By the time you finish this article, your brain will be different.
The reason for this cerebral shift is neuroplasticity—or the brain’s ability to change and restructure itself. Every time the brain processes new information, neurons fire, new pathways form, and the malleable brain alters its shape and structure.
In recent years, several researchers have posited that it’s possible to consciously direct neuroplasticity to optimize your brain function, improve your work performance, and even influence your team’s performance.
Once you understand how neuroplasticity works, you’ll discover that the concept is much simpler than it sounds.
What is neuroplasticity?
In a nutshell, neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to learn and adapt. Until relatively recently, experts believed that our brains were fixed by the end of adolescence and that, in terms of neurons, it was all downhill from there. But the latest research has proved the opposite: that our brains can actually grow and change throughout adulthood. That is, if we treat our neural pathways right.
“The main point of neuroplasticity is that you can actually form and reorganize connections in your brain,” says Dr. Marsha Chinichian, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychotherapist and the brains behind acclaimed mental fitness app, Mindshine.
“For a long time we thought that humans were born with a ton of neurons, synapses, and connections, and as we got older, they simply died off. But now we’ve learned that isn’t true. We can actually make changes to further develop our brains. We’ve learned we can actually rewire our brains.”
Dr. Chinichian’s enthusiasm is echoed by other leading cognitive experts around the world, including Natalia Ramsden, a business psychologist and founder of SOFOS Associates in London, the UK’s first and only brain optimization clinic.
“There’s something hugely empowering about the idea that we, as individuals, can actually change the structure of our brains for the better,” says Ramsden. “There’s so much we can do to develop their function, which in turn can dramatically increase our productivity in the workplace.”
Make better decisions and prevent cognitive fatigue
Ok, that’s the concept of neuroplasticity. But how do we put it into action in our day-to-day working lives?
Imagine your brain as a colossal power grid. Billions of pathways light up every time you think, feel, or do something. Putting neuroplasticity into action means carving new pathways, while strengthening the best of the existing ones – and not reinforcing the pathways you’d rather avoid. This is captured in an aphorism: “Neurons that fire together, wire together; neurons that fire out of sync, fail to link.”
Neuroscientist Dr. Tara Swart, a senior lecturer at MIT and author of bestselling brain bible The Source, recently compared this process to road building.
“Think of it as going from a dirt road to a motorway,” Dr. Swart told European CEO. “I could say, ‘I’m going to work on that pathway, which is currently a dirt road. The more I use it, and the more I repeat activities, I can build it up to a motorway.'”
That newly-built motorway will not only able to help you process information faster, it will also be better equipped to stave off mental fatigue. That means less stress and fewer mistakes.
“It can help to think of your brain in terms of a muscle,” says Dr. Lynda Shaw, a chartered psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist who is a Fellow of The Royal Society of Medicine and an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. “If you do enough bicep curls you’ll increase the size of your biceps. It’s the same process with your brain. If you exercise your brain correctly and often, neuroplasticity means it will become more powerful.”
From a remote working perspective – especially with companies like Atlassian deciding to make the arrangement permanent – experts say that neuroplasticity is an even more valuable tool, as daily office stimuli dramatically decrease, and new routines and rituals come to the fore.
“We need, as bosses, to encourage our people to embrace change and adapt by being innovative and creative,” says Dr. Shaw. “Neuroplasticity is a great way of doing that, and of teams staying ahead of that curve.”
9 techniques to “rewire” your cognitive pathways
1. Feed your brain
Your brain makes up only a tiny proportion of your total body weight, but it uses up a quarter of everything you eat. If you want enhanced neural pathways, you’ll need an enhanced diet. According to Ramsden, that means grabbing snacks like walnuts, blueberries, and avocado during the day. Vitamin D and magnesium are top priorities if you want to promote neuroplasticity.
2. Take naps
Obviously, a good night’s sleep of between seven and nine hours will always set you up for a better brain day. But a short afternoon nap of around 20 minutes will elevate your neuroplasticity potential even further. A short nap encourages the growth of dendritic spines, which act as crucial connectors between the neurons in your brain.
3. Don’t let the workday linger
Like muscle-building, neuroplasticity needs downtime in order to do its work properly. According to Dr. Chinichian, managers should embed and enforce a “close the day” ritual that prioritizes reflection and gratitude for small wins. An end-of-day Slack message saying “Thanks for the great ideas in the brainstorming session today, everyone. See you tomorrow,” can help the team feel valued. Putting a hard stop to the stresses of the day in a way that also boosts endorphins creates perfect conditions for neuroplasticity. Bonus: it also sends the signal that it’s OK to “leave” work and unplug for the evening.
4. Expand your vocabulary
Try to learn one new word every day. According to experts, this simple act will spark a multitude of new neural pathways, both visual and auditory. (Give it a few months and it’ll make you unstoppable at Scrabble too).
5. Use the “wrong” hand
Non-dominant hand exercises are excellent for forming new neural pathways, as well as strengthening the connectivity between existing neurons. For instance, if you’re right-handed, try brushing your teeth with your left hand – and then try it while balancing on one leg for a double neuroplasticity bonus.
6. Learn to juggle
Juggling is frequently cited as an excellent means for improving neuroplasticity. Keep a small set of balls in your work drawer for a brain boost whenever you have a few spare seconds between tasks. The better you get, the bigger the benefits.
7. Play chess
Indulge your inner Beth Harmon by embracing chess – a game that has endless potential for neuroplasticity. Chess players have significantly more grey matter in their anterior cingulate cortex than those unfamiliar with en passant and castling. And you don’t even need another player or a board in order to reap the mental benefits. Simply log onto chess.com for a quick blast whenever you have a few minutes. (You don’t need to finish a game to get the neurological boost.)
8. Do mnemonic drills
Teaching yourself mnemonic devices, like formulas or rhymes, can enhance connectivity in your prefrontal parietal network, paving the way to new, positive pathways in your brain. Get started here.
9. Be mindful, as a team
Chinichian says that one of the best things you can do to promote neuroplasticity in a work force is to incorporate regular group meditation. There are multiple online options available to get you started, like this and this. Not only does it help with the positive brain rewiring process (while expanding several useful parts of the brain), it also results in team members reacting to problems with an increased sense of calm, passion, and awareness. Neuroplasticity at its finest.