The term Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change.The brain can actually change its own structure and function, even into old age. Understanding that the brain can heal itself and that the brain is capable of dramatic change is arguably the most important breakthrough in neuroscience since scientists first sketched out the brain’s basic functions.
Neurons and neural pathways in the brain have the capacity to change their connections and behaviour in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction. Although neural pathways carry out specific functions, they retain the capacity to change from their usual functions and to reorganize themselves. In fact, for many years, it was considered that certain functions were hard-wired in specific, localized regions of the brain. This is no longer the case.
Neuroplasticity and Learning
Neuroscience continues to enhance my understanding of mental health, mental illness and informs my treatment strategies and tools. Clinicians, like myself, are modifying how we understand the relationship between brain biology and effects of experience. The brain operates by physical and chemical laws, and thus, learning is physical.
The evolution of neuroimaging technologies now allows us to see electrical and metabolic activities in a living working brain. Imaging shows that the brain exhibits robust physical, biological changes as a result of learning. We have observed that behaviors that change and persist as a result of experience which we refer to as learning. Learning is accompanied by predictable biological changes that occur in the brain. Corrective learning is used to help undo symptoms that resulted from toxic learning experiences.
Current research in neuroplasticity supports the idea that humans have the power to correct biological brain glitches by retraining the brain with more positive learning experiences. It appears that learning experiences can modify how genes will express. The altering of early life temperament tendencies involved biological changes in the brain.
Changing Brain Systems and Structures
Imagine the brain as a system, which draws conclusions about the goals of that system. Every system needs a set of goals to function effectively. The brain is a set of structures and communication pathways. What is most important to the system is survival, seeking pleasure and avoiding harm. The brain is a system that interacts with its environment. Mental or physical impairment affect the system’s ability to achieve goals. The brain, like any healthy system is one that is working effectively to achieve its goals.
Sense organs bring information from the brain’s environment. Genetic programming and prior learning affect how the brain selects where to direct attention, and what to highlight for further processing.
Repeated responses or experiences condition the brain. Research has shown that repeated stimulation of a neuron, or a network of neurons, strengthens the neuronal response (Kilgard & Merzenich, 1998). Neurons that fire together wire together.
The amygdala is a brain structure that is essential for decoding emotions, and in particular stimuli that are threatening to the organism. Humans have two amygdalae. The amygdala can trigger very powerful emotional and behavioral responses. When these reactions are strong enough, they will override the rational thinking and reality-oriented behavior governed by the cortex.
Self-Directed Neuroplasticity through Psychotherapy
I assist the client in self-directed neuroplasticity. Trained, conscious voluntary directing of attention and the practice of new voluntary behaviours can produce long-lasting biological changes in the brain. Through exploration one learns to identify which areas of their brain structures appear to be over-active and other areas that are under-active.
One learns to classify personality traits that lead to anxiety or/and depression such as perfectionism or self-criticism. You must understand that neuronal pathways grow stronger with repeated action or repetitive thinking. I guide the patient in self-examination and intentional learning that leads to self-directed neuroplasticity.
Your brain is driving your emotions and behavior, and may be confusing your thinking. You will learn tools to calm the amygdala. Seeing pleasant and peaceful images can lower amygdalae reactivity. Muscle relaxation is also helpful as is redirecting attention to something that requires focus. Your mind is more than your brain—you can use your mind to retrain your brain.
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