Self-Directed Neuroplasticity: Mindfulness, Therapy and Sculpting the Self
How often have you heard someone say, “It’s just the way I am”?
Or, “It’s just who I am.”
Maybe defending themselves somehow.
Or limiting their options in some way.
Or undermining a sense of self-esteem.
And how often have you been the one saying it?
(Or maybe even just thinking it).
It can certainly seem that way sometimes – that we just ‘are who we are’ and there’s no getting around it. That we’re immutable, static, solid. (Stuck?)
Yet there’s another way of looking at all of this. Of looking at us.
For our brains tell a different story about who we are. They remind us that we, quite literally, can change at any time. That our behaviour – towards the world and towards ourselves – actually shapes us, from moment to moment, right down to a synaptic level.
And they hint at another saying:
“If you always do
what you’ve always done,
you’ll always get
what you’ve always got.”*
So what are you doing with your brain?
And how might you use it more mindfully to sculpt your self?
This phenomenon is called “experience-dependent neuroplasticity” – and basically, it’s about how your experiences, and what you make of them, literally shape your brain at a physical level. And, in turn, how your experiences can therefore shape the kinds of thoughts you might be more likely to have next time.
“So if you’re routinely grumbling in your mind, [over time] your brain will take the shape of your low mood…,” Hanson explains. It’ll get easier and easier to fall into the groove of it. To get used to it. To forget there’s an alternative. And maybe eventually even to associate that groove with ‘who you are.’
This experience-dependent neuroplasticity stuff is “automatic and relentless,” as Hanson puts it. Which might sound a bit grim at first.
But the good news is that you can use it to your advantage.
Because you can control some of the experiences you have – and the way you react to them. So you can start your own course of “self-directed neuroplasticity” and invite change and healing into your life. Right now. (For, as it turns out, your thinking impacts how your synapses work and connect “within minutes”).
So what might that look like?
Well, from the outside, it may not even look like much at all.
For all it takes is a little mindfulness. Just being more consciously aware of your emotions and actions and experiences. Just taking a virtual ‘step back’ and noticing a wider perspective. Just noticing your life unfolding in a “larger field…a sense of the whole environment.”
Importantly, other parts of life may just go on as they always have. There might still be pain. There might still be suffering. But, Hanson says, “ …we want to surround it in mindfulness. And [be aware that] past the point it’s productive to contemplate the pain, is like doing one more lap in hell.”
So this self-directed neuroplasticity project is about “not just being with pain; but also letting go of it and [ultimately] replacing it with something more positive.”
It’s about how to “…plant flowers in the garden of the mind.”
And mindfulness, itself, can do that. For although it “can seem airy fairy… what we’re actually doing is sculpting the brain.”
And thereby sculpting our selves…
So it turns out that that statement – ‘It’s just who I am’ – doesn’t quite capture the full story of you. For at a neurological level, who you are turns out to be kaleidoscopic, ever-changing, ever-evolving.
If only you’ll plant the seed of mindfulness and watch what grows…
*Quote variously attributed to Albert Einstein, Henry Ford and Anthony Robbins
Hanson, R (2011) ‘Guiding Self-Directed Neuroplasticity: A Mindfulness Investigation’, The New Brain Science Series Teleseminar by NICABM (The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Bhavioural Medicine), 14/4/2011.
If you’d like hear some of the world’s leading thinkers on interpersonal neurobiology and neuroscience, tune in to this free online seminar series (available until 4 May 2011).
Photo: Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar
Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar (Grad Dip Counselling & Psychotherapy) is a writer, blogger and Sydney psychotherapist in private practice at One Life Counselling & Psychotherapy. Gabrielle also co-facilitates telephone support groups for people who are living with cancer, for their carers, and for people who have been bereaved through a cancer experience. She was the former editor of a journal on counselling and psychotherapy and she provides regular therapeutic updates on facebook and Twitter @OneLifeTherapy.
Gawne-Kelnar, G. (2011). Self-Directed Neuroplasticity: Mindfulness, Therapy and Sculpting the Self. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 21, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/therapist-within/2011/04/self-directed-neuroplasticity-mindfulness-therapy-and-sculpting-the-self/