I sold my flat in Hong Kong in 2014. Stupid, stupid, stupid. It was a bad time in my life, I’d just been made redundant, I was in debt. And I have a tendency in times of crisis to cut loose, wipe the slate clean and start over. And so, I sold my flat. One of the worst decisions I’ve ever made. Of course, I enjoyed the freedom it gave me for a year or two. But I quickly realized how damaging it was to my financial health. I’d wake up every day regretting how stupid I’d been.
Which brings me to neuroplasticity and happiness. Because it has been a struggle to recover my mental health (my financial health will never recover!).
What is neuroplasticity (and how does it relate to happiness!)
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change and grow – physically change and grow – in response to how we choose to use it.
The ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury. Oxford Dictionary
It’s the neurological foundation for all the growth we experience in our lives. The nerve pathways in our brains – the connections along which our thoughts travel – become stronger as we use them more. It helps to make our brain more efficient. (My brain became very efficient at thinking what an idiot I was!). But ultimately neuroplasticity saved me too and helped me back to happiness.
Here’s the science in a bit more detail.
The science of neuroplasticity
This is going to get a little technical (I’ll be quick!).
The human brain makes up only about 2% of our body weight but uses 20% of our energy. It’s made up of billions of nerve cells, connected by synapses, making up the pathways along which our thoughts travel. This is the ‘grey matter’ of our brain. The grey matter is protected by myelin, a fatty substance that ‘sheathes’ the pathways in the brain. Myelin is the ‘white matter’ of the brain. This white matter plays an important role in helping to make the brain efficient. Pathways in the brain that are used often attract myelin and become better insulated. This helps our thoughts travel more quickly and use less energy.
It doesn’t matter if the thought is helpful, or unhelpful to us. If we’re having that thought often the brain works to make it easier for us to have that thought. As a result that area of the brain grows.
Some examples of neuroplasticity
For most of history it was thought that the adult brain was ‘fixed’ and unchanging. Our understanding of neuroplasticity is relatively recent.
And in the past 20-30 years, with improved mental imaging and measurement, there have been some fascinating research studies. This is my favorite (what can I say, I’m from London!).
Black cabs and ‘the knowledge’
To become a black cab driver in London you must do a test called ‘the knowledge’. And to pass the test you have to know the best route from any location to any location, in London. Millions, (probably billions!) of permutations. On any given day in London, you’ll see people practicing for the knowledge. They’re on motorbikes, with a clipboard between the handlebars, learning routes.
And researchers took a sample of these people and measured the size of their hippocampus, the part responsible for special awareness, before and after the test. The result, the hippocampus grew as they used it more. It became stronger, and more efficient.
Other examples of neuroplasticity
There are many other examples of neuroplasticity in action. All the research is fundamentally the same. There’s a ‘before and after’ measurement of the part of the relevant brain. And when used intensively, that part of the brain grows.
Professional pianists develop the area of their brain responsible for finger coordination. People with brain injuries recover by developing related function in other parts of their brain. It’s all neuroplasticity in action.
Neuroplasticity and happiness
Why is neuroplasticity important to our happiness? Because the ability of the brain to reshape itself, based on how we think, is the physical underpinning of how we move towards happiness.
I spent years regretting my decision to sell my flat. The part of my brain that carried that thought was well used, well insulated and terribly efficient. It was very natural and easy for my brain to have that thought, over and over, and over again.
It took me a lot of time and conscious effort to replace that thought with a better one. But I did it, and neuroplasticity helped me. Now I have much better thoughts, happier thoughts. It took time and effort to establish them, and now they’re well insulated and whizzing through my brain!