20th May, 2022
by Dr Stephanie Baker-Su
(Science and society writer with a background in psychology and neuroscience research).
Neuroplasticity And Mental Health: The Real Science Of Rewiring Our Brains
The possibility of being able to ‘rewire’ our brains is exciting. The changes we could make, the things that could happen. The people we could finally become. When we feel trapped in cycles of negative thinking or find ourselves regretting seemingly unchangeable behaviours, the promise of a magical brain change can be an enticing one. But if you were to ask a neuroscientist about it, most would likely grimace. Rewiring our brains, or neuroplasticity, is a messy and broad idea, and often misunderstood. But that doesn’t mean we should feel stuck. That there’s no hope of change or things getting better. In fact, when you look at the science behind our plastic brains, you’re probably already doing it.
Can we actually change our brains?
Neuroscience used to be a pessimist. When we originally shifted our focus from the heart to the head, it was decided that the shape of our skulls – all the little lumps and divots – were what made us who we are. Forever. And the early 1900s weren’t much cheerier. Researchers studied the post-mortem brains of people with various disorders to make neural maps. Maps that neatly divided our brains in to puzzle-like segments, each responsible for a different function. If we were born with problems in the memory area – tough luck. If we later damaged our emotion regulation area – that’s that then. These localisation theories, where every brain area has a set role and set potential, don’t bode well for us, should we want to change or improve our mental health.
But, over the last hundred years, a variety of more change-friendly neuroscience has been popping up. Studies found differences in the brains of London taxi drivers after intensive training, in people who agree to learn juggling or meditation for science, and in patients recovering their language ability after stroke. The brain can change to learn something new and adapt if damaged. We can change it. And, when you think about it, it’s obvious. After all, we change our brains every time we memorise the layout of a new supermarket, learn a new language, or start a new mindfulness course. The important question instead is, how does this brain plasticity work?
How can we change our brains?
What is typically packaged and sold as Neuroplasticity is actually a neuroscientist-grimace-inducing collection of completely different ‘change’ mechanisms. Brain changes we’ve observed or encouraged that we still don’t completely understand, that may affect our brain structure and function at varying and interacting levels, and not always for the better.
If we zoom in on the lowest molecular level, our brain changes through the structure and function of the individual cells themselves. Our brain cells, or neurons, can be programmed to die, be damaged by disease or injury, or show subtle changes in their shape that could affect how they communicate. New cells can even be created through neurogenesis, with some evidence finding this continues into adulthood. And this is without even considering the other cells in the brain, those that were merely labelled as ‘supporters’ to neurons and are only now coming under the spotlight.
Taking a step back we can look at higher level collections of these neurons. Local networks of cells in our brains that then team up with others to handle the complicated stuff. Think about the different brain-wide systems that would need to interact for us to recognise, remember, react, and later even re-tell or reprocess a traumatic life event for example. Our senses, short- and long-term memory, emotion processing, language, fear. Our brains are chatty. And that chatter can change. These networks are continuously being reshaped, whether they’re being reinforced by us repeating the same behaviour over and over again or being left to gradually fade when we let that new habit slip.
The mechanisms that change these cells and networks are varied, and the science is still out on what changes are helpful or harmful, how much we can control, how much change is possible as we get older, what other mechanisms are out there, and how they all interact. But pause for a moment. Because as messy as all this is, it’s at least sounding a lot more up-beat than having our destinies fixed forever by our lumpy skulls. If our brains can change, then surely, we can we use that to improve our mental health. To help us be happier.
Can we change our brains to improve our mental health?
Most science on neuroplasticity is still focused on our thinking and movement; memory, learning, walking, talking. But there is tentative work on mental health, emotions, and therapy. Research has linked high stress levels to suppression of neuroplasticity, practice of meditation or emotion-related training to brain changes and controlled electrical stimulation to building on connections between brain areas for improved emotional regulation. There’s also evidence some medications could enhance our brain plasticity, opening a window for therapy and change.
To truly help though, there’s still more to do. We need to know how mental disorders and emotions are stored and processed in the brain before we can work out what to change. And it’s likely each of us will be unique, requiring something like our own tailored neuroplasticity therapy programme.
For now, though, the good news is our brains do change. It’s not a sudden discovery, it’s not something we can simply summarise as ‘rewiring’, and it’s not something to be sold as a magical cure. It’s just what our brains do. And that’s what’s exciting. Those thinking patterns and behaviours we might not be a fan of, that are holding us back – we could change them. Even if they’re initially hard to identify, we need support along the way, or find ourselves going back and forth over time – that potential is there.
But neuroplasticity also teaches us to be kind to ourselves and others. Our brains are affected by everything around and inside us, much of which is not under our control. Our environment, income, diet, childhood experiences, and genetics. Everyone will have different limits, difficulties, and starting points. Everyone will have their own journey as our cells change and networks shift throughout our lives.
But we can change our brains.
We already are.