We as people and our brains as complex networks are changing every day, moment-by-moment. What course this development goes is completely in our own control. This article talks about how to increase neuroplasticity so that you could become more intelligent and fluid in your thinking. But first, let me explain what it actually is.
Up until the second half of the 20th century, people thought that the brain changed only during child growth and stayed mostly the same during adulthood. However, new research showed that many aspects of our cerebellum actually are plastic or are plastic throughout one’s entire life[i].
Neuroplasticity definition: the brain’s ability to restructure its neural connections and form new ones at any given time. It allows nerve cells to adjust their formation in response to novel experiences, difficult situations, changes in the environment or to compensate for injury.
The fundamental principle of neuroplasticity is that individual synaptic connections are constantly being moved, removed or recreated by the neurons that carry them. This is captured very well by the aphorism:
“Neurons that fire together, wire together” and “Neurons that fire out of sync, fail to link.” (Click to Tweet)
Neuroplasticity can occur on several levels, from microscopic changes in individual neurons to large-scale cortical remapping in response to injury. For instance, if one hemisphere of the brain gets damaged, the side that’s intact will take over some of its functions. Compensation happens through reorganizing and forming connections between healthy nerve cells.
How to Increase Neuroplasticity
The reason why you would want to increase brain neuroplasticity is self-explanatory.
- It enhances cognition, improves intelligence and makes you more fluid in your thinking.
- Most neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are all associated with a loss of neuroplasticity.
- Working on your neural connections can help you mitigate one of the signs of aging, which is impaired cognitive functioning.
- Neuroplasticity makes our brain adapt to changes inflicted by damage but also allows adaptation to all experiences and changes we may experience in the future
The key to increasing neuroplasticity is to cause mild stress the brain by forcing it to change the structure of neural connections. When we learn something new, we improve the speed of our thinking, firing rate of neurons, decision making abilities and other higher executive tasks. Learning is the quintessential component to making your cerebellum more flexible and fluid.
There are a host of strategies with which we can increase neuroplasticity. Let’s go through the easiest ones.
Whole Brain Holistic Thinking
Each hemisphere of the brain manages different activities. The left side is analytical, rational, logical and governs tasks of focused perception. In contrast, the right side is intuitive, imaginative, emotional and is more associated with creativity.
Dualistic thinking sees everything as either/or; this/that; good/bad; black/white. This is the surest way of putting restrictions on your mind. The opposite to that is holistic thinking, which is about seeing things not as distinctive parts but as oneness. There is no separation but everything comes together as a whole. It means you’re looking at the bigger picture not just fragments of it.
Holistic thinking incorporates both of the brain’s hemispheres and overcomes this duality. The two are already intertwined, as the left side controls our motor skills and field vision on the right and vice versa. It’s just that most people tend to align themselves strictly towards one end or the other.
Is the left-brain right-brain idea a myth? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t – it doesn’t matter in the context of neuroplasticity. Doing tasks that require different motor skills and neural process will still make your brain more plastic.
To think holistically and incorporate both sides of your brain:
- Play a musical instrument, juggle several objects or do other tasks that tax complex motor skills
- Brush your teeth with your less dominant hand while balancing on one leg – now that will definitely force you to concentrate.
- Learn a new language that forces you to analytically think about your wording but allows you to express yourself freely
Intense concentration forces your brain to narrow down its field of awareness to only one thing at a time. It increases neuroplasticity by putting high cognitive demands on the nerve cells. As a result, you enhance the firing rate of neurons and improve the depth of your thinking.
FLOW is a state of consciousness in which we’re fully immersed by the task at hand. It’s the zone, the world-record making, scientific breakthrough condition, during which we’re feeling and performing at our best. In fact, we’ll be doing better than ever before.
Being in flow allows you to tap into your creative genius and incorporate both hemisphere’s of the brain. It puts you into tunnel vision and grants access to productive creativity – doing a whole lot of great tasks effectively and spontaneously at the same time.
How to Enter Flow:
To enter FLOW, you have to complete the following conditions:
- One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress.
- The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback.
- One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived abilities. One must have confidence in one’s ability to complete the task at hand.
Steps to Enter FLOW:
- Know the purpose of the activity – what are you trying to do
- Prepare your mind – be ready to concentrate very intensely
- Control your environment – eliminate all possible distractions
- Begin to work at the task – just do it and don’t expect any results at first
- Don’t get sidetracked – notice when you begin to drift and guide yourself back
- Become immersed by it – focus solely on what you’re doing and engage with the activity
- Attain an insider’s perspective – don’t self-reflect but simply space out
- Ride the waves – take risks and enjoy the process
- Afterflow – get kicked out, evaluate your results and recover
Expose Yourself to Novelty
Learning new things is the quintessential component to increasing neuroplasticity. Restructuring the brain is based entirely on ripping out old pathways and creating new ones. This means that having to re-learn underlies basically every mechanism of neural flexibility.
Humans are a creature of habit. We all follow a certain daily routine, do stuff on autopilot without even thinking about it and tend to do the same things almost every single day. This is fine but it can also limit your ability to adapt and makes you accustomed to your current environment. Even if you’re following good habits, it’s best to occasionally get uncomfortable to keep your adaptability skills alive and strong.
- Learn a new skill that doesn’t take a lot of time but still forces you to flex your mental muscles.
- Read books about topics you don’t have the slightest clue about. Expand your intellect by exposing your mind to new subjects and thoughts.
- Take a different route while walking. An environment where you haven’t been before makes you use your navigational skills and causes mild mental stress. Exploring also stimulates the brain by enabling you to see new details.
- Shake up your daily routine. Instead of doing the same things all the time, mix it up a little and practice antifragility.
There are a ton of research showing how meditation has profound effects on the brain. Mostly it has to do with increased attention span, improved memory and higher activity at the prefrontal cortex. But there are also a number of studies on how it enhances cortical thickness and the density of grey matter[ii][iii][iv].
In fact, meditation increases the coherence between the different hemispheres of the brain. Characterized by alpha waves, a meditative state makes you completely calm but fully alert at the same time – it unites the body and mind, action and inaction.
Outside of the brain, meditation is also a greater stress reliever. Too much cortisol damages all tissue in the body, including cells and neurons. Anxiety and fear are survival mechanisms and prevent the organism from focusing on other tasks that require higher executive functioning and creativity.
Meditation isn’t necessarily a spiritual practice, but a mental technique that expands your consciousness, improves your perspective on life and increases your awareness. As a result, you become more in touch with your true self and can manifest your productive creative genius.
When it comes to physical activities, then aerobic exercise boosts brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) more than resistance training does[v]. BDNF increases neurogenesis (the creation of new brain cells).
There are many other reasons why exercise is important but regular movement is a potent way of improving blood flow to the brain. Even just walking can light up different parts of the cerebellum and aid with neuroplasticity.
This doesn’t mean that resistance training doesn’t help your brain. In fact, one paper found that strength gains improved cognitive functioning, but aerobic exercise didn’t[vi]. But that study was also done on subjects with mild cognitive impairment.
Sprinting or any other type of high intensity interval training (HIIT) is also an amazing way to boost BDNF[vii] and improve learning. It seems that the magnitude of increase in BDNF levels is mostly dependent of exercise intensity[viii]
Whatever the case may be, you should still incorporate both low intensity aerobic exercise, high intensity interval and heavy resistance training to your schedule. The combination will increase longevity, enhance mitochondrial density and improve neuroplasticity.
By the same token, intermittent fasting is a great way to increase BDNF levels[ix]. Abstention from food has a ton of other health benefits as well. It detoxifies the body, recycles old proteins with new ones through the process of autophagy. The brain will benefit from this as well – a short fast has profound effects on neuronal autophagy[x].
What to Eat to Increase Neuroplasticity
Food is the greatest drug there is because it directly influences our physiology. What’s more, our psychology gets affected by it as well, due to the intertwined relationship between the body and mind. Therefore, it’s as important to pay close attention to what we eat as it determines the health of our brain and how well we can function mentally.
The idea is to promote neurogenesis (creation of new brain cells) and reduce inflammation and cellular damage to the mitochondria and the brain.
- Magnesium is involved in over 400 physiological functions inside the body, including neuroplasticity[xi]. Giving mice magnesium increases their plasticity in the prefrontal cortex[xii].
- Cholesterol is an essential nutrient for healthy cell creation and maintenance. It actually gets produced by the body every single day if not derived from diet in adequate amounts. 25% of the body’s cholesterol is found inside the brain, where it promotes membrane function and gets used for other hormonal production. It’s critical for learning and memory[xiii].
- Turmeric or curcumin is an incredibly potent antioxidant that protects against free radical damage and promotes neurogenesis. In rats, turmeric improves neuroplasticity and reduces depression[xiv].
- Antioxidants protect cells from free radical damage and oxidative stress. We’re exposed to a lot of free radicals daily but antioxidants can protect our cells from excessive inflammation and aging.
- Vitamin B12 cannot be produced by the body and thus needs to be derived from diet. A deficiency can lead to neurodegenerative disease[xv]. Even slightly lower levels of B12 can cause poor memory, fatigue and depression[xvi]. B vitamins also help neurotransmitter communication between nerve-cell membranes.
- Omega-3s are great for the brain and heart. The counterpart to that is omega-6, which are pro-inflammatory. Omega-6 can be found in a lot of processed foods and vegetable oils, which we would want to avoid anyway. For our body to be healthy the omega-3’s need to be in balance with the omega-6’s. Unfortunately, that balance can be easily tipped off as every amount of omega-6 requires triple the amount of omega-3 to reduce the negative effects. Omega-3s can be found in DHA and EPA.
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in the brain and is crucial for normal brain development. It’s thought that access to DHA during hominid evolution played a key role in increasing the brain/body-mass ratio (encephalization)[xvii]. The best source of DHA is fatty fish, but it’s also found to a lesser extent in grass-fed meat.
Become Plastic Every Day
In essence, as we expose ourselves to novel circumstances and face challenging situations, we’re making our brain better and more flexible. This will transition over to our entire being as well. Because of being able to stand against difficulties we will also increase our ability to adapt. This is an essential skill for mastering life.
We can become more plastic every single day – all we need to do is strip up some of our old neural pathways and create new ones. It might seem counter-intuitive but in reality we emerge from that chaos as the augmented and +1 version of ourselves.
Increase neuroplasticity as much as you like, but also make sure to check out my YouTube channel for other similar life-enhancing strategies and concepts. I make videos about Body Mind Empowerment, which includes improving your physical, mental and spiritual performance across all domains. It’s self-actualization writ large. If you haven’t already, then join the Body Mind Agoge as well – it’s the method of achieving holistic excellence.
[i] Livingston R.B. (1966). “Brain mechanisms in conditioning and learning”. Neurosciences Research Program Bulletin. 4 (3): 349–354.