“The idea that the brain CAN CHANGE its own structure and function through thought and activity is, I believe, the most important alteration in our view of the brain since we first sketched out its basic anatomy and the workings of its basic component, the neuron.” Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself.
Welcome back to The Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast, where we connect the science-based evidence behind social and emotional learning (that’s finally being taught in our schools today) and emotional intelligence training (used in our modern workplaces) for improved well-being, achievement, productivity and results—using what I saw as the missing link (since we weren’t taught this when we were growing up in school), the application of practical neuroscience. I’m Andrea Samadi, an author, and an educator with a passion for learning and launched this podcast 5 years ago with the goal of bringing ALL the leading experts together (in one place) to uncover the most current research that would back up how the brain learns best, taking us ALL to new, and often unimaginable heights.
For today’s episode #302, and in keeping with our Season Theme of Going Back to the Basics, to take our learning to new heights, I’m going back to EPISODE #133[i] from May 2021 on “Applying Neuroplasticity to Your School or Workplace.” Now one look at this episode and I can see why I’m calling these past episodes Neuroscience 101 where I wanted to introduce important concepts in neuroscience and how they relate to learning, in real time, as I was learning them myself. The idea is that we are now going back and building on our understanding together, adding in anything new and relevant, that I’m now calling Neuroscience 202, and I can see with this first episode that I barely scratched the surface of what neuroplasticity is, and how we can use this fascinating concept to change our brain permanently.
REVIEW of EPISODE #133 We learned:
✔An introduction to neuroplasticity, and how this concept works in the brain when learning a new skill, thinking a certain way, or feeling a certain emotion.
✔How neuroplasticity helps us to create new habits, and how we can use it to break habits we don’t want to keep.
✔The controversy behind this topic, and how two of the people we have interviewed ignored the naysayers, and built a powerful career with the early foundations of neuroplasticity.
While I think this older episode is important to review, I can now see that learning how to apply practical neuroscience to our daily lives, really is cumulative. We learn one new concept that builds on another, and as we keep learning and studying together, new skills and levels of understanding are uncovered. It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion and realizing there’s more to uncover.
Today, as we dive deeper in neuroplasticity, we will cover what Norman Doidge wrote about in his book, The Brain That Changes Itself, about “the idea that the brain can change its own structure and function through thought and activity” and then uncover what exactly neuroplasticity means for us today, so we can apply this fascinating concept to our life.
On today’s EPISODE #302 on “A Deeper Dive into Applying Neuroplasticity To Learn Something New” will cover:
✔ What is neuroplasticity (the brain and nervous system’s ability to change itself).
✔ How to use this incredible feature of our nervous system for ANYTHING we want to learn (getting rid of an emotion we don’t want, building NEW emotions, or learning a new skill.
✔ The 2 STEPS Stanford Professor, Dr. Andrew Huberman suggests we understand in order to change our brain (the chemicals that are involved, and what parts of the brain they come from) from Huberman Lab EPISODE #6 “How to Focus to Change Your Brain”[ii]
✔ How others have changed the structure and function of their brain from Norman Doidge’s Book that features Barbara Arrowsmith-Young who we met with on EP 132[iii]) to Dr. Caroline Leaf’s 5 Step Approach to changing your brain.
✔ Strategies YOU implement today, to change YOUR brain.
Once we uncover what neuroplasticity means, and how we can use it, we can marvel at the pathway neuroplasticity has taken over the years, (from the early days when Barbara Arrowsmith-Young (from my hometown in Toronto, Canada) mentioned in our interview that people picketed outside her presentation about the brain and learning due to their lack of understanding) and we can now honor those who spearheaded the way for our benefit. Dr. Norman Doidge, the author of The Brain That Changes Itself says that Barbara’s story is “truly heroic, on par with the achievements of Helen Keller” who while in graduate school came across the work of Mark Rosenzweig of the University of California, Berkeley, studying rats as one of the first scientists to demonstrate neuroplasticity, fueling Barbara to NOT give up on this idea that the brain in fact could change
What IS Neuroplasticity?
When I looked at my first attempt to explain this concept, I wrote neuroplasticity as “the ability for our brain to re-wire, grow, adapt or change throughout a person’s lifetime” and then I put a couple of YouTube videos that explained this concept. I remember this one by Sentis[iv] as the FIRST lesson I had on neuroplasticity. It shows how pathways in the brain are either strengthened or weakened with use. While I do like those videos and where I began with my own understanding of neuroplasticity, there’s more research now to take our understanding a bit deeper and add more meaning to this idea. I don’t want to go down rabbit holes either, as I’m trying to show how we can use this concept ourselves, but if you want to learn more about how this works, you can watch a lesson from the incredible Sal Khan[v], from the Khan Academy.
How Dr. Andrew Huberman Explains Neuroplasticity
I had to start with Dr. Andrew Huberman, since there’s no one else I know who can make science simple and easy to use. He has a short clip where he explains neuroplasticity here through Rich Roll’s podcast from May 26, 2023.[vi] He explains that “if we want to learn anything new, like a new skill in a sport, or subtract an emotion, or build a greater range of an emotion that we follow these two steps.”[vii]
STEP 1: The First Step to Neuroplasticity is toRecognize that you want to change something. This FIRST step almost knocked me out of my chair because we have just covered Dr. Carolyn Leaf’s 5 STEPS to Cleaning Up our Mental Mess[viii] and it’s centered around identifying a toxic thought that you want to change.
With Dr. Leaf’s protocol, you go through a 5 STEP process that conceptualizes the thought or emotion that you want to eliminate, and by working through the issue, over this 63-day period, the toxic thought, or emotion you don’t want, gets weaker, and you build new, stronger, healthier thoughts or emotions in its place. It’s not like slapping a band aid on something that’s bothering you, and pretending it’s not there, you actually have to work through the emotions of this “toxic thought” pulling an origin story (or where this thought came from) out of your nonconscious mind, and into your conscious mind where it eventually holds less emotional charge for you. Dr. Leaf calls this Mind-Management.
Dr. Huberman talks about this concept as the FIRST step of neuroplasticity. He even talks about someone who approached him while he was speaking, who said that his voice reminded her of someone else, and made her feel uncomfortable. If you speak to audiences, you’ll relate to this one. There is always someone whose face looks like they aren’t with you, and while I’ve been presenting, I would look at the crowd, and in my early days, I’d think “that person doesn’t like what I’m saying” because that’s MY perception coming through, which isn’t always the case. Well, this person in the crowd really did approach Dr. Huberman and when she “called the thing she wanted to change to her consciousness” she turned it all around and told him “just by telling you that, your voice became more tolerable.”[ix] Of course Dr. Huberman douses us with a deeper understanding of the scientific side of this idea by saying that “this awareness is a remarkable thing because it cues our brain and the rest of our nervous system that when we engage in those reflexive actions moving forward (like our toxic thinking, or something we want to change) that those reflexive actions moving forward are no longer fated to be reflexive.”[x]
This is HUGE when it comes to wanting to change our brain, or change an emotion we don’t want, or even to add a new skill, we just need to PAY ATTENTION to whatever it is that we want to change.
STEP 2: ALERTNESS ALONE IS NOT SUFFICIENT FOR NEUROPLASTICITY: WE NEED 2 CHEMICALS (NEURAL MODULATORS) EPHINEPHRINE FOR ALERTNESS AND ACETYLCHOLINE FOR FOCUS AND MENTAL ALERTNESS:
Dr. Huberman says once we have paid attention, there are 2 chemicals (neuromodulators) that are released from different parts in our brain. He says that “alertness alone is not sufficient for neuroplasticity” and that “the most important thing for getting plasticity (or this brain change we want) is that there be epinephrine (which equates to alertness) and the release of the neural modulator acetylcholine”[xi] for focus and mental alertness. He says that the “thalamus gets bombarded by sensory input all the time but when I pay attention to something, I create a cone of attention with this acetylcholine that amplifies the signal of what I’m paying attention to making this signal greater to everything else amidst it.”[xii]
He says “the signal-noise ratio goes up in the thalamus of the brain”, and that engineers would understand this. Well, I’m not an engineer, but I completely understood this.
This idea took me back to when I was working in the seminar industry (where many of my examples draw back to). I had just finished working with the teens who presented their work on stage and I was sitting in a loud place with someone else I was working with. He looked at me when we were talking and said “hey, do you hear that?” And this was over 25 years ago, and I remember this conversation like it was yesterday. I said “what do you mean?” He said “Listen, if you listen carefully, you can hear Prince’s Little Red Corvette playing off in the distance.” To listen, I had to focus and create what Dr. Huberman said was this “cone of attention” and now I know that the neural modulator acetylcholine was flooding my brain so the signal to noise would go up, and I could hear the song. It was a crazy experience because without focus, we both would have missed it. He started to bring in how we needed to create this level of focus for the goals we are working on, and it was a conversation I knew I’d never forget.
How Others Have Changed Their Brain: Barbara Arrowsmith-Young
I first learned about Barbara Arrowsmith Young when researching for Brian Fact Friday and EPISODE #129 as she was a case study in Dr. Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself[xiii]Dr. Doidge is a Canadian scientist, medical doctor, and psychiatrist who was one of the researchers who put Neuroplasticity on the map and he dedicated a whole chapter in his book to Barbara’s story called “Building Herself a Better Brain” which is exactly what she did. You can read Barbara’s book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain,[xiv] that’s now in its third edition, here. I’ve heard Dr. Daniel Amen say over and over again that “you are not stuck with the brain that you have. You can be empowered to change it for the better”[xv] and Barbara Arrowsmith Young did just that, and more. Her story blew me away. You can revisit our episode, or read her story in Dr. Doidge’s book, and learn why Norman Doidge said her to be “truly heroic, on par with the achievements of Helen Keller.” Barbara was determined to change her brain, and now that I have Dr. Huberman’s formula, it makes sense to me how she did it.
How Others Have Changed Their Brain: Dr. Caroline Leaf
We’ve recently covered Dr. Leaf’s Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess book for adults and children, and her 5 STEP Process is neuroplasticity in action. While writing this episode I saw an Instagram post that she put up that says that “you can’t stop anxiety by trying not to be anxious (like Dr. Huberman said-the first step alone is not enough). You stop anxiety by allowing the feelings (Dr. Huberman said-draw them to your consciousness) while understanding that it is a transient sensory experience and a warning signal (to do something different) and NOT a permanent reflection of you and your reality.” It’s the understanding that helps to eliminate the negative toxic thinking. Sometimes saying what we want to eliminate is enough (like when we’ve written things down on our CRAP board to get rid of our conflicts, resistances, anxieties and problems) or like the person who said “oh, your voice no longer makes me uneasy, Dr. Huberman” but some things we will need a bit more attention to for long-term change to occur.
This 5 STEP approach is scientifically proven to change our brain, and I can tell you that it will help you to eliminate emotions over time (once we’ve decided on what we want to eliminate).
3 STEPS FOR CHANGING YOUR BRAIN:
USE NEUROSCIENCE TO BRING IN THE FOCUS to whatever it is that you want to learn, triggering neuroplasticity. Is it an emotion you want to eliminate? Or one you’d like to amplify? Do you want to learn a new skill? Whatever it is, you will need to FOCUS your mind as you are implementing the new skill.
I have a whole new take now on what focus looks like. It’s what I had to do in New Orleans to hear Little Red Corvette playing in the background (making the signal to noise go up) so I could hear this song. As I’m now focusing, I know that epinephrine is released and I’m creating a “cone of attention” (Huberman) with acetylcholine that’s acting like a spotlight to what I want to focus on, enhancing neuroplasticity in the process.
Does this understanding help you to see HOW we can change our brain with our thoughts or activity alone?
USE THE TOOLS YOU WERE BORN WITH: I used to watch my Mom, who we met on EPISODE #300[xvi] focus her eyes when I asked her a question. It was like she was diving into the depths of her mind to find the answer. Then I heard Dr. Huberman say that “you can use your visual focus as a way to increase your mental focus abilities more broadly” and I noticed that I do exactly the same thing as my Mom when focusing on something I’m trying to picture in my mind’s eye.
How do YOU focus your mind?
SUPPLEMENTS, SLEEP, MINDFULNESS AND MEDITATION: What else can we do to put ourselves in the best mode for changing our brain? Since we know we must find the focus, the most common tool most of us use is caffeine to increase our alertness, and coffee is one way to do this. I’m always looking at what’s new in this area, and open to ideas and suggestions from you if you have found something other than coffee to increase your focus.
We know that mastering sleep so we are more rested with more capacity in the day, helps with our focus, increasing our ability for neuroplasticity to take place. I have mentioned that my world changed when I started taking Qualia Senolytics[xvii] which is a nootropic supplement, from our interview with Dr. Greg Kelly from Neurohacker Collective. I noticed I seem more “locked in” while working with crystal clear mental clarity.
Mindfulness and Meditation are scientifically proven strategies to increase our focus and while reviewing our most listened to YouTube interviews, I was not surprised to see that our interview with Dr. Dawson Church[xviii], the author of the book Bliss Brain, is now our #1 most listened to interview.
What tools, strategies or supplements do you use for increased focus?
REVIEW AND CONCLUSION: HOW CAN WE CHANGE OUR BRAIN?
To review and conclude this week’s review of EPISODE #133, with “A Deeper Dive into Applying Neuroplasticity to Learn Something New” we covered:
✔ What is neuroplasticity (the brain and nervous system’s ability to change itself) and how to use this incredible feature of our nervous system for ANYTHING we want to learn (getting rid of an emotion we don’t want, building NEW emotions, or learning a new skill).
✔ The 2 STEPS Stanford Professor, Dr. Andrew Huberman suggests we understand in order to change our brain.
STEP 1: THE FIRST STEP TO NEUROPLASTICITY IS TO RECOGNIZE THAT YOU WANT TO CHANGE SOMETHING.
Know thyself. What do you want to change? If you are here listening, I’m sure you are like me, always working on something to improve, whether it’s cleaning up our mind for improved mental health, or learning something new that could take our physical health to new heights. Learning is a process, and if each year we can improve ourselves a bit more, we are on the right track. We’ve covered Dr. Leaf’s 5 STEPS for Cleaning Up Our Mental Mess recently, and I must say that once we begin to change our brain, that it’s work. I’m now on DAY 21 out of 63 days, working on my 4th time cycling through my toxic thinking, and it requires time, and effort in addition to just wanting this change. Barbara Arrowsmith-Young didn’t just wish she could change her brain, she repeatedly did what she needed to do for this change to occur.
STEP 2: ALERTNESS ALONE IS NOT SUFFICIENT FOR NEUROPLASTCITY: WE NEED 2 CHEMICALS (NEURAL MODULATORS) EPHINEPHRINE FOR ALERTNESS AND ACETYLCHOLINE FOR FOCUS AND MENTAL ALERTNESS.
Don’t forget we create a cone of attention with acetylcholine that amplifies the signal of what we are paying attention to making this signal greater to everything else amidst it, and epinephrine is released for alertness in this process.
Know thyself: How do you create focus? For me, sitting down and writing these episodes requires the most brain power I’ve ever used. I’m learning new ideas and then thinking of how to share them, so that others can benefit and use them. What’s motivating me is what I’m learning really IS changing my life. One year at a time, I can see how learning about the brain, and how to use it, is making me a stronger, more improved 2.0 version of myself. Whether it’s learning about neuroplasticity, or how our brain works while we are swimming in the ocean, anything new that I’m uncovering here, keeps me coming back to my desk, week after week, to uncover something new to share. I hope my excitement for this connection to science comes through, creating that cone of attention, and acetylcholine in your brain, that’s needed to implement this idea in your life.
STEP 3:SUPPLEMENTS, SLEEP, MINDFULNESS AND MEDITATION
I’ve found certain supplements for focus and mental clarity work well, in addition to getting enough sleep so I can think, and make connections with what I’m learning, but we all will have our own path of finding our optimal levels of focus.
Know thyself: What works for you?
This has been a process of self-discovery for me over the years, trying new tools, and then measuring the results, and sharing them here on the podcast. I knew that my sleep could be improved 4 years ago, and “although the primary function or functions of sleep are not understood, evidence suggests a strong relationship between sleep and plasticity (Frank et al., 2001; Tononi and Cirelli, 2014). Sleep loss leads to impairments in the plastic processes of learning and memory (Diekelmann and Born, 2010; Rasch and Born, 2013)”[xix] so I’m taking the science to heart, and working on this with as many tools and protocols as I can uncover. Since we know that deep sleep “is when your cells regenerate and your muscles repair themselves” (WHOOP.com) and REM sleep “is key to processing new memories, learnings, and motor skills” (WHOOP.com) improving and measuring this area will always be what I’m focused on.
MY WHOOP DATA: Shows that finally sleep is improving. REM sleep is 25% higher than my 30-day average (key for processing new memories, learnings, and motor skills) and DEEP SLEEP (SWS) is 28% higher, helping me to regenerate cells and help muscles repair themselves.
With that thought, I’ll end with a quote from Dr. Andrew Huberman, whose research helped me to dive deeper into how we can change our brain using this concept that we still don’t know a lot about.
"Neuroplasticity knows no bounds; it is a lifelong journey of growth, learning, and personal transformation." - Andrew Huberman
I know in 2 years I’ll be back to dive deeper into ways we can change our brain even further as new discoveries in science are made, and I hope you’ll be with me here, applying them.
[xiv] Barbara Arrowsmith-Young The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: How I Left My Learning Disability Behind and Other Stories of Cognitive Transformation, Foreword by Norman Doidge. Published Sept. 17, 2017 https://arrowsmithschool.org/books-3/