What Is Neuroplasticity and How Does It Work in the Brain?

What is neuroplasticity and how does it work? Do you struggle to tap into your brain’s immense power?

The brain is a complex and mysterious part of the body. According to The Source by Tara Swart, neuroplasticity is an essential concept to understand if you want to take full advantage of your brain’s power.

Keep reading for a deeper explanation of neuroplasticity and how to adapt to it.

Neuroplasticity: How the Brain Changes

What is neuroplasticity and how does it work? According to Swart, understanding how the brain changes itself—a process known as neuroplasticity—is essential to harnessing the full power of your brain, which in turn allows you to achieve what you want most in life and shape your future. Swart explains that the brain consists of 86 billion neurons—or brain cells—which are interconnected, and these connections are responsible for all our brain’s functions, including all our thoughts and behaviors. 

(Shortform note: With its 86 billion neurons, the human brain has as many as triple the number of neurons as the brains of other primates. However, while this number is staggering, research suggests that the number of neurons in a human’s brain isn’t a predictor of intelligence; rather, according to additional research, it’s the size and speed of neurons that determines intelligence. Additionally, while the brain’s neuroplasticity can help you make significant, desirable changes, not all neuroplastic change is positive: Maladaptive plasticity is when the brain changes in a way that produces unwanted symptoms, such as phantom pain. Being aware of how neuroplasticity works can help you both produce desirable changes and avoid maladaptive plastic changes.)

Swart says that these neural connections aren’t set in stone: They can change according to our experiences and our responses to those experiences. These changes include forming new neural connections, strengthening and speeding up existing connections, pruning away old neural connections that are no longer needed, and even creating new neurons (neurogenesis).

(Shortform note: The brain’s neuroplastic potential bodes well for people who’ve experienced trauma: Trauma causes changes in the brain, such as heightening your stress response and impeding your higher-level brain functions. However, through trauma-informed therapy, you can learn to strengthen or form neural connections that help your brain respond appropriately to stress and let it prune away those that developed as a result of trauma.)

According to Swart, neuroplastic change is time-consuming and takes a lot of energy. As your brain changes, you’ll find that you often seem to backslide, suddenly struggling again with an aspect of your new skill you thought you had mastered already. When you’re learning, the brain makes short-term changes that don’t immediately translate into long-term changes; the changes only become permanent with repeated practice, so to learn anything new, you must continually commit to learning it.

(Shortform note: Some estimates suggest that it takes an average of 66 days to form new habits, with individual variations ranging from around two weeks to close to nine months. If you’ve only been at it for a few weeks or months and find yourself backsliding, don’t be discouraged: Continue making the conscious choice to develop the new habit you’re working toward. You can also try other tips, such as setting clear, concrete goals (which research shows are easier to meet), finding ways to make practice more fun, and asking for help from your social support networks.)

Fueling the Changing Brain

Because neuroplastic change takes up so much energy, it’s essential that you provide your brain with the resources it needs to make these changes. Swart gives the following tips.

Rest Your Brain

Get adequate rest on a regular basis. According to Swart, sleep gives the brain an opportunity to cleanse itself of toxins that interfere with its functioning. Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep each night, so make sure you’re setting aside enough time each night to get as much sleep as your brain needs. Swart asserts that sleeping on your side is the best position for facilitating your brain’s natural detoxifying process. Also, she recommends that you establish a relaxing routine before bed that helps you get ready for sleep and avoid using screens for one hour before you go to sleep. 

Feed Your Brain

Your brain also needs plenty of energy in the form of nourishment, Swart explains. The brain uses as much as a quarter to a third of the energy from the food you consume, and failing to give it the energy it needs reduces the quality of its functioning. Your diet should include whole grains, plenty of protein, vegetables, and healthy fats from sources like fish and avocado. Highly processed foods, alcohol, and excessive sugar and trans fats are inefficient fuels and make it harder for the brain to function.

Hydrate and Oxygenate Your Brain

Hydration and oxygenation are also essential for healthy brain function. Make sure you drink enough water (half a liter per 30 pounds of body weight each day), and exercise regularly to increase oxygen flow to the brain. However, Swart notes that polluted air can actually harm brain function, so avoid exercising in areas with high levels of air pollution.

What Is Neuroplasticity and How Does It Work in the Brain?

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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