"Neuroplasticity" Is The Brain's Ability To Rewire—Here’s How To Harness It

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For most of my life, I operated under the belief that "this is just how I am" and "this is just how things are." When it came to behaviors that held me back or goals that seemed too far-fetched, I felt there wasn’t much I could do about it. This was not a fun way to live. It wasn’t until my early twenties—when I discovered the wonderful world of self-development and became a certified life coach and neurolinguistic programming practitioner—that I learned this couldn’t be further from the truth.

We have power over the way we are and how things are in our lives. For instance, if there’s a self-sabotaging thought pattern or behavior that doesn’t serve you, you can change it. If there’s a big goal you want to achieve, you can do it, even if it doesn’t yet feel possible. The power of transformation lies in the mind thanks to "neuroplasticity," which is the brain’s ability to change. Ahead, learn more about what neuroplasticity is, how it works, and the steps you can take to start harnessing its power. 

Meet the Expert

  • Dr. Caroline Leaf is an author, neuroscientist, and mental health expert with over 30 years of experience researching the mind-brain connection.
  • Dr. Tara Swart, MD, is a neuroscientist and author of The Source. She serves as an advisor to companies and individuals to help them manage stress and retain information.
  • Dr. Sanam Hafeez is the founder of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services in New York City. She is also a member of Byrdie's review board.

What Is Neuroplasticity? 

According to neuroscientist and mental health expert Caroline Leaf, Ph.D., neuroplasticity means that microscopic changes occur in the brain's structure instantaneously as you think, feel, choose, and experience things. "This basically means the brain is plastic—it can change," she says. "The brain is not a fixed lump of matter delivering genetically preprogrammed instructions to the body. Rather, it’s an intensely responsive, intricately complex, and constantly changing system of cells. And we, using our mind, cause these neuroplastic changes."

Here’s the kicker: These neuroplastic changes can either be beneficial or hold us back. "Everything that we repeat or that has strong emotional intensity gets further embedded into our brain pathways, whether it’s dwelling on negative thoughts or over-writing old unwanted behaviors with new, desired behaviors," says neuroscientist and author of The Source Tara Swart, MD, Ph.D.

"Part of neuroplasticity's caveat is that it can apply both ways," Dr. Sanam Hafeez says. "Scientists understand that the human brain can bend to either side, the negative or positive, depending on these rewards and dopaminergic responses. The bottom line is we have a lot more control than we think."

Dr. Leaf concurs, adding that we are directing these changes, so if they aren’t serving us, we have the power to change them and don’t have to stay stuck. "The brain is not hard-wired or stuck," she says. "It’s soft-wired, which essentially means it responds to what we think, feel, choose, and do. Any brain, at any age, and no matter what has happened to it, can be made to function at a higher level because of the nature of neuroplasticity."

There’s emerging research around neuroplasticity too. Dr. Leaf points to recent clinical trials that resulted in improved depression and anxiety, fewer toxic thoughts, less stress, and increased life satisfaction and wellbeing. "As they learned how to manage their thinking, subjects were essentially shifting the way their brain processed information, thereby changing the structures of their brain in a positive direction," Dr. Leaf says. "By day 63, the experimental group had transformed their minds and the structure of their brains (neuroplasticity), sustaining this new way of thinking."

How to Harness Neuroplasticity for Change

Realize You’re In Charge

The first step in harnessing the power of neuroplasticity is knowing that you’re the one steering the ship that is your life. "Understanding that we are not stuck on auto-pilot, and that life isn’t happening to us, but that we can take the reins, and notice and grasp opportunities that will move us closer to our goals, is a game-changer," Dr. Swart says. 

Get Clear On What You Want To Change

The next step, Dr. Swart says, is to get clear on what you want to change, whether it’s a goal you want to achieve or shifting a habit or belief. She recommends making a vision board, either digitally or by hand, of what you want your life to be. For example, let’s say you want to quit your day job and start your own business. Your vision board may have images representing the type of business you want to run and the lifestyle you want to live. Put it somewhere visible so you can look at it daily and visualize those things coming true. 

Develop Self-Awareness

If you’re unsure of what needs to change, Dr. Leaf recommends practicing self-awareness around how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking about, what you choose, and how those things impact how you function. Then, reflect on why you feel the way you do, she says. What triggered you and why? For example, you may notice an increased pattern of feeling anxious and notice it gets triggered when something stressful happens. Dr. Leaf suggests taking pen to paper for this and writing down your experiences which helps organize your thinking. 

Once you have it all down on paper, go back and reread what you wrote and look for triggers, thought patterns, and habits that need to shift. Using the anxiety example, Dr. Leaf says, you may notice that the thought pattern behind it says, "I am falling apart, and something is wrong with me." You can then commit to shifting that pattern by looking for the root cause, setting boundaries, and saying no to things so you can have downtime. 

Take Action And Reinforce 

Once you’re clear on what you want to change, Dr. Swart recommends keeping your eyes open for opportunities that will move you closer to your goals and start taking steps every day to move you closer to them. Or, if you’re trying to build a new habit, practice repeating the new desired behavior repeatedly until it becomes more natural than the old behavior. The important thing is to set milestones for yourself and achieve them consistently. She also recommends having some sort of accountability tool, such as tracking things on an app or asking a friend, coach, or therapist to check in on you as you reach those milestones. 

Final Thoughts

Dr. Leaf recommends committing to these new changes over the next 63 days. And, to help reinforce them in the brain, create and repeat a simple statement to solidify the new habit such as: "I am not a broken person. There is nothing wrong with me. I am just reacting to an accumulation of adverse circumstances."

Dr. Leaf says, by following this process of developing self-awareness and reinforcing the new thoughts or behaviors, "you are learning how to direct your neuroplasticity to grow the kind of thoughts in your brain that will help you feel empowered and improve your overall wellbeing." As you build the new thoughts, she says you will be changing the structure of your brain in a positive direction. 

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Berkman ET. The neuroscience of goals and behavior change. Consult Psychol J. 2018;70(1):28-44.

  2. Current clinical trials. Dr. Leaf.

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