At the start of a new year, it seems appropriate to talk of new possibilities for our wellbeing. How we learn a new task, how we adapt to our changing environment, or master a new language all depend on the ability of our brain to remodel itself, which is often referred to as our brain plasticity. Recent research is showing just how adaptable we can be in terms of new neural circuits, and importantly, what we can do to better support this rearranging of existing neural networks.
What we can do to better support the rearranging of our neural networks?
Recently researchers have shown that the neuro-peptide oxytocin is present in higher levels when new neural pathways are formed, suggesting that oxytocin drives development or new neurons in the adult brain. This directly contributes to brain plasticity, so if we can support our body to produce more oxytocin in everyday life, then we can promote growth of new neural connections or strengthen existing ones.
Oxytocin is sometimes known as the cuddle or bonding hormone, which we produce to form bonds with others. It is most commonly associated with sex and birth—reducing the mother’s birth pain and producing breast milk. However, it is also produced in all of us as a reaction to positive social and environmental interactions and is known to induce anti-stress effects such as reducing cortisol levels and lower blood pressure. For example, positive sensory experiences with smells, tastes, light or sound will trigger oxytocin production reducing stress and promoting self-regulation in our nervous system. It will also be released through gentle touch and warmth, or even empathy and psychological associations of these positive things.
Psychiatrist Norman Doidge stresses how we can use his brain plasticity research to improve our everyday living
More recent research shows that oxytocin supports neural development which strengthens our ability to master new tasks through promoting brain plasticity. It would seem it is a valuable neurochemical for new learning and new possibilities, especially when combined with traditional strategies to stimulate neurodevelopment. When our brain plasticity improves by practicing one task, it improves across the board, so it is easier to learn another.
The psychiatrist and researcher Norman Doidge tells of many inspiring stories of healing and personal triumph through individuals’ brain repair such as a stroke victim learning to walk, another recovering from physical brain injury by learning to use a different part of their brain, and another healing long term chronic pain. But he also stresses how we can use his research to improve our everyday living. We don’t need to be in severe need to benefit from brain plasticity exercises. He describes how oxytocin production “frees us to learn new things,” promoting both neural growth and healing, these effects being long lasting.
So what does this mean for us in our everyday work and home living? How can we benefit from this new research and employ techniques to improve possibilities for our brains and overall wellbeing? The essential takeaway is that we should combine the traditional brain boosting exercises with those that stimulate oxytocin.
7 tips for promoting neuroplasicity
- Learn a new dance with a friend. Learning something new, moving your body with coordination, while hanging out with someone you like is a win win for neural development. Have fun while you’re learning!
- Go to bed earlier for a longer sleep. Rest, comfort, and sleep are a great combination for the brain.
- Master a language in the comfort of your own home. The brain loves to feel safe while learning new skills. Continually stimulating your brain through language learning is a well-known route for improving neuroplasticity.
- Create music. Stimulate your senses while creating new and novel sounds activate an ideal combination of cranial nerves for brain development and repair.
- Take regular exercise. Meditate. Treat yourself to a massage. All these improve circulation to feed the neural growth, and at the same time release oxytocin.
- Learn to cook a new dish. Stimulating your sense of smell and taste while learning a new skill which needs focus and attention is great for your brain.
- Try writing something every day with your “wrong” or non-dominant hand. This is creative and also stimulates new neural pathways. A very simple but effective practice. You could try writing your daily gratitude journal in your non dominant hand, thus stimulating oxytocin while writing.
You can probably see the pattern emerging. To promote your neuroplastic change, ideally you want to feel good and connect with others while doing something new, novel, and unfamiliar. Hopefully you will have fun and enjoy the process!
Doidge, N. (2007) The Brain that changes itself. Penguin Books, London.
This article was first published in Northern Ireland Chamber Ambition magazine