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  • Writer's picturehayneslamottepsych

What Neuroplasticity Means for Your Hopes For Change

Understanding Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is the idea that our brains and nervous systems are hard-wired to change and adapt to our experiences. The brain and nervous system (the way the brain communicates with the rest of the body) operate via special cells called neurons that act as tiny on/off switches. Individuals neurons don’t confer much intelligence on their own, but it is through the billions and billions of them (approximately 86 billion) in your brain and their trillions of connections with one another that add up to your consciousness and intelligence.

Brain encased in plastic wrap
Neuroplasticity does not mean that your brain is encased in plastic, as is misleadingly presented here.

Our behavioral tendencies and habits actually take on a physical form in our bodies via our neural pathways – this refers to the ways that neurons are connected to one another in the brain and throughout the body.

If you’ve ever been to a park where there was a shorter path through the grass than on the paved walkway, you might notice what are called desire paths – spots with only dirt instead of grass because so many people have walked in the same place.

Our brains and nervous systems work much the same way, rewiring itself to create new pathways based on how you think and what you do: change how your thinking and what you’re doing, and over time this will rewire your brain/body in such a way that makes continuing to do so easier and feel more automatic.

A good example of this is learning a sport or instrument. When you start out, it takes all of your attention just to play a basic melody or try controlling the ball. But as you keep going, it gets easier and easier and eventually you can start playing without having to think too hard about it. This happens because of the neural networks that get built adapting to what you do, like a muscle getting stronger from exercising it.

Desire path at IBM campus in grass in comparison to later photograph of desire path gone due to global pandemic
Desire path at IBM campus wearing away while employees worked from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just like desire paths can wear away from disuse, skills or habits that we stop engaging in will over time weaken the neural pathways for that activity, though often not completely. This is where the phrase “it’s like riding a bicycle” comes from – dormant neural pathways can be easier to rebuild from than starting from scratch. This is why it is easier to relearn material than to learn it for the first time.

Another good example of neuroplasticity comes from a study of prospective London taxi drivers who had to study thousands of streets and landmarks over three years to take the to take the Knowledge exam. The researchers took brain scans of prospective taxi drivers and controls at the start of their studies, and over three years later. They found that those studying for the Knowledge exam had increased brain matter in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory and spatial awareness. Our brains change based on our experiences.

Similarly, there is lots of research showing that engaging in psychotherapy also changes people’s brains over time. This means that even that psychological phenomena that have biological causes (which I would argue would really be all psychological phenomena) do not necessarily require biological intervention. This is due to neuroplasticity.

Leaving a Fixed Mindset Behind

How does this neuroscience background relate to your therapy experience?

Oftentimes clients enter therapy with a Fixed Mindset. This is the idea that characteristics and abilities are reflective of some innate, inherent qualities of the person. For example, if you’ve ever said or heard someone say “I’m just bad at math,” this statement treats being good/bad at math as a quality of the person. This thinking is almost baked into the way that our language works. However, the reality is that there’s no such thing as people who are bad at math and people who are good at math, only people who haven’t spent time practicing math and people who have spent a lot of time at it.

The issue with a Fixed Mindset is that it tends to reify or make real the perceived characteristics and guide the person's behavior as if it is real. In other words, believing that you are just bad at math would make it more likely to give up on a new problem rather than continuing to try at it. Getting good at something requires lots of practice and time to rewire your body’s neural networks, and a Fixed Mindset can cause people to give up prematurely.

When we view characteristics and abilities as innate and unchangeable, we also tend to spend our time trying to look good to other people rather than focusing on learning what we need to learn. For example, a student may be afraid to raise their hand in a classroom out of fear of appearing unintelligent, when asking a question might help them learn the material better.

In contrast to a Fixed Mindset is a Growth Mindset, which treats our abilities, habits, and characteristics as fundamentally changeable given enough time and effort. A Growth Mindset instead says, “I haven’t learned that math skill yet, I wonder what I would need in order to be able to?” Practicing this mindset over time itself rewires the brain, making it easier to see situations and events in this way.

Shifting from a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset can clearly be very beneficial for one’s mental health. In this process, it can of course be helpful to have the assistance of an experienced therapist as a guide. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in working on this via telehealth, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.


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