‘Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.’ – Santiago Ramon y Cajal
He is heralded as the father of modern neuroscience, but Santiago Ramon y Cajal is mostly reserved to the unglamorous confines of dust-sealed textbooks and encyclopaedias. In the 1880s and 90s, Dr. Ramon y Cajal undertook pioneering investigations into the microscopic structure of the brain. His methods were intricate – then arcane and now archaic – and involved staining neurons. The results were remarkable, carving out a cornerstone of what we call modern neuroscience. So, if he said that we can “be the sculptor [our] own brain” we really should listen.
The problem is we didn’t listen, well, not to this early and liberating proclamation anyway. Ironically enough, Dr. Ramon y Cajal was the reason for this. You see, as he grew older he became more scientifically conservative and, sadly, it was his later 1913 prognosis that filtered into the forefront of and fudged the medical consciousness of the 20th century. “In adult centres”, Ramon y Cajal categorically announced, “the nerve paths are something fixed, ended, immutable. Everything may die, nothing may be regenerated.” This fostered the consensus that has held until recent history: the brain is incapable of generating new cells once it has grown, at which point it might even begin a slow process of neural degeneration. But hang on, because Dr. Ramon y Cajal did leave a provocative sign-off; “it is for the science of the future to change, if possible, this harsh decree.” And I am pleased to say his later hidebound view is losing momentum as research into a concept called ‘neuroplasticity’ gains ground.
Although evidently metaphorical, the youthful Dr. Ramon y Cajal’s musings upon ‘brain sculpting’ seem superhuman. One’s view on brain sculpting’s impossibility/possibility largely depends upon which side of the nature vs. nurture dichotomy/spectrum they’re inclined towards. Yet extraordinary advances into ‘neuroplasticity’ are making this notion a tangible, practical reality. Leading neuroscientific research is now repeatedly evidencing the brain’s capacity to rewire neural circuits and grow new neural pathways. We can affect this process, essentially sculpting the way we think. And how we think, as the cognitive model states, substantially affects the way we feel and behave.
Consciously directed processes of neuroplasticity enable us to develop new skills in problem-solving, linguistics, attentional focus, and even regain body functions damaged by illness. For example, research by Michael Merzenich found that by practicing what he calls regular ‘mental aerobics’ it is possible to train a child born with a learning disability to read and write at a level that would previously have been considered unachievable due to unalterable mental retardation. Neuroplasticity is behind this and, Merzenich concludes, different types of skill specific training can procure improvements in countless aspects of life. For instance, Edward Taub, the pilloried Silver Spring Monkeys research leader, found that ‘substantial new areas of the brain are recruited’ to do the work of damaged areas of stroke patients’ brains. In essence, the brain recircuits healthy neurons to perform the function of damaged ones, reassigning jobs through neuroplastic processes. Norman Doidge is currently carrying out similar research into the ways physically or psychologically afflicted people can be rehabilitated through experiential, behavioural, and sensory methods of therapy in tandem with concerted mental activity.
This can also be applied on a more day-to-day level. We know that simple adjustments in our neural makeup can considerably enrich the way we think, feel, and behave. Nurturing our complex and powerful minds is central to ensuring our psychological and physiological wellbeing.
What are you using your mind for?
One implication of neuroplasticity that intersects with our work at Positive is this: when we begin to think pessimistically about things we actually strengthen neural circuits in the brain that channel negative thoughts (likewise optimism strengthens positive circuits). If you use your mind regularly for a task you get better at it. If you self-recriminate you get good at it. Habitual patterns become neuroplastic, the neural pathways are strengthened, and then they become our default circuits.
Imagine for a second the development of roads over time. Imagine a woodland trail. This trail takes some effort to navigate. However, the more this track is used over time it is dug out and resurfaced and upped to B road status. Then, as it gets more and more use, an A road status becomes necessary. It is now smoothly tarmacked, widened, and encourages high-speed. Soon enough the large amounts of traffic mean that the road has to be again widened and lengthened and better tarmacked and, now, it is basically an Autobahn with an unremitting stream of cars zooming up and down.
This is a way of saying that, as with roads, the more we activate neural pathways the slicker, speedier, and more accessible we make them. If negative neural pathways are strengthened through self-recrimination and self-criticism then these circuits become our default, our instantaneous neural recourse that negatively colours our emotions and behaviours. In this state it becomes hard to take your foot off the accelerator as you hurtle down the Autobahn. In this state you can’t focus clearly on anything; the view out your car window is an impressionistic smudge of landscape. And it is hard to see clearly again… the dangers of excessive worrying, anxiousness, and self-criticism have serious neuroplastic consequences. As in a quagmire, we slowly become submerged in a thick mud of pessimism, rumination, and stress that diminishes our productivity, creativity, relationships, and more.
However, just as Milton suggested, if the mind can make a ‘hell of heaven’ it can also make a ‘heaven of hell’. There is one key research-backed method that can help stop you sinking into the mire: building psychological resilience.
Recognising the concept of neuroplasticity and suspending any residing disbelief is crucial to understanding and applying the science behind resilience. Neuropsychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz found that after engaging a group of individuals with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) in the practice of mindfulness (reacting to OCD thoughts without emotion and instead learning to realise that the feeling something was amiss is just the manifestation of overactivity in the OCD circuit), patients actually began resisting their OCD’s messages. Later neuroimaging showed that this sort of calm, rational thinking actually altered patterns of brain activity.
In order to counter the omnipotence of strong negative neural circuits individuals have to strengthen positive neural circuits through either frequent physical or purely thought-based exercises, making them more robust, prominent, and thus default. The resulting changes are lasting and can be emphatic. Just as the child learns to read, we can teach ourselves to react rationally and positively to adversity, eventually ensuring that we are resilient enough to resist and temper our self-denigrating impulses.
It is crucial to note that manipulating neuroplastic processes can’t make you the president overnight. If a child is struggling to read it doesn’t mean that within 2 weeks of training they’ll be writing a 10,000 word essay on Ulysses. Numerous factors, extrinsic and intrinsic, that make us who we are – and some are well established. Training your brain regularly over time leads to improvements but it won’t – as nothing could – make you perfect, so it is important to take these liberating messages with a dose of realism.
There are tools that can build and buttress positive mental circuitry. Barbara Fredrickson demonstrated that experiencing positive emotions to negative emotions in a 3 to 1 ratio leads people to achieve more optimal levels of wellbeing and resilience because exposure to positivity primes and stimulates positive neural circuits. Our App’s Positive Pinboard bases itself on this premise. It allows users to regularly upload photos of positive things – no matter how small or supposedly insignificant. Users compose a library of positive images they can refer to when negative circuits begin to spark, dousing them with the cool positivity flowing from the images. Building positivity and resilience to negativity helps us quickly recover from setbacks and allows us to flourish, enhancing our creative, intellectual, and social faculties. By improving our psychological wellbeing, which is intrinsically linked to our physical health, we can lower the risk of coronary and cardiovascular diseases aggravated by stress and become healthier more generally.
Returning now to Dr. Ramon y Cajal, I’ll reiterate: “any wo/man could, if s/he were so inclined, be the sculptor of her/his own brain.” Such a statement can no longer be shelved as fancy and fallacy. The vicissitudes of life inevitably throw up events that conspire to hinder our performance or dampen our mood, but evidence of neuroplastic processes assures us that we can train our brains in ways that will help us react positively to adversity and strengthen neural circuits that aid quicker recovery from upset. Not only this, but the methods and tools for achieving resilience are available to us – and they are really, really simple. It is not just fascinating, it is liberating. We have agency. We have autonomy. We can gain greater control over our levels of wellbeing. We can improve our social relations, productivity, and physical health as a result of such action.
We no longer live in the dark ages of fixed nature, of limited possibility, of the later Dr. Ramon y Cajal’s ‘immutable’ neural structure. We don’t need to be nihilistic about anything. The one contingency, as Dr. Ramon y Cajal knew, is our own ‘inclination’ towards amelioration. We need to have the heart – that is, the determination and the will – to go about changing our minds and the way we think. 100+ years since Dr. Ramon y Cajal’s proclamation and one question is still unanswered: if we can, and we want to, then why don’t we?
Michael Merzenich, ‘Growing Evidence of Brain Plasticity,’ TED talk, February, 2004.
E. Taub, G. Uswatte, D. K. King, D. Morris, J. E. Crago, A. Chatterjee, ‘A Placebo-Controlled Trial of Constraint-Induced Movement Therapy for Upper Extremity After Stroke,’ Stroke 37 (2006): 1045-49.
 Norman Doidge Interview, The Guardian, February 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/feb/08/norman-doidge-brain-healing-neuroplasticity-interview
 Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, (New York: Regan Books, 2002).
 Richard J. Davidson with Sharon Begley, ‘The Plastic Brain,’ in The Emotional Life of your Brain, p. 161.