The Most Important Breakthrough in Our Understanding of the Brain in Four Hundred Years

One of the great scientific discoveries in the last twenty years is something called neuroplasticity.  Norman Doige of the Research Faculty at Columbia University said: Neuroplasticity is the most important breakthrough in our understanding of the brain in four hundred years.

Neuroplasticity is the discovery that the brain can change itself to expand and reorganize networks that make us smarter, happier, healthier and more successful in life. It’s what Aristotle defined as The Good Life.  These positive results are produced by positive neuroplasticity. Positive neuroplasticity builds the brain that delivers The Good Life. 

Positive neuroplasticity can even be facilitated within a company, taking the company from the proverbial good to great.  It does this by tapping more of the collective brain power that years of stress have eroded. The level of emotional and creative intelligence, individually and collectively, can actually lift from average to exceptional and in a relatively short period of time.  This is why positive neuroplasticity is seen as the new competitive edge.

It Couldn’t Be Simpler

Attaining the Good Life takes a great brain and it turns out that building a great brain is achieved through simple means, constituting a kind of effortless effort.  Initially, the biggest struggle for people is getting free of struggle. Most of us have been trained to put our nose to the grindstone. The new research points us in the opposite direction.

I spent several years in a think tank, investigating proven processes that facilitate positive neuroplasticity and often I was astounded by how simple it is to facilitate this exponential gain in brain power. Below are three examples, all of which I recommend you practice on yourself:

Example#1: Rewiring to End Stress

Rewiring your brain to transcend stress involves practicing a simple skill that requires less than 20 seconds to perform. The skill entails heightening your awareness, day to day, of all the stress-provoking thoughts and feelings your mind generates and indulges. Practice not believing these thoughts and it creates a condition within the brain for stimulating the growth of GABA fibers. These fibers extend down from the prefrontal cortex to the lower brain and they secrete a peptide that extinguishes stress reactions.[1] Through awareness, you direct your brain to modulate intense emotions.  In response, your brain literally mobilizes the prefrontal cortex to stimulate GABA fibers that force the stress response system to stand down.  Fight, flight and freeze are summarily circumvented.  It’s one way of  curing anxiety, stress and aggression. Neuropsychiatrist, Daniel Siegel of UCLA, is using this type of positive neuroplasticity to quell bullying on school playgrounds.[2]

Example#2: Rewiring for Creativity

Science is discovering that the creative power inside the human brain is not only vaster than we can imagine; it’s much easier to access than we used to believe. Creative insight is generated in a region of the brain called the anterior superior temporal gyrus, which is on the surface of the right brain, just above your ear. The research of Mark Beeman at Northwestern found that the sudden onset of creative insight is preceded by a sudden burst of brain activity in this region.[3] This burst sets in motion a steady rhythm of alpha wave activity in the right hemisphere. The peace and quiet alpha waves produce in your brain enables a multitude of networks to communicate with one another. The best and brightest parts of your brain pull together to intuit the right answer to your problem. There are two tell-tale characteristics to a surge of creative insight.

  • The first characteristic is that the insight seems to come from out of the blue.  The truth is, the insight was a result of you getting out of the way so the higher brain could get its best players on the field.
  • The second characteristic is that you know that the answer the insight delivers is the right answer.  People don’t even bother to check the details.  They know to the bottom of their socks that the insight hits the bull’s eyes.

The alpha waves that open the door for the creative brain to step-in occur when you let go and relax. Most people experience a creative insight when they’re taking a warm shower.  Simply taking short breaks two or three times a day will stimulate your anterior superior temporal gyrus to make you the most creative person at work.  For this very reason, breaks are mandatory at the 3M Company.  They claim it’s what made them the most innovative company in the history of capitalism.  Any kind of relaxing break from the grind serves to excite creativity. Dr. Beeman found that getting people to laugh and relax by watching a comic like Robin Williams increased their creative capacity by 25%.[4]

Example#3: Rewiring for Willpower

We all know that it requires will power to achieve long term objectives, be it a strategic plan, losing weight, or learning to play the piano.  Willpower begins in a willingness to do what it takes to reach the summit. Researcher Ibrahim Senay of the University of Illinois investigated willingness to see how it plays out in our attempt to motivate and direct ourselves to the finish line.[5]  What he found is astounding.

Senay found that the achievements of those whose willpower followed the path of least resistance significantly exceeded the achievements of those who pushed hard. It relates back to the research on creativity.  Less is more.  In terms of willpower and willingness, success boils down to something specific but quite simple: it’s the way self-talk propels or derails the effort.

The people who pushed themselves and underachieved approached their objective by asserting: I will do this! This led to feeling pressured to succeed.  They worried that if they failed, they’d feel ashamed and inept and others would judge them. Their anxiety produced negative self-talk and this affects the brain. It activates the stress response system, which douses the brain with stress hormones. Stress hormones retard higher brain function and positive emotion. As a result, people are more likely to perform poorly. As they ruminate more and more, the steady flow of stress hormones lock the brain into doing the same unsuccessful behavior over and over, rendering them incapable of finding a new, more engaging, and more successful approach. Eventually, they give up.

The people who succeeded took the path of least resistance.  They approached their objective by wondering instead of asserting.   Each time they focused on the challenge, they quietly inquired of  themselves : Will I do this?  Senay defined this way of relating to the challenge as “wondering mode.”  On the surface, the difference between I will! and Will I? may seem subtle but it led to a huge difference in the result.  Senay reported that the people who asked Will I? expressed a much greater commitment to their objective.  The nature of the question – will I do this – circumvented the pressure and anxiety. They were free to choose. As a result, their attitude didn’t become fixed.  Rather, they lived in the possibility of the positive change they wanted, were more able to inspire themselves, and kept a flexible, open mind about how their goal could be achieved.  It made the process intrinsically motivating.

This is a Good Place to Start

There are more examples but this is a good place to start. Begin your neuroplastic journey to the Good Life by practicing all three approaches to brain power and see who you become.

[1] Daniel Seigel, M.D., Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, 2010, Random House, New York pg. 100

[2] Dan Siegel Interview, “The Neurospsychology of the Playground,” Salon, June 24, 2002,

 [3] Bowden, E.M. & Jung-Beeman, M. (2003) Aha! Insight experience correlates with solution activation in the right hemisphere . Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 10, 730-737.

[4] Subramaniam, K., Kounios, J., Bowden, E.M., Parrish, T.B., & Jung-Beeman, M. (2009).   Positive mood and anxiety modulate anterior cingulate activity and cognitive preparation for insight. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21, 415-432.

[5] Ibrahim Senay, Dolores Albarracín, Kenji Noguchi, Motivating Goal-Directed Behavior Through Introspective Self-Talk, The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense, Apr 8, 2010, Journal of Psychological Science