Note: This article was originally published on CredibleMind
Christof Koch, Chief Scientist & President of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, calls the brain "the most complex object in the known universe." Our brains are what make us human. They are the basis of our thoughts, feelings and actions, and enable us to navigate our world every day. Yet despite decades of research, the brain remains mysterious.
Brain Awareness Week (March 16-22) is a global campaign, coordinated by the Dana Foundation, to foster public enthusiasm and support for brain science. In celebration of BAW, let’s explore one of the brain’s most fascinating and exciting features: neuroplasticity - the brain’s ability to change its structure over the course of our lifetime.
Each one of your brain’s approximately 100 billion nerve cells (neurons) is connected to more than 1,000 other neurons, making the total number of connections in the brain around 60 trillion. These connections are organized as networks within the brain that allow neurons to communicate with each other at incredible speeds. The more often these networks are used, the more established they become in the brain, just like a road or path becomes worn over time.
When you were born, you had almost all the neurons you will ever have, and many more neural connections than you have today. As you grow up, your brain can produce new cells, add new connections, and “sculpt” existing connections to be more efficient. The brain is more pliable during certain periods of development but your brain changes throughout life. Your neural networks reorganize based on your experiences, your environment, and genetic information.
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.” - Donald Hebb
Try this: grab a pen and paper, and write your name with your non-dominant hand.
What was that like?
For most people it feels awkward and uncomfortable, and the result looks a little messy.
But what do you think might happen if you practiced that task 20 times a day for 4 weeks?
When your brain encounters a new challenge, the networks begin to reorganize in response to that situation. The more often your brain is exposed to that new challenge, the more it reorganizes and makes that path more established.4
Imagine what it’s like for a child to learn to walk, tie their shoes, ride a bike, play a musical instrument, or speak a new language. At first the new challenge seems hard, it feels awkward and uncomfortable, and the results are messy. But with practice it becomes “second nature.”
The brain automates responses to similar situations in order to conserve resources. This is advantageous because it means we don’t have to relearn how to tie our shoes every day. However, as anyone who has tried to change an unhealthy habit knows, it can also be an obstacle to living a balanced and fulfilling life.
Train Your Brain
Our brains are constantly being shaped. But most of the time these changes are happening unintentionally and outside of our conscious awareness. What makes neuroplasticity exciting is that research suggests we can intentionally rewire our brain in more adaptive and beneficial ways by cultivating healthy habits of mind.
Just like learning to play an instrument, we can train our brains to improve wellbeing by exercising the “mental muscles” associated with self-awareness and positive qualities such as kindness, mindfulness, gratitude, and resilience.
Similarly, if you are experiencing stress, anxiety, or depression, you can learn how to practice intentionally activating other networks in the brain associated with happiness. This can be as simple as taking a few conscious breaths, spending some time in nature, or reaching out to a friend for meaningful social connection. The more often you successfully navigate difficult emotional challenges with healthy forms of emotion regulation, the more stable the neural pathways that promote wellbeing will become.
Social skills such as empathy and compassion can also be trained. Research even suggests that focusing on the wellbeing of others and being compassionate and caring about their suffering is crucial to improving our own wellbeing.
Change Your Mind, Change Your Brain, Change the World
Changing habits can be difficult. But we have the power to literally rewire our brains. I hope you can use these insights to cultivate wellbeing in your own life. The effects will inevitably ripple out into your relationships and have a positive impact on the world around you.
 Flatow, I. (Host). (2013, June 14). Decoding 'the Most Complex Object in the Universe' [Radio program]. https://www.npr.org/2013/06/14/191614360/decoding-the-most-complex-object-in-the-universe  Allen Institute. (2019). Allen Institute for Brain Science. Allen Institute. Retrieved from https://alleninstitute.org/what-we-do/brain-science/  Weaver, E. A. & Doyle, H. H. (2019, August 11). How Does the Brain Work? Dana Foundation. Retrieve from https://dana.org/article/how-does-the-brain-work/ [4-6] University of Wisconsin-Madison. (2020). What is Neuroplasticity? Center for Healthy Minds. Retrieved from https://centerhealthyminds.org/feature/neuroplasticity