Neuroplasticity: Welcome to Brain Farming!
Neuroplasticity is a word that has been in the media in regards to neurological rehabilitation but to many it is still a mystery. Today I would like to try to explain it in plain unscientific language. You can think of recovering from a neurological injury like growing a garden. There is a complex soil, which is necessary for the plants to grow in but they also need certain things at a certain times in order to flourish. In this way neurological physiotherapy is basically central nervous system farming, but that is way too long to say, so I call it - Brain Farming.
I will briefly explain the key ingredients to neuroplasticity below. They are:
- We need to have an intention, a focus that our conscious awareness is set on in order to help create change. The intention is the aspect, feeling, thought, or movement that you are goal directed to improve. For example, this could be being aware of a sensation and then working to feel that again and then in a variety of contexts.
In order to help change the central nervous system, we need to be able to find time to, without distractions of mind or environment, focus on the intention. It isn’t about the amount of time spent in one sitting, but that the time you spend practicing is focused. Focused attention helps to convey the importance of the intention to the CNS thereby improving neuroplastic changes within the CNS
This is very important. “Neurons that fire together wire together”, is a common saying. That is what neuroplasticity is all about, creating connections within the central nervous system. For this connection to happen, and then that pathway happen more often than not, the connection needs to be repeated. But how much, and is it better to repeat something 1000 times once or several times spread out? These concepts have been well studied and the simple answer is a bit of both. It is important to repeat something enough times that your brain “gets it”, but not so much that you lose focus. Your CNS really learns when it has to come up with the ‘solution’ over and over. So practice and repeat your intention while you can focus, but also break it up so your CNS has to find the ‘solution’ again later. But perhaps do it a little differently later...
This is really the key to human movement and development – using the same tools to solve different problems and then coming up with different tools. We never move the same way, direction, pattern all of the time; we alter our bodies and our movements to fit the demands of the environment and the task. So too, in repetition of an activity or task that we are focused on, (attention) and doing for a specific reason, (intention), we need to add small adjustments and modifications, (variety), for the system to really “own” the connection. Our connections are solid, but adaptable. I guess that’s where the plastic part comes in?
This is often overlooked in our society but is just as important in neurological rehabilitation. A positive outlook, finding acceptance, and finding gratitude are all parts of creating a positive attitude that can really take neuroplasticity to supra-orbital heights. The reason is that when we are in positive states, our bodies produce chemicals that are a part of our reward system. This reward system, when activated, really helps. It is the thing that says to our CNS, “Hey that worked! That felt good! Lets do that again!” The CNS responds by creating a connection between neurons that came together during that moment - neuroplasticity. The more this is repeated, with slight variations and attention to the fact that whatever happened was awesome, and working to create that awesome feeling again is how we can help to foster neuroplasticity. The positivity primes the system for change.
Mindful meditation, relaxation, being at ease - These are also ways to help bring the CNS to a state that is primed for change. This makes sense really; are we truly ready to learn, grow, and change when we are in fight or flight mode – trying to escape the tiger, hoping we don’t mess up on that test? No. We are ready to escape, to move quickly, and use habits and learned patterns, as those are more readily available to us with the least amount of cortical energy. Spending just a short time each day to focus on your breath, or perform a body scan can help to promote a calm and receptive state outside of the mindfulness practice. Then you are creating an internal situation that is primed to see and find reward throughout the day, fostering neuroplasticity 24/7.
Resting between sessions and after sessions is vital to creating neuroplastic changes within your CNS. This is when your brain reorganizes and that actual cellular mechanics of neuroplasticity take place. Listen to your body after a session or even get into the routine of taking a rest sometime after your session. Catnaps can do wondrous things!
Here is a link to a TeD talk on neuroplasticity by Dr. Lara Boyd, professor and researcher at UBC. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNHBMFCzznE