What is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity. As a therapist, you need to understand this term especially when conceptualizing problems and planning client interventions. You can use neuroscience in your practice for better results. Understanding neuroplasticity provides the key to creating fast and lasting change for your clients.
The concept of rewiring your brain can be seen in the media and is supported by the science of neuroplasticity. Many of your clients have already heard that the brain can be changed and rewired. But they may not know how therapy can be used to influence, alter or change the brain. New possibilities involving the brain and change fascinate my clients. They feel empowered and eager to take part in interventions that transform in minutes their emotional pain around past events.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s innate ability to change or reorganize itself. The brain can change in both function and structure. That innate potential to change can be harnessed and used to make therapy outcomes better.
Plasticity refers to brain’s ability to reorganize itself throughout a person’s life as a result of experiences. The brain is malleable rather than fixed as once theorized. Like plastic or silly putty, you can mold the brain and increase its growth potential, flexibility, and power. This plasticity feature is considered a paradigm-shifting development in neuroscience. And that’s why psychotherapists need to understand neuroplasticity.
Specifics about brain change include fancy terms like neurogenesis, which is the growth of brand new neurons (brain cells) in key brain regions, such as the hippocampus. Scientists have provided evidence showing enriched experience promotes the growth of new brain cells. In a now-famous London Taxi Cab Drivers study, we learned that subjects who focused on memorizing the streets of London for two years and then take their license test experienced new cell growth and a larger than average hippocampus. There’s potential that enriched learning environments can grow new cells, and change brain regions or structures.
Neuroplasticity can also target and foster synaptic growth potentials, often-called synaptogenesis or the making of new connections between neurons. This is another way the brain can be altered with experiences. While synaptic change potential is seen early in the brain’s development and characterized by tremendous growth followed by cell death, synaptic change also occurs in the acquisition of new skills or experiences. The potential to strengthen synaptic interconnections between neurons (via repetition or practice) exists as well. Plus, it’s possible intentionally to disrupt and prune old neural patterns—to rewire, reshape, or update these patterns with brain interventions. That translates into changes you can observe in client behavior, memory, thought, and emotion.
The Timing for Neuroplasticity
According to Dr. Michael Merzenich, known as “the father of brain plasticity,” there is a critical time for the brain to grow and change. That time is in utero and early childhood.
The brain grows enormously during early development. It develops similarly to the physical body only exponentially faster when you look at this from the cellular and neuron level. As the brain matures, it undergoes physical and chemical changes that create what Merzenich calls the “OFF switch” on its plasticity and early years of brain cell and associational pathway gains. However, plasticity can be turned “ON” at any time in a person’s life if the circumstances are conducive to doing so.
The Key Requirements for Life-long Neuroplasticity
In Merzenich’s book, Softwired, he suggests four key requirements necessary to flip the switch to “ON” and achieve life-long neuroplasticity. These occur:
- With careful use of attention, such as a focus on a task, intention or goal.
- When the brain receives reward or punishment—or expects either. (If this requirement sounds like the intentional use of operant conditioning, it is.)
- When the brain positively evaluates your performance in goal-directed behavior. (A therapist can notice what a client has done well and highlight positives or potentials to turn on neuroplasticity in a session).
- When the brain is surprised—or threatened—by something new or unexpected. (Novelty and surprise provide useful keys when you attempt brain-changing interventions with your clients because they activate an automatic emotional response.)
Learn to Turn On Neuroplasticity for Client Transformation
It certainly helps to know the brain and how to turn on its neuroplasticity. As a therapist, it’s imperative for you to understand how to promote neurons firing and wiring together or apart. When you rewire clients’ brains in this manner, their brains change—and so does their pain. For change to take hold in anyone, however, new neural pathways need to be repeated, practiced, and stabilized. What’s useful is finding ways to influence the brain’s automatic-seeking responses with dopamine-coded patterns that automatically influence motivation and the brain’s reward systems. You might think of success and high-performance habits in this way.
As a therapist, consider neuroplasticity science your interventional ally. To create quick and lasting change for your clients, it’s essential that you consider including activities and experiences in client’s session that foster neuroplasticity. You can begin by following Merzenich’s suggestions: Be intentional about using attention, reward, positivity, and novelty in your sessions.
When you begin a session perhaps you’ll consider neuroplasticity and use it to demonstrate to clients how neuroscience can be applied to solve problems in thinking, feeling, or behaving. Welcome the applied brain science into the clinical conversation to enhance a new way of understanding problems and promoting solutions.
Also, begin recommending that clients participate in activities out of session that support the growth of new brain cells, create new neural links, and strengthen or weaken old neural links. In the process, you’ll encourage neuroplasticity and empower your clients to perform their self-directed neuroplasticity long after the session has ended.
Do you intend to rewire your client’s brains during sessions, and, if so, how? Tell me in a comment below.