What is Neuroplasticity and why understanding what it is will improve your training and performance.
by James Banks, Owner / Instructor
Today I’m going to discuss a topic that is studied for years to fully understand, but I am going to break it down to its simplest form so to make it palatable and not so boring. I’m going to skim the very surface as to what Neuroplasticity is and explain why understanding what it is will assist you in your self-defense training. First off, the definition of Neuroplasticity as defined by the Oxford Dictionary as; “the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury”. Those of you who have attended my courses have heard me speak about neural pathways and their importance. Developing this network is paramount in developing you as the individual that you want and need to become. I’d like to discuss some easy steps to take so to change your brain, thus changing your habits.
Your brain is being shaped, molded and changed by your experiences every day. These external experiences cause very real internal changes. Rewiring your brain is a very dynamic process that occurs within the partnership of your mind and body. They are interconnected as a complex system to ensure your survival. This being the case, you can use your mind to change your brain and increase your performance. Let’s discuss how. The human brain is made up of an estimated 100 billion neurons making a total of 100 trillion neural connections. Mental exercise strengthens the neural pathways in your brain associated with what you focus on with your thoughts and performance. To simplify this, if you focus on training and mindset with your thoughts and awareness, you strengthen performance pathways. A large percentage of individuals live on autopilot the vast majority of the time. This is because our neural pathways operate under the path of least resistance. The most used path is the most robust and easiest to travel. This allows you to conserve mental energy and instantly respond to your life experiences. This type of automatic conditioning can be seen in the body memory of top performance athletes. It can also be seen the last time you drove home from work and did not recall the entire trip. It is what we refer to as “Condition White”. Learning and development does not occur in Condition White.
Our Mission Statement starts out as, “Phase Line Defense believes in educating individuals in self-defense techniques, changing perspectives on self-defense, and assisting people in developing a positive mindset to overcome threat situations”. This POSITIVE MINDSET is the very basis in which we must start our building process. A thought without intense emotion and feeling has no meaning, no value, and no real power to effectively engage your neural pathways. Intensity of emotion and feeling is required to take your experience and make it a solidified habit. This being said, you should become emotionally connected to your training. This is made easy by training with a positive mindset, which is much needed for your defensive mindset (please read my May 2018 Article - What is a DEFENSIVE MINDSET? How do I develop it?). Feel emotionally connected to your training and you’ll also have an even greater sense of accomplishment, mainly because you actually will accomplish more. This is why I have in our Mission Statement that “Phase Line Defense is all about you and what YOU can accomplish when you put your mind to it." Put your mind to it. Become emotionally connected to your training and you will absolutely surprise yourself as to what you can accomplish out here.
The next thing we need is Repetition and Practice. Neural pathways are strengthened into habits through the repetition and practice of thinking, acting, feeling and doing. Most everyone has heard Stephen McCranie’s quote, “The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.” Experts in any field have put in the time and effort to do tasks over and over and over yet again, failing more times than beginners have even tried. You owe it to yourself to do the same. You are worth nothing less than your best.
Next on our list is Visualization and this is almost as powerful as the actual act as your brain cannot tell the difference between something real or imagined. Take your mind there and your body will also go but conversely, your body cannot go where the mind hasn’t been. Thank you Phil Chaney of 88 Tactical Group of furthering my knowledge on that concept. Analysis shows that anytime you are thinking, you are engaging and thus conditioning neural pathways. The most important part of using visualization to strengthen your habits is to engage your emotion. Emotion provides the ammunition to enlist more neural power for creating more powerful neural networks. You can practice this by spending 10-15 minutes every day visualizing yourself achieving your goals. This should be so vivid and dynamic that it easily engages a positive mental response.
Now we’re going to discuss meditation. Believe what you want but meditation is a very important component to mental health. Everyone has done it to some degree. Even setting back with your eyes closed while taking deep breaths for a brisk mental escape is a form of meditation. This resets your mental state and refocuses your mental energy. When you meditate you slow down the nonsense, tenuous babble of the busy mind and access the calm persistent wisdom of your inner awareness and the finesse of pinpoint focus. Meditation is the process of relaxing the body and quieting the mind. In order to tap into the benefits of neuralplasticity you have to disengage your stress responses and stimulate the relaxation response. When you are under duress your brain defers to the strongest neural pathways out of survival and the path of least resistance. Therefore, during duress you do not have access to newly formed neural networks because they have not been tried and proven yet. Most people who live in a perpetual state of stress will believe that feeling tense or overwhelmed is normal. This is not true and is the result of an undisciplined mind and body. This being the case, if you have not developed a particular neural pathway, that pathway will absolutely not be available to you in your time of need. You will not “rise to the occasion” as this is scientifically impossible. The prefrontal cortex is the actual part the brain that meditation activates, which helps the body shift from the stress response to the relaxation response. This brain region has been implicated in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. This section of the brain has been called the clutch that releases the gas pedal and applies the brakes. Research has shown that meditation increases the size of the prefrontal cortex. The size of the prefrontal cortex of people who meditate is actually larger than that of those who do not meditate. Researchers at Yale, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard were the first to discover that meditation alters the structure and function of the brain and specifically the prefrontal cortex. Sara Lazar PhD, leader of the study and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, states that “We study the impact of yoga and meditation on various cognitive and behavioral functions. Our results suggest that meditation can produce experience-based structural alterations in the brain. We also found evidence that meditation may slow down the age related atrophy of certain areas of the brain.” As you can see, meditation is very important in the development of your brain.
The last thing for me to convey to you and bring this all together is for me to tell you to seek a trainer. You should seek a trainer that possesses at least a basic understanding of the mechanics of the mind. An Instructor who has developed this knowledge base will be able to better assist you with tapping into your personal potential. I hope that I explained a bit of the science of neuroplasticity in such a way as to codify what it is and why it is important if you are going to train to be the defender of yourself and your family. As always, “A Leader thirsts for knowledge”.
Sara Lazar PhD - Welcome to the Lazar Lab
"Avoiding battle is advantageous. Avoiding knowledge of battle is dangerous" James Banks