Yes we can! The field of neuroplasticity assures us that we can rewire parts of our brain. Whilst the physiology of our brains hasn’t changed in over 200,000 years, our neural pathways within that structural physiology are constantly changing.
Imagine our neural pathways as roads. The freeways and highways are the ones that process ongoing, frequent information and activity. New activity can create a traffic jam on that existing highway, often demanding a new road. Eventually, with repetitive activity, and even thoughts, a new road is formed. By continually bedding down neural messages, that new pathway becomes a more defined highway, allowing greater speed and traction.
During my workshops, I fine-tune this neural pathway concept with a story about piano players. Harvard University carried out research on two groups; both had never played the piano before and were of the same intellect. One group was asked to practise piano scales every day for a period of time. The second group was asked to visualise themselves playing the same piano scales for the same period of time. The pre study and post study brain scans revealed very interesting results. The brain area that relates to finger movements of BOTH groups had shown considerable growth.
So the group that only thought about playing the piano had changed the same neural pathways as the group that actually played the piano.
So a new cord has been struck when we ask people to change or learn new things, as we’re asking them to rewire their brains by forming new neural connections. Yet, very few leaders know how to approach this.
One way is to provide the opportunity to discover their own insights. Instead of providing answers when coaching or teaching others, give them the time and space to reach their own ‘AHA’ moment, which also activates a reward response in the brain. Neuroscience has taught us that it’s at these moments of insight we create new pathways, enabling learning and new behaviours to stick.
For rewiring to take place, the brain must be engaged and open to learning. This can only occur when the right conditions are in place, with a comfortable, non-threatening learning environment, where it’s okay to experiment and fail. Reducing or eliminating the threat response also creates the right conditions for people to reach their own solutions; arrive at their personal moments of epiphany. We learn best, and therefore rewire most effectively, when we feel comfortable and involved.
The increased use of neuroimaging technology, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) means that 90% of what we now know about the brain has only been discovered in the last 7 to 9 years.
These new insights not only have implications for people recovering from brain injury, but can also be applied in in our professional and personal lives to help us navigate through change. Science has proven we can change the structure of our brain. Knowing we can do this by thoughts alone is empowering.
For all of us, a better understanding of our brain function helps us improve our performance at individual, team and community or organisational levels.
This article first appeared in Living Now magazine in September 2016.