The brain is packed-full of cells called neurons, whose job is to receive and transmit information. They use chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, to carry out their job descriptions, activating some areas, and putting the breaks on others, so that we can move, eat, breathe, laugh, love, and live. So what’s this “plastic” business all about?
Plasticity is a term used to denote that the brain is changeable, malleable, and able to rewire. The primary way our brain “grows” is by creating new and complex pathways that connect different areas to one another. All of the things we learn and the events we experience throughout our lives create connections, or pathways, between brain cells. The more we do a particular activity, or the more profoundly an experience effects us, the stronger and deeper these pathways become. Only 20% of our pathways are “hard-wired”, or common between each human being. That means the vast majority of your brain is made up of pathways that are unique to you: your genetics, experiences, thoughts, and activities.
Neuroplasticity is truly a “use it or lose it” phenomenon. The more times you activate a pathway (perform an activity, think a thought, act out a behavior, etc.,) the stronger and more efficient the pathway will become, and the easier it will be to fire that pathway in the future. This is great when it comes to learning to play a musical instrument, speaking a new language, developing better coordination and sports performance, or even becoming a more positive thinker.
But there is another edge to this sword. Some experiences are so strong that they can create a pathway almost instantly. Experiencing extreme pain, for example, can create a pathway that can effectively exist long after what actually caused the pain is gone. This partially explains why some people suffer from pain disorders such as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) or Chronic Pain Syndrome (CPS). A traumatic event can also “singe” a pathway into our brain, and can lead to anxiety or panic that can later make a person physiologically react even when they are not actually in danger, a condition known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.)
So, now you know your brain is plastic. But can you really rewire it? Absolutely. That’s what functional neurology is all about. The key is to use plasticity to your advantage. Stay tuned to future blog posts to learn more.