Ranjana TN

Leveraging brain plasticity

Lately, I’ve been reading about the brain and how it works. In the process, I stumbled upon Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself. The core concept of the book is brain plasticity or the ability of the brain to adapt and change. While talking about psychotherapy, Doidge talks about how memories can be changed and rewritten. The underlying neuronal networks and associated memories literally change. This is oftentimes done by events that occur later, but this can also be done consciously. In fact, during psychotherapy, people learn to change how they understand and recall past traumas.

I think this has powerful utility. This means that we literally have the power to change all those past stories that don’t serve us and create future stories that we want to live. Unfortunately, we use the very same process to work against us instead of for us. Do you know someone in your life who keeps repeating that one sordid thing that happened to them ages ago? Their dissatisfaction or unhappiness never seems to quell, does it? The more they repeat the story, the more unhappy they become. Not only is this futile and irritates the hell out of everyone around them, but it also disempowers the person by strengthening those neuronal patterns. They are never able to let go and suffer deep negativity as a result. If the event was a traumatic one, this can even debilitate the person to such an extent that it prevents them from living a normal life.

Leveraging brain plasticity to create an empowering story

If you think about it, your neurons are firing in some patterns all the time. And it’s either an empowering one or a disempowering one. So if you’re not telling a good story, you can rest assured that it’s a bad one. But the good news is that the brain is plastic! You can change it anytime and channel it in a direction that helps you have a positive experience of life rather than a negative one. Here are some ways you can do this:

Don’t put a negative spin on stuff

I’m particularly guilty of this one. It’s one thing to experience something negative and continue to say that story. It’s another to actually experience something positive or perhaps even neutral and put a negative spin on it. For eg., I had a mentor who shaped me in a number of positive ways when I had just started working in sales. After a few years, I caught myself thinking about some things he’d done which hadn’t bothered me back then but now seemed nasty. For a while, I wallowed in negativity and resentment. Soon, though, I realised that I could either put a negative spin and taint my whole experience or look at all the positives of having had a mentor like him in my formative years and be grateful. Don’t fish for the negative. When you make up your mind to find faults with something, you always will. When you decide to find the positives, you always will. Choose to see the glass as half-full, not half-empty. And for goodness sake, don’t see a glass full-full as half-empty!

Tell a different story

This is what happens during psychotherapy. When something clearly negative – even traumatic – occurs, you can get a deeper understanding and extract some valuable lessons. You don’t need to deny that something unpleasant – maybe even horribly so – has happened. Just don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. And over time, learn to focus only on the baby.

Sometimes, something so unspeakably bad or heart-wrenching occurs that even the thought of seeking out something positive from it might be repulsive. It helps to remind ourselves that we want to change how we see the event because that’s the only way we will be able to live a better life. It’s not easy, but building those new neuronal patterns is crucial for our wellbeing. This might even need us to take a stoic or a spiritual stance. Whatever needs to be done to tell an empowering story, do it.

Seek help

Sometimes the stories we’re trying to change are so deeply entrenched in us and the thought patterns so strong that we can’t do it by ourselves. Seek out a psychologist or a psychiatrist, please. It’s not the weak thing to do; it’s the smart thing. Remember that you feeling good about yourself and your life comes before all else. Firing thought patterns that are not serving you is not intelligent. Change them at all costs and seek help when you need it.

Leverage the power of visualisation

In his book, Doidge talks about how people who visualised training physically had brain activity similar to those that actually trained physically. This blew my mind. Since visualisation fires all the relevant thought patterns, visualising the changes you want to see can accelerate them. This is also why you should be cautious about visualising stuff that you don’t want to happen. For eg., if you are about to deliver a presentation, don’t visualise stumbling and fumbling through it. This might sound like common sense, but a whole lot of us do exactly this.

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, says he leveraged visualisation to become a syndicated cartoonist. He said, 15 times a day, “I, Scott Adams, will become a syndicated cartoonist.” And he did. There’s nothing woo about visualisation. It helps fire those thought patterns that will help you focus on what exactly you want to create. Emotions and actions follow thought. Fire those neurons right and you’ll end up where you’re aiming to go.

The more I’m reading about the human brain, the more fascinated I’m becoming. There’s so much useful stuff to learn that I barely know where to begin. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the brain is perhaps the most sophisticated thing out there. To quote Norman Doidge, “The brain is a far more open system than we ever imagined, and nature has gone very far to help us perceive and take in the world around us. It has given us a brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself.”