We live in the age of the Internet, where content is being produced at what could be considered an obscene amount, and we spend a gigantic chunk every day consuming said content. One side-effect? The rapid creation and abandonment of buzzwords. A pretty common one in the world of psychology and psychiatry is neuroplasticity.
It’s fancy, it’s wide-reaching, and it involves both the brain and malleability – two very interesting topics. However, it’s also a little confusing, and there are contradictions online on what neuroplasticity is and why it should matter to anyone reading about it.
We’ll be concrete, and give you a little primer on neuroplasticity, and what it implies.
What Is Neuroplasticity?
Right off the bat, the most important question. Neuroplasticity is also described as your brain’s malleability, both physically and mentally, and its ability to restructure and prioritize. It goes against what was a previously long-held belief of the adult brain being a static organ (“you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” remember?). While we always knew that adults could learn (as evidenced by any form of post-graduate training), there was no evidence the brain made any actual physical changes after it stopped growing.
However, with the invention and common use of new neurological imaging technology, particularly functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we’ve come to learn that the brain has a remarkable ability to change, shift and shape itself around the stimuli it perceives daily.
As such, neuroplasticity refers to the way the brain changes in response to the appropriate factors and training.
Neuroplasticity & Learning
The first implication here is that neuroplasticity is heavily involved in our ability to learn. And this is true – neuroplasticity is a major point of focus in linguistics, and in mental training in general. As we learn more about the physical and mental nature of the brain, we find new ways to optimize it, increase its longevity, and take better care of it. Neuroplasticity is the promise that there is an immense potential within our thinking organ to change for the better.
Or for the worse. While the study on neuroplasticity is focusing on ways to improve our brain, we also learn more about how certain behavior affects us in a negative way – and how both behaviors, environments, and substances can affect the way we think, and more.
Consider emotional pain, like rejection. Rejection counts as a physical pain because of the dangers of being ostracized from a family or tribe during our developmental days as a species. Thus, disappointment and rejection – especially as children – is a very powerful deterrent. Children who fear rejection and the disappointment of their parents might grow up with a lower self-esteem, and higher tendency towards complacency. That’s been an example of how the brain works since the days of Freud.
Neuroplasticity implies that similar changes in thinking patterns as well as behavior can be achieved much later, though, in our adult days – and that it sometimes doesn’t take long at all for these changes to occur.
The Implications for Addiction
Through the concept of neuroplasticity and the insight provided by brain imaging technology, we’ve discovered that when you’re addicted to a certain substance, your brain physically and mentally changes. Most notably, the way you perceive pleasure is completely altered. Substances like opioids and nicotine induce a powerful form of stress-relief and the release of a ton of neurotransmitters related to a feeling of elation, or a “high.”
However, when these substances aren’t used for a specific amount of time, withdrawal symptoms kick in. Both the body and the brain then crave the substance.
This is, in a way, an object of our brain’s evolution. As our psychology developed, we’ve learned to associate many essential things in life – food, water, shelter, sex – with pleasure and comfort. Sugar, for example, is so addictive because it’s typically rare in nature, encouraging you to seek it out to satiate your hunger. The food industry has systematically abused that fact to profit off sugary drinks and foods that don’t provide you with much nutrition and has oversaturated the market with these foods, contributing to the issue of obesity.
Addictive substances, however, produce an artificially high amount of pleasure, hijacking the brain’s own delicate system designed to help you survive. The result is an addiction.
It’s a bit more complicated for behavioral addictions. There, a combination of genetic tendencies, modern social factors not present during our early developmental stages and other factors come into play – all related to the brain, and its ability to change and restructure based on simple things like pain and pleasure.
Remember: Addiction Is Not Permanent
Before we move on, it’s important to note that this information has a pretty big implication: addiction, as an example of neuroplasticity, isn’t permanent. The brain can be rewired to undo addiction, at least as much as possible.
However, it’s not a simple task. Addiction is still considered a chronic condition for how much sway it has over people. But with the right approach, it’s even possible to cure yourself of addiction.
In the end, this is an elaborate exercise in self-rewiring. You’re basically learning how to change the way you think to suit a better, healthier lifestyle, both physically and emotionally.
This has technically been the de-facto treatment method for a wide array of mental issues since we’ve first begun addressing mental illness. Shock treatment, torture, and hysteria aside, things like psychotherapy have been around for ages – and the idea is practically the same, utilizing the brain’s own malleability to change the way we think, and help us achieve better levels of discipline, self-control and more.
Neuroplasticity is simply a better way of understanding how the human brain functions, and to best train ourselves to learn new things and perform new tasks. It’s a side-effect of evolution, and one of the reasons why we’re such a successful species – we’re so darn capable of learning and evolving on our own. Take, for example, the many skills you may have learned over your lifetime.
Internet, social media and smartphone usage, for example, has changed the way we focus, by cutting short our attention span. Smartphones and mobile technology have affected our ability to think critically.
On the other hand, video games have the potential to teach people better reflexes, aid them in puzzle-solving skills and tactical thinking, and even help Alzheimer’s patients stop cognitive decay. But of course, video gaming has also lead to sleeplessness, and in coordination with other Internet-based social media, there is less physical social interaction taking place amongst kids and millennials today (supplanted by digital activity).
Neuroplasticity, for better or for worse, has also been exploited and studied for the development of new software and learning technology, as well as applications designed to become addictive and slowly but surely milk your funds.
What we’re focusing on here is the application of neuroplasticity in the realms of addiction treatment. And the data, as well as the future, is extremely promising. Better understanding neuroplasticity can also give you more awareness of how media and other aspects of your environment are influencing your ability to think, feel and make decisions, allowing you to be more savvy and choosy in the media you consume, the people you hang out with and the time you spend online and outdoors.
All you should really do is beware of neuroplasticity – its capabilities, and its potential for better and for worse.