don’t generally don’t learn much.”

So, 2 things to keep in mind:

  • Balance the difficulty level—not too easy, not too difficult.

  • Appreciate and embrace the feelings and discomfort of frustration. As you’re making errors and your nervous system is adjusting, this feedback loop automatically triggers the release of epinephrine and acetylcholine. The feelings of discomfort are designed to focus you. So, feel the frustration. Imagine the chemicals sloshing around in your system, setting you up for a great learning opportunity. Real learning is meant to be chaotic and frustrating.

🚩 Learn more about this:

  • Turning Frustration into Fuel. Learn how to use frustration for quicker learning. This is based on Huberman Lab episode 7, “Using Failures, Movement & Balance to Learn Faster.”

🤿 IF YOU WANT TO DIVE DEEPER…

Check out the David Eagleman books, especially Livewired and The Brain. They’re phenomenal and will give you a newfound appreciation and fascination for your brain and body.

Your life changes when you have a working knowledge of your brain. It takes guilt out of the equation when you recognize that there’s a biological basis for certain emotional issues. On the other hand, you won’t be left feeling helpless when you see how you can influence that biology.

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