Before I visit two aspects of neuroplasticity today, I want to talk about how it works that the brain creates permanent memories only from some of the thousands of things that happen to it every day.
Our brain is involved in our lives and our actions in a twofold manner: it observes and experiences what our outside environment does to us, and it experiences and observes what happens to it as a result of what happens in our bodies and what we do. It also decides of which of those experiences to make permanent memories.
Say I am in the foyer of Sparkling Hill, when a rattlesnake slithers through the sliding glass doors.
(Let me quickly assure our guests: there is really no risk at all of any rattlesnake coming into the hotel. Though there is an abundance of wildlife around Sparkling Hill, they are generally of the golden marmot, white-tailed deer and the Western bluebird variety, and these are outside experiences and not inside!)
My brain will observe this outside environment event—the snake coming in—and make a lightning quick assessment: Snake; no handler; no film crew; wild; dangerous; avoid; run!
The brain will send its messengers to my body in an equally rapid way, and this will result in pumping most of its oxygen rich blood to my lungs, heart, and muscles to make me the most effective running machine possible given my advanced state of unfitness and encroaching age. It will get the blood to be pumped harder by increasing my blood pressure and by raising my pulse rate. This will happen so quickly that I afterwards would say I did not think, I just shuffled up the beautiful stair case to the first floor.
For a few minutes afterwards or a few hours (depending on my temperament and previous such experiences), my brain would then experience edginess and unease, because it would observe that the heart continues to race, the blood pressure remains up and the respiratory rate recovers from its state of unexpected exertion. It would deduce that there is some reason to be afraid, as its body is telling it to be so.
Having recorded this new experience—a snake, a rattle snake. Inside.The.Hotel!—it will decide whether it is novel or fascinating. (“Indeed”, and “for sure” are the two answers to that). It will also gauge if the behavioural outcome was important, and whether it was bad/good. (“Yes, very: I could have died otherwise”, and “A live cowardly Pieter is way better than a dead brave Pieter” are the two answers to that). So, if it is new or interesting, with significant and bad/good (good in this case) behavioural outcomes, the brain will deposit the experience as a permanent one.
The first aspect of neuroplasticity I want to visit today is this: our brain does not immediately change itself by increasing the numbers of brain cells and their connections, but adopt a “wait-and-see” strategy. Only when it has gone through the above process, will it adjust itself to be better prepared for the next time it sees a snake in the foyer.
The second is that the brain can use those events and experiences to draw on to become more plastic, without having to go through such an experience again. If I think about the snake event, and I mentally rehearse what I will do next time, my brain will change “neuroplastically” in the same way, using exactly the same processes as if it happened through an interaction with the next real snake in the foyer (or elsewhere). If somebody would stand there looking at me, they would not see me making any movement, merely looking thoughtful, but next time I am more likely to run to the front desk to make the alarm then run up the stairs making my escape.
What is the point of knowing this?
A well developed ability of neuroplasticity makes us age slower and makes us age better.
If we want to be better at making neuroplastic changes in our brain, we need to be interested in what is going on around us and within us; and we can be encouraged that in order to make those positive changes, we do not need to have an event repeat itself in the outside world, but that we can manage the event better in future merely by rehearsing the event and practising our response to it, in our head.
I don’t know about you, but to me that is powerful and encouraging knowledge.