The world has changed almost beyond recognition in a very short space of time. Dropping off the kids, grabbing a coffee and going to work, things we’ve taken for granted for so long, are no longer as they once were. It’s more likely you’ll be making your own latte, conference calling work colleagues from your home office and if you do have children trying to keep them productively occupied, as you start to juggle the ‘new normal’. And whether you’re back to work now, or off on holiday, or enjoying a stay-cation, what is sure is that our routines are deeply different. Our ways of being together and interacting or just plain functioning have had to change and all that is certain is that uncertainty is continuously in the back ground.
Not only has Covid changed the world it has also changed each and every one of our brains. How they are wired, and how our neurons are connecting and firing, means that this global situation is literally changing the physical architecture of our minds…
The how and the why of it, is Neuroplasticity.
First used in 1948 by Polish neuroscientist, Jerzy Konorski, to describe changes seen in brain cells, neuroplasticity is the brains awe inspiring capacity to make new connections and rewire new neural pathways. And bear in mind, it’s the firing of our neurons that make us who we are, what we do and why we do it!
This concept was and is revolutionary. Up until the early 20th century the prevalent scientific thinking was that once we reached adulthood our brain was fully developed. Not only that, there was the belief that as we got older and brain cells died away there would be an inevitable amount of brain deterioration in our old age. However, the work of Kornoski and other visionary scientists, coupled with the invention of the fMRI and continuous advances of all types of imaging technology, means that those beliefs have been turned on their head. Not only does the brain make new connections on a daily basis, we also know now that the brain generates new brain cells when needed. But that process of neurogenesis is for another blog.
Let’s get back to the wonders of Neuroplasticity.
Our brains adapt & adjust whenever we:
- Learn something new
- Go somewhere different
- Do something novel
-Think from a different perspective
feel unlike we ever have before
New synaptic connections are made, new neural pathways are created and we rewire more up to date frameworks and maps in our heads, constantly modifying our responses to our changing environment and social situations.
This organic capacity of our brain for mental adaptability and agility means we are best able to react appropriately to what is going on around us. It is what has kept us evolving and saved us from no amount of untold dangers. It is what has pushed the boundaries of our mental and physical world, taken us to the moon and means we have a computer, camera and postbox in our pocket. We will always adapt if it is within our power, brain power that is !
For the majority of the time, we aren’t even aware of this happening. Neuroplasticity is organic, automatic and happens at a subconscious level. The changing world of Covid has actually meant we have all been rewiring like mad, and as we all know, the more we do something the easier it becomes and the better we get at it. So, if we consider the global pandemic as a marathon for the mind, lets leverage that training, and get really, really good at something that not only means we supercharge our mental agility, but also helps ward off the awful diseases of brain degeneration, like Alzheimer’s.
So what do we need to do to ramp up our Neuroplasticity?
Difference and new is the key, to an agile mind
Anything we are used to doing, is done by the brain automatically. In fact depending on which research you look at 90% of brain functions are subconscious and some figures suggest we are up to 97% unconscious of all we are feeling, thinking and doing. Regardless of what number is right, what we do know is that by bringing things into our awareness, we are able to effect long and lasting changes. When we are on autopilot the brain is idling, when we bring things into our awareness the brain is stimulated and engage and that’s when the magic happens.
Do the grapevine. No, this isn’t about wine; it’s a dance move, and there are lots of clips you can look up to see it. The brain evolved to move us, away from danger and towards reward, like food, friends and fun so any type of dancing, especially to music you love is great for mental agility
Write with your non-dominant hand. We are wired cross laterally which means that the left hemisphere our brain controls our right side functions. By writing with our other hand we are engaging the less used hemisphere for that task and that means not only are we ramping up neuroplasticity, we are also helping our overall brain health
Drive to work a different way or take the dog for a different walk. By switching up our routes we are laying down new spacial maps in our heads, a great neural workout
Memorise a poem or song you really love, inspires you and makes you smile. All of these things are great for plasticity
Practice gratitude. Although using the analogy of a computer works well to some extent when describing the brains functions, an even better metaphor is likening the brain to a forest. Although the branches can make an infinite amount of new connections there is only the space within our head for so many tree trunks. This means that we need to use the same physical circuitry so if you are practicing gratitude those circuits cannot be used for anthing else, so getting into the habit of practicing gratitude gives us a great neuroplastic opportunity. And although at times depending on our situation and circumstance it can be difficult to bring to mind, things to be grateful for, if we are breathing in and breathing out, we are winning
As we are being shaken and stirred, we are automatically adapting, adjusting and modifying. Leveraging this brilliant capacity by bringing it into our consciousness and doing it on purpose allows us to make the most of now, because if Covid has taught us anything it is that we really don’t know what is around the corner...
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