It was long thought that human brains were “hard-wired” to think in set and established ways –usually formed in early childhood. Furthermore, as we aged, our brain function would inevitably deteriorate with words like dementia and Alzheimer’s being the curse of old age. At the very least, forgetfulness and short term memory loss would be a given once you were over the age of 50!
This theory has recently been turned on its head with the medical discovery of the theory of “neuro-plasticity/neuro-elasticity. In simple terms, this is the ability of the brain to change continuously throughout one’s life. With thanks to the three pioneering scientists who made this discovery, we now know that our brain’s capacity for learning and function can be improved, repaired and become stronger over time.
These insights have profound impacts for our overall health and well-being and how we age – Because the neuro-elasticity theory basically says that we can ALWAYS learn new things throughout our life, building and strengthening new bio-chemical connections in our brain, not just in childhood. It also means that we can re-wire thoughts and habits that may not be serving us to live our best life.
I have to stress the “Disclaimer” part of neuro-elasticity here. Similar to muscles, regions of our brain become larger and stronger the more they are used, BUT unused regions become weaker and atrophy. So for example, every time you have the experience of being “stressed out,” the neural networks and areas of the brain responsible for the experience are reinforced and grow stronger. Meanwhile the structures that produce the experience of being “calm, cool and collected” are neglected and weaken. Our habitual thoughts, behaviors and reactive patterns fortify our neural networks. The more that we engage in a particular pattern of thoughts, feelings or behavior, the stronger those networks become.
To me this is crucial to understanding the reality of our daily lives – the more stress and overwhelm we feel and experience, the more those feelings are strengthened in our brains. And the harder it is to tap into our relaxed, calming responses automatically.
The idea of neuro-elasticity is particularly relevant to women who, in their 40 and 50s, often find themselves discovering new passions, interests and moving out of their comfort zone. These women (and I include myself in this group), are tapping into and strengthening their “elastic brain” every day in a positive way. We are often going back to school to retrain, learning new hobbies (I have a friend who is about to become a grandmother and is learning piano for the first time!), following our passion that we had given up for a sensible career, and expanding our skill set. And this is VERY good news for our mental, physical and emotional long term health and wellbeing.
Neuro-elasticity also allows us to move out of our “comfort zone” – both physically and mentally. Your comfort zone is your safe place, it’s where everything makes sense, is simple and familiar. And being in this space is important.
However, STAYING in your comfort zone long term leads to stagnation, inertia and decline – the exact opposite of what our brain needs to keep it vibrant. Moving out of your comfort zone to expand new horizons is scary stuff, but its good for you, and for a healthy aging brain! And what is amazing is that as your brain function adapts to the new bio-chemical connections that have been made as a result of your growth and development, THIS becomes established in your brain as the NEW normal. You have moved into a NEW comfort zone (which of course you will eventually have to break out of!)
This process of changing and improving brain function over time, or learning new things as we get older – what scientists call neuro-elasticity and what business and life coaches call shifting your mind-set – needs to be something that you are willing to work for. As mentioned above, neuro-elasticity also works as well for negative behavioral patterns, and your positive neuro-elasticity potential is limited by the level of stress, anxiety and overwhelm your brain is under. You need to be consciously aware and connected to yourself to allow your brain to tap into its neuro-elasticity potential and change the “hard-wired” neuro pathways.
Today the theory of neuro-elasticity and modern technology is proving what yoga practitioners have known for hundreds of years – you are able to change your emotional experience by changing your bio-chemical brain function.
FMRI imaging shows places in the brain changing shapes, structure and density over time as meditative techniques are used. Today we are able to see neuro-elasticity at work, and literally see how brain function changes as a result of meditation, relaxation and other calming techniques. These practices bio-chemically change the cellular functioning and wiring of the brain, changing how you think, and relate to lifestyle habits and patterns.
We have had long-held beliefs that aging is just a downward spiral of decline and illness. Menopause was the beginning of the end, and women specifically had not much to look forward to once they past the age of 50. However, changing attitudes in society, new scientific discoveries, improvements in medicine, and significant improvements in how we managing your own health and wellness, have really turned these old assumptions on their head.
Today we know that we can literally change the way our brain works to enhance every part of our life. This means that aging is something to look forward to and not something to be feared!