Posted by: Arjun Aiyar | June 5, 2009

Neuroplasticity!

On a journey of discovery into the fascinating world of coaching, I chanced upon the term ‘Neuroplasticity’.

The word itself is intriguing and some amount of research gave me an incredible perspective on the functioning of the human mind and its capacity for change. It reveals how much power we have – if only we choose to embrace it. I would like to give credit to Shalini Verma, an accomplished coach who is based in Delhi. A brief interaction with her and some time spent reviewing her personal blog has inspired me to write on this subject.

Simply put, ‘Neuro’ means brain and ‘plasticity’ is flexibility or the ability to change. The brain is made up of billions of cells called neurons. These cells are interconnected to each other by ‘neural pathways’. These are actual physical connections that exist inside our brains. Each pathway represents a habit, an attitude or a belief system. It has been said that we are creatures of habit. What this means is that, we as human beings get acclimatized to performing certain tasks (work or otherwise) in a particular style. For eg. we are used to taking a certain route from home to the office. When there is a change in the route either on account of a new office location or road works, we experience a sense of discomfort that borders on anxiety. This is because the brain is being forced to create a new pathway (habit), one that did not exist before.  It was earlier believed that the brain was characteristically static which means it could not change past a certain age. The adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, clearly reflects a long held belief about the nature of the brain. Expressions like “He is hardwired to function in that way”, further propagated the idea that many people are unable to make changes especially when they are habituated to a pattern or past a certain age.

In the 1980’s, the chief scientist at the Institute of Behavioral Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, Dr. Edward Taub, through a series of validated experiments and studies observed that the brain was capable of creating new connections on a massive scale- at will, and at any stage in life. The new connections are formed whenever we start doing something that we have never done before. For e.g. learning to play a musical instrument, speaking a new language or relocating to a new country. Therefore, the brain is not static but it is characteristically plastic i.e. adaptable and able to mould itself to suit a new situation or environment. Experts in the field today have gone one step further still. It has been proven that the brain does not only form new pathways to acquire new skills but is continually in the process of building these connections, on a daily basis in response to the smallest of changes that happen around us.

Everything we think and do affects the brain’s neural pathways.  Ideas, thoughts, habits, etc are constantly refining these neural highways. Evidently, we human beings have an immense ability to change and continually develop new connections and maps. The challenge therefore is to move from ‘ability’ to ‘willingness’ and then transmuting that willingness into deliberate action.

At a seminar conducted in the US recently, the speaker asked the audience ‘Can you speak Japanese?’.  As you can well imagine, very hands went up. The speaker repeated the question and of course the response was exactly the same. The speaker then explained that if millions of 4, 5 and 6 year olds in Japan can speak Japanese, then, every adult in the audience could also do the same. It’s just that they hadn’t taken the effort to learn the language. So, we call can speak Japanese – its just that we currently don’t! Now, that’s a classic example of Neuroplasticity. Most of us are guilty of denying ourselves of new or different experiences – for one reason and one reason only – we have never done it before. In other words, we are just ‘uncomfortable’ to do something that we haven’t done before OR more simply put – the neural pathways for that new activity don’t exist, and we believe that it can’t exist.

Logic (and experience) has taught us that when a muscle is not used – it tends to shrink and becomes weak. If your hand of leg has ever been in a cast, you know the feeling. It then takes effort to regain your strength through consistent exercise.

Similarly, exercising the brain is nothing but creating new pathways i.e. doing new and different things i.e. having plastic experiences – daily! A resilient and strong mind (brain) is therefore one that consciously and regularly creates new pathways and maps.

Go ahead and allow this principle to positively impact every area of your life!

 (Arjun Aiyar is a corporate trainer, executive coach and motivational speaker based in Dubai. He has two training companies – one in India and the other in the UAE. His organizations cater to corporates and individuals by providing training and coaching in soft skills and behavioural areas. Learn more about Arjun’s business on www.stepupuae.com or www.thinqdynamiq.com)

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