Neuroplasticity—Changing Your Brain and Behavior

Dr. Shawn Talbott (Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACSM, FACN, FAIS) has gone from triathlon struggler to gut-brain guru! With a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry, he's on a mission to boost everyday human performance through the power of natural solutions and the gut-brain axis.

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Here’s another excerpt from my 10th book, The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

Some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions every year are:
*Lose Weight
*Get in Shape
*Reduce Stress
*Get Healthier
*Win the Lottery

The Secret of Vigor can help you with 4 out of 5 of the most popular resolution goals, so I’ll be posting excerpts from the book for the next several weeks – so please stay tuned for each installment.

If you simply can’t wait, then you can certainly get a copy at or at your favorite library or bookstore.

Neuroplasticity—Changing Your Brain and Behavior
At this point, it might make perfect sense to you that the way you think can change the way your brain functions—and perhaps even that your exposure to stress and the subsequent biochemical changes in the body can further influence how your brain works. But what might sound alarming to you is that very recent scientific studies have shown that how you think and experience stress can literally change the shape and structure of your brain. Researchers have known for several decades that chronic stress can lead to accelerated functional impairments and eventually to physical degradation of brain tissue (faster breakdown and slower rebuilding). But it has only been recently that we have fully grasped the concept of “neuroplasticity”—the brain’s capacity to change its function and its shape in response to experiences.

The prevailing thinking in neuroscience for decades has been that the brain develops during childhood and then remains “fixed” in shape throughout adulthood. The new evidence, however, supports the exciting idea that systemic mental activity results in profound changes in the shape and structure of the brain itself. This means that you can literally “rewire” your brain to function better and more efficiently. You can improve the quality of the 100 billion neurons and their 100 trillion connections to improve your vigor and how you feel and perform on a daily basis.

Sports psychologists have known for decades that athletes can use “mental imagery” (basically, thinking about their events) to improve physical performance. Elite-level athletes routinely train their bodies for strength, speed, and agility—and the very best of the best also train their minds and their emotions for optimal performance.

The average person has little understanding or appreciation for the fact that it is possible to train and to sculpt mental circuits just as biceps or buttocks can be shaped. The process is a little more complex than the simplistic “think and grow rich” platitudes that you hear from self-help gurus, but the general idea is similar. Like sand on a beach or snow on a ski slope, the brain bears the footprints or ski tracks of the decisions that you make, the experiences that you have, and the thoughts that you think. In response to the experiences and actions that you undergo, your brain strengthens the neural connections involved in these experiences and weakens those that are less frequently used.

This poses important possibilities for those individuals who are troubled by depression or anxiety, making it possible to “rewire” those areas of the brain (those “pathological” connections) and establish new, better, and healthier connections that lead them away from burnout and toward vigor. Think of “problems”—such as depression, anxiety, fatigue, or burnout—as issues that involve biochemical imbalance, “faulty wiring,” or a combination of both. Rebalancing either your neuronal activity or your internal biochemistry (or both) helps restore vigor as well as mood, energy, and mental focus.

Professional sports teams and international sports organizations spend millions of dollars every season to ensure their athletes are at their peak mental and physical performance levels. These teams understand that thinking something produces effects in the brain (and thus in the body) just as surely as doing something. And just as doing the right things in terms of diet and exercise helps the athlete excel, so does thinking the right things (or avoiding thinking the wrong things). Far from being “soft” sciences, the fields of “positive psychology” and sports psychology have shown over and over again in rigorous research studies that, although the brain certainly comes “hardwired” in some respects (with fear of the unknown, for example), people have an almost limitless ability to rewire their brains for change. Brains are “plastic,” meaning they are malleable—changeable—and can be reeducated by specific thoughts and actions.

According to an old saying in neuroplasticity research, “Cells that fire together, wire together”—meaning that the neurons and the entire brain undergo physical changes in response to thoughts and experiences. This “firing/wiring together” is one reason that old habits are so difficult to break, and it explains why it takes time to establish new habits. Another reason for the “slowness” of brain changes is that neurons are slow-growing cells—much slower than liver or skin cells, which are regenerated quite rapidly, or even bone or muscle cells, which have “medium” regeneration rates. Neurons do not divide and do not “regenerate” as other body cells do. However, the human brain does possess the capacity to generate new neurons through a process called “neurogenesis,” which occurs in a population of cells known as “neuronal stem cells” that can generate entirely new neurons when needed. Most importantly, exercise stimulates this process of neurogenesis, which increases vigor. By contrast, stress hormones kill neurons and suppress neurogenesis, which reduces vigor.

An interesting aspect of neuroplasticity is that structural brain changes seem to only occur when the mind is in a state marked by attention and focus. For example, studies of rodents have demonstrated that although voluntary treadmill running increases neurogenesis, forced running does not. Exactly why this difference exists is not entirely clear, but it means those who wish to change their brains or to improve their states of vigor might want to pay particular attention to the discussion of mindfulness later in this chapter. In short, you are able, in some respects, to “think your way” to certain types of change. But you also have to want to change for those thoughts, wishes, and desires to gain traction and result in meaningful neurogenesis. It is only through this neurogenesis of individual cells that you can make wholesale changes in brain structure and function (neuroplasticity) and establish new “tracks” that will last long enough for you to form new habits and behaviors that increase vigor.

About the Author

Exercise physiologist (MS, UMass Amherst) and Nutritional Biochemist (PhD, Rutgers) who studies how lifestyle influences our biochemistry, psychology and behavior - which kind of makes me a "Psycho-Nutritionist"?!?!

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