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To Harness Neuroplasticity, Start with Enthusiasm

[1]We are the archi­tects and builders of our own brains.

For mil­len­nia, how­ever, we were obliv­i­ous to our enor­mous cre­ative capa­bil­i­ties. We had no idea that our brains were chang­ing in response to our actions and atti­tudes, every day of our lives. So we uncon­sciously and ran­domly shaped our brains and our lat­ter years because we believed we had an immutable brain that was at the mercy of our genes.

Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth.

The human brain is con­tin­u­ally alter­ing its struc­ture, cell num­ber, cir­cuitry and chem­istry as a direct result of every­thing we do, expe­ri­ence, think and believe. This is called “neu­ro­plas­tic­ity”.  Neu­ro­plas­tic­ity comes from two words: neu­ron or nerve cell and plas­tic, mean­ing mal­leable or able to be molded.

The impli­ca­tions of neu­ro­plas­tic­ity are enor­mous: we have the abil­ity to keep our brains sharp, effec­tive and capa­ble of learn­ing new skills well into our 90s, if we pro­tect our brains from dam­ag­ing habits and give them ongo­ing stim­u­la­tion and appro­pri­ate fuel. One way to illus­trate this is to think of the brain and mind as a large boat, com­plete with cap­tain and crew, sail­ing the ocean blue.

The cap­tain makes the deci­sions and gives the orders, which the loyal crew fol­low. With­out a cap­tain, the boat would be direc­tion­less. With­out a crew, the day-to-day run­ning of the boat would be impos­si­ble. The crew know their role and don’t need the cap­tain to tell them how to do their job or to remind them of their job on a daily basis. They’re very well trained. The cap­tain only noti­fies the crew if he or she wants some­thing to change and takes charge when­ever lead­er­ship is required. As for the boat, it needs to be kept in good nick and fuelled on a reg­u­lar basis.

The cap­tain, the crew and the boat form a sin­gle, inter­de­pen­dent unit, each party influ­enc­ing the other two. If the cap­tain and crew don’t do their job prop­erly, the boat can get dam­aged and end up in dis­re­pair. If the boat is dam­aged, the jour­ney is more ardu­ous; in par­tic­u­lar, rough seas are more dif­fi­cult to han­dle. If the cap­tain is apa­thetic, incom­pe­tent or drunk, there is an absence of lead­er­ship. And if the cap­tain and crew are in con­stant dis­agree­ment, they won’t get very far.

How does this relate to the brain and mind? The cap­tain rep­re­sents the con­scious mind; the crew rep­re­sent the sub­con­scious mind; the boat is the brain; and the ocean is life.

The con­scious mind is the think­ing part of our­selves. It sets goals, makes deci­sions and inter­prets expe­ri­ences. The sub­con­scious mind is the part of our­selves beneath our con­scious aware­ness that keeps us alive and run­ning. It’s what keeps our hearts pump­ing, our lungs expand­ing and our hair grow­ing. We don’t con­sciously say to our­selves, “Pump, breathe, grow!”—these things are han­dled sub­con­sciously, through the auto­nomic ner­vous sys­tem. The num­ber one pri­or­ity of the sub­con­scious mind is our sur­vival: phys­i­cal, emo­tional and psy­cho­log­i­cal. This is why our sub­con­scious plays a pow­er­ful role in dic­tat­ing behav­iour. It pri­ori­tises our emo­tional well­be­ing over our con­scious wants. It’s why some­times we con­sciously think we want one thing, but still end up doing another. One rea­son that diets don’t work is they don’t address sub­con­scious issues that may be at play. We always sab­o­tage our efforts if the sub­con­scious pay-offs for not chang­ing over­ride the con­scious desire to lose weight. Finally, the brain is the ves­sel through which our con­scious and sub­con­scious minds operate.

Based on the anal­ogy of boat, cap­tain and crew, the fol­low­ing is an overview of how we can boost our brains.

1. Don’t dam­age the boat.
On day one in med­ical school, I was taught Pri­mum non nocere—“First do no harm”. No boat owner would know­ingly dam­age their boat, so it fol­lows that no human would know­ingly dam­age his brain. Apart from the obvi­ous injury caused by falling off lad­ders and falling into ille­gal drugs, things which harm the brain and reduce our cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties include smok­ing, stress, sleep depri­va­tion, soft drinks, seden­tary lifestyles, exces­sive alco­hol, junk food, high blood pres­sure, high cho­les­terol lev­els, obe­sity, lone­li­ness, pes­simism and neg­a­tive self-talk. Goal num­ber one is to avoid these dam­ag­ing entities.

2. Dock the boat in stim­u­lat­ing sur­round­ings.
Our brain func­tion improves in every mea­sur­able way when we find our­selves in envi­ron­ments that are men­tally, phys­i­cally and socially stim­u­lat­ing. Adven­ture pre­vents dementia!

Keep read­ing…

3. Fuel it the finest.
Our dietary choices affect not only the health of our bod­ies but also the health of our brains. In fact our brains con­sume one fifth of all the nutri­ents and kilo­joules we ingest. What we eat has a sig­nif­i­cant impact on our neu­ro­trans­mit­ters (chem­i­cals that carry mes­sages between neu­rons across synapses), our alert­ness, our mood and our cog­ni­tive functioning.

4. Keep the cargo light.
Obe­sity is a major risk fac­tor for dementia.

5. Run the motor.
With­out phys­i­cal exer­cise our brains waste away as much as our mus­cles waste away. Exer­cise actu­ally induces the growth of new brain cells.

6. Learn the ropes and keep on learn­ing.
Hav­ing a good edu­ca­tion and engag­ing in life­long, active learn­ing help to pro­tect us from demen­tia and con­tribute to our devel­op­ing “cog­ni­tive reserve”. This reserve acts as a buffer against men­tal decline as we age.

7. Sail to new shores.
Bore­dom and monot­ony are poi­so­nous to our brains. We need to get out there, get explor­ing and get out of our com­fort zones. We need to sail to new shores to find riches out­side our usual bound­aries. We need to change our rou­tines, do things dif­fer­ently and give our­selves ongo­ing challenges.

8. Use it or lose it.
This applies to every func­tion of the brain and body, from study­ing to social­is­ing to sex. In order to main­tain our capac­ity for learn­ing new skills, we need to engage in learn­ing new skills on a reg­u­lar basis.  In order to become cre­ative, inven­tive and re-sourceful, we need to give our­selves tasks that require cre­ativ­ity, inven­tive­ness and resource­ful­ness. In order to have a good mem­ory, we need to make a con­scious effort to pay atten­tion. In order to remain socially adept, we need to remain socially active.

9. Train it and regain it.
If we lose a spe­cific brain func­tion, all is not lost. Pro­gres­sive, per­sis­tent, goal-focused prac­tice can help us regain the lost function.

10. Charge the bat­tery.
Still­ing the mind is as impor­tant as stim­u­lat­ing the mind. Get­ting ade­quate sleep and press­ing the pause but­ton on our mind chat­ter are essen­tial for peak per­for­mance on a day-to-day basis, as well as preser­va­tion of brain func­tion as we age.

11. Con­nect with fel­low trav­ellers.
Life­long social inter­ac­tion and mean­ing­ful con­nec­tion with oth­ers is vital for a healthy brain.

12. Choose the des­ti­na­tion.
The brain is a tele­o­log­i­cal device—it is fed by hav­ing goals to strive for and aspi­ra­tions to work towards. The clearer we are about where we want to go and what we want to achieve, the more effec­tive the brain is in accom­plish­ing the required tasks. This is anal­o­gous to the cap­tain giv­ing the crew clear instruc­tions about where they’re going and what is expected of them.

13. Com­mand the crew.
Hav­ing decided on what we want, we need to direct our self-talk to sup­port our goals. Our inter­nal dia­logue is a con­stant stream of instruc­tions to the sub­con­scious mind. Uplift­ing, solution-focused self-talk switches on brain cell activ­ity; neg­a­tive, dis­cour­ag­ing self-talk damp­ens it.

14. Com­mu­ni­cate grat­i­tude.
When we think about what we’re thank­ful for, we wire our brains to con­tinue find­ing things to be thank­ful for. Our brains are designed so that we see what­ever we’re look­ing for. We are never objec­tive, even when we make a con­certed effort to be so. Sub­jec­tiv­ity always enters our per­cep­tions. We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are. There­fore, by reg­u­larly reflect­ing on things that we’re grate­ful for, we con­struct a fil­ter through which we see the world and we cre­ate more expe­ri­ences for which to feel grateful.

15. Prac­tise per­fectly.
When we prac­tise a skill in our imag­i­na­tions, the same neu­rons are fir­ing as if we were per­form­ing the skill in real life! If we see our­selves exe­cut­ing a task per­fectly in the mind’s eye, we become bet­ter at it in the real world because every men­tal rehearsal increases the effi­ciency of elec­tri­cal trans­mis­sions between the involved nerve cells. Men­tal prac­tice tur­bocharges our progress.

Keep read­ing…

16. Bon voy­age!
Enjoy the jour­ney! Get excited about where you’re going. Pas­sion, enthu­si­asm and excite­ment are the most pow­er­ful brain fuels of all. The word enthu­si­asm comes from the Greek entheos, mean­ing “to be divinely inspired or pos­sessed by a god”.

Ralph Waldo Emer­son observed, “Noth­ing great has ever been achieved
with­out enthu­si­asm.”

[2]Dr Helena Popovic MBBS is an Australia-based med­ical doc­tor, researcher, fit­ness trainer, inter­na­tional speaker and author of In Search of My Father: Demen­tia is no match for a daughter’s deter­mi­na­tion [3].


–> To learn more about neu­ro­plas­tic­ity, read these 15 FAQs on Neu­ro­plas­tic­ity and Brain Fit­ness [4].

–> How to Sub­mit a Guest Post to SharpBrains.com [5].


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2. Lera Borodit­sky. How Lan­guage Shapes Thought: The lan­guages we speak affect our per­cep­tions of the world, Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can Feb­ru­ary 2011, 62–65.

3. Bar­bara L Fred­er­ick­son PhD. Pos­i­tiv­ity: Top-notch research reveals the 3-to-1 ratio that will change your life. Three Rivers Press 2009.

4. Y. Freund-Levi et al. Omega-3 fatty acid treat­ment in 174 patients with mild to mod­er­ate Alzheimer dis­ease: OmegAD study: a ran­dom­ized double-blind trial, Archives of Neu­rol­ogy, Octo­ber 2006, 63(10):1402–8.

5. John Med­ina. Brain Rules: 12 Prin­ci­ples for sur­viv­ing and thriv­ing at work, home and school. Pear Press 2008.

6. John J Ratey and Eric Hage­man. Spark! How exer­cise will improve the per­for­mance of your brain. Quer­cus Pub­lish­ing Plc 2009.

7. GW Rebok et al. Train­ing and main­tain­ing mem­ory abil­i­ties in healthy older adults: Tra­di­tional and novel approaches, Jour­nals of Geron­tol­ogy: SERIES B, 2007, 62B: 53–61.

8. M R Rosen­zweig et al. Effects of envi­ron­men­tal com­plex­ity and train­ing on brain chem­istry and anatomy: A repli­ca­tion and exten­sion. Jour­nal of Com­par­a­tive and Phys­i­o­log­i­cal Psy­chol­ogy, 1962, 55: 429–37.

9. L Shobab, G Hsi­ung and H Feld­man. Cho­les­terol in Alzheimer’s Dis­ease, Lancet Neu­rol­ogy, 2005, 4:841–52.

10. M Valen­zuela et al. Lifes­pan men­tal activ­ity pre­dicts dimin­ished rate of hip­pocam­pal atro­phy, PLoS One, 2008, 3(7):e2598.

11. J Vergh­ese et al. Leisure activ­i­ties and the risk of demen­tia in the elderly, New Eng­land Jour­nal of Med­i­cine, 2003, 348:2508–16.

12. G Yue and K J Cole. Strength increases from the motor pro­gram: Com­par­i­son of train­ing with max­i­mal vol­un­tary and imag­ined mus­cle con­trac­tions. Jour­nal of Neu­ro­phys­i­ol­ogy, 1992, 67(5): 1114–23.

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