What Is Self-Directed Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize itself to continue doing certain things or to make itself more efficient. After someone sustains a traumatic brain injury (TBI), whether the result of stroke, motor vehicle collision, or hypoxia, some portions of the brain are compromised. They have been injured, and therefore don’t work the way they should.
Let’s suppose that Billy (totally fictional character) was in a car wreck and sustained a TBI as a result of not wearing his seat belt. Billy’s in a coma for several weeks while his brain is trying to get all his systems back online. So when he finally wakes, Billy finds that he can’t walk. Let’s just focus on the walking part of Billy’s recovery. I’m sure there are dozens, even hundreds of other issues, but right now, we’re going to pretend that the only thing which changed for Billy is his ability to walk.
Billy’s family and therapists tell him what to do, “Billy, just pick up your left foot and move it in front of the other one,” but still he can’t figure out how to move his foot. The problem is that the brain knows what it wants his body to do, it just can’t get the message to his muscles–giving them their instructions.
Billy’s brain has the information needed to get him to walk, but it just has to find a new pathway around the damaged part–essentially it needs to create a new synapse or connection between neurons. So when the brain finally creates the necessary synapses, which probably number in the thousands given the brain’s complexity, Billy finds that he can move his left foot and even make it go in front of the other one.
The more Billy concentrates on getting himself to walk, without assistance, the better his brain’s new connections will become, enabling him to walk better than he ever thought possible. Focusing our attention on what we want to do better, faster, or more efficiently is the key to Self-Directed Neuroplasticity.
Just last week, I decided it was time to replace the bulb in the left turn-signal of my car. I had all the necessary equipment, and even got some pointers from the guy at Autozone where I bought the bulb. So I read the directions about replacing the turn signal bulb–they’re found in the owner’s manual, which I didn’t know before last week–I began removing the plastic fasteners from the inside fender. The entire process took me about 25-30 minutes because I had never done it before. I told my friend who used to work at a car manufacturing plant about the whole experience, and he said, “It’ll probably take you five the next time you have to do it, now that you know how.”
I bet it takes him about 45 seconds to swap out a turn signal bulb because he’s done it so many times and for so long. He has focused his attention on fixing and assembling cars, and therefore his brain has created synapses between the neurons that mine simply lacks. What we need to do in order to effectively engage in self-directed neuroplasticity is to focus on the things we want to improve.
Whether it’s walking, talking, playing chess or writing a creative story, we simply have to focus our attention on it in order to get better at doing it.