Neuroplasticity Part One: Overview and Good News for Parents!

What is Neuroplasticity?        

A hot topic lately in the world of neuroscience is “neuroplasticity.” Neuroplasticity is a phenomenon in which the brain is able to restructure itself through the process of making new neural pathways during the lifespan. Neural pathways are the information “superhighways” on which information travels to and from different parts of the brain. Neuroplasticity occurs when nerve cells grow and change as a result of new situations and circumstances. One simple way of looking at neuroplasticity is to imagine the brain with a vast army of individual computer programmers inside that are constantly changing code based on what information is pouring in through the senses. As the code changes, so does thinking and behavior, and memories are created.  

How Does Neuroplasticity Work?

            Remember those computer programmers? As the information pours in, the programmers have to do something with it. The brain is very efficient, and information that is familiar and repetitive is logged as non-important and not much happens. In fact, there is good evidence to show that parts of the brain that are not used can be shut down or “pruned.” However, when new information is received, the programmers note this and if the new information continues to flow in, the programmers “re-wire” certain parts so that the new information can be used which results in new learning and behavior patterns. When parts of the brain have been damaged and no longer work properly, the programmers will take new information and send it to other parts of the brain to try and compensate for the parts that are not working.

Why is Neuroplasticity Such a Big Deal?

            There was a time in neuroscience when it was believed that once parts of the brain were done developing or were damaged, those parts could not change or heal. This “hard-wiring” theory is characterized by the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Research in recent years proves otherwise and is revolutionizing the lives of those affected by brain injury, addiction, and mental illness. For counselors like myself, neuroplasticity plays a major role in helping children, adolescents, and adults overcome negative habits and building new ways of thinking, behaving, and forming relationships.

            While neuroplasticity is exciting, there are some conditions that can disrupt the process like depression and stress. Stressful and traumatic experiences, because they represent new information are also logged into the neuron development and neural pathway process. This tells us that conditions like trauma and depression should not be allowed to persist and should be treated as soon as possible.

Neuroplasticity, Parenting, and Play

            For parents, neuroplasticity provides a lot of encouragement. First, relationships are important with your children. Spending quality time in relationship with your child instills learning and a solid foundation of safety. Second, using words and acts of kindness and providing firm boundaries is important in giving your children the necessary combination of love and safety. Second, play is important in many ways. Play helps children make sense of their world but when play is done with a trusted companion, learning, a sense of safety, and brain growth occurs at maximum rates. Play also helps children who have suffered from brain trauma, post-traumatic stress, or neglect heal and be able to learn and form new relationships with caregivers. I have used play with many young people who suffered from neglect and abuse, and who also suffer from great fear and sadness. I am a witness to the life-changing process of play and have had the privilege of seeing long-term change as these children move through adolescence and into adulthood.

            Neuroplasticity reminds us of just how amazing our brains really are, and how important relationship is with those we care about. For children, their brains are constantly growing and mapping their world, and they need relationships that are predictable and stable to help them get through the developmental process in a healthy way. My next blog post will continue to discuss neuroplasticity and the role it plays with adolescents, families, and other relationships. Stay tuned!