‘I am a neuroplastician’

‘A neuro-what?’ he replied. On his face a big question mark.

The setting

We bumped into each other at a bar after not seeing each other for a long time since we were both in university studying human nutrition. When I told him that I’m now a ‘neuroplastician,’ his confused look made me realize I had to find a way to explain what that means.

We’d both come a long way in understanding the intricate connections between food, health, and well-being. Back then, some five decades ago, nutrition science was still a young science and therefore less comprehensive or nuanced compared to nowadays.

Even back then, as a student my friend seemed to be all about specializing. I , to the contrary, was much more inclined to develop as a curious professional, interested in many things. And indeed, he had gone deeper into the specific matter of nutrition, following his strong passion. While I had occupied several different professional roles in a variety of work environments, always looking for new horizons. I combined my skills in nutrition and health with another career as a professional coachsupervisor. I specialized in applying neuroscience to help people change their behavior. For me it is like my career has come full circle.

As the evening went on and our laughter mixed with the music of the bar, I noticed how our paths had diverged over time. With reconnecting and gaining a deeper understanding of each other’s journeys, I told him that I am now a neuroplastician.

Neuroplasticity

‘A neuro-what?’ he asked, leaning in with curiosity. I had piqued his interest and to my relief he did not seem to view me as an alien. ‘You mean,’ he said, ’that the brain isn’t set in stone, that it can actually change itself?’ The term neuroplasticity was familiar to him. Basically it is the brain’s ability to change its structure and function based on what we do and experience mentally.

Taking a sip of his wine, he went on:

‘Well, for about four hundred years the mainstream view was that our brains stop developing at around 25 years of age. Back when we were studying this view scared me a lot because I thought I had to learn everything right then and there, or I’d never get another chance. Fortunately that view turned out to be wrong.

In those days scientists saw the brain as a fancy machine, with different parts doing specific jobs in fixed spots. If something went wrong in one spot, like from a stroke or injury, it couldn’t be fixed because machines don’t repair themselves. They also thought the brain’s circuits were like wires set in stone, meaning if you were born with learning challenges, you were stuck with them forever.’

I continued with excitement, explaining that fortunately, we now learn about neuroplasticity, understanding that the brain can change itself in response to experiences. As a result, the brain’s networks respond differently to the same input over time. That’s how we adapt to our environments, learn from experiences, and grow.

Our conversation perked up, and we decided for another glass of wine. I was pleasantly surprised that my friend was that much interested in the topic of neuroplasticity.

Our talk shifted to how we used computers during our time at university. We both remembered when computers and the internet became a big deal. In those days many scientists compared the brain to a computer, with its parts called “hardware.” They thought the only thing that happened to this “hardware” as people got older was it wore down from being used, like an old machine breaking down. So, when older folks tried to keep their brains sharp by doing puzzles or staying active, some scientists thought it wouldn’t really help. They figured it was a lost cause.

Three generations of neuroplasticians

We continued talking about when the term of the “neuroplastician” came into the world. There isn’t a specific person or organization widely recognized as claiming the term “neuroplastician” in the same sense that, for example, someone might claim authorship of a term or a concept.

However, we can distinguish three generations of neuroplasticians:

The first generation of neuroplasticians, demonstrated that the brain is plastic, and refuted the doctrine of the unchanging brain. For the first time, scientists were equipped with tools to observe the living brain’s microscopic activities, they showed that it changes as it works. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000 was awarded jointly to Arvid Carlsson, Paul Greengard, and Eric Kandel for their discoveries concerning signal transduction in the nervous system. Eric Kandel discovered something amazing: when we learn, it can turn on genes that make our brains change. Lots of studies since then have shown that what we think and do doesn’t just come from our brains; it shapes our brains too. This idea, called neuroplasticity, became super important in medicine and how we see ourselves as humans.

The second generation of neuroplasticians no longer had the weight of proving plasticity’s existence on their shoulders. The first generation had liberated the second generation to devote themselves to understanding and using plasticity’s extraordinary power. This generation figured out the importance of the body to the brain, and this is when psychologists and professional coaches grow their interest in embodiment, the relationship between thinking and feeling, emotional intelligence and the functioning of the brain-brain-body as an organic system.

The scientists, clinicians, and the people these neuroplasticians help, all have stories to tell. Some of these scientists work in super advanced labs in the Western world. Others are researchers and clinicians who use what those scientists discover. And then there are clinicians and patients who, without knowing about neuroplasticity in detail, found ways to treat and improve conditions effectively. Most of the second generation neuroplasticians are academical scientists and researchers.

The third generation of “Neuroplasticians” is a descriptor often used to refer to the emerging discipline of professionals who work in the field of applied neuroplasticity. These professionals include neuroscientists, psychologists, therapists, coaches, supervisors, or researchers who study or apply principles of neuroplasticity in their work. These professionals are ‘pracademics’, bridging the academic theories (of psychology, applied neuroscience, neuroplasticity, systems thinking, neurolinguistics and change etcetera), with behavioral practices toward improving client outcomes.

Today neuroscience is a trending science and comes along with rising demand in professional certification programs for coaching. A young global network for neuroplasticians is the NeuroplasticianHub that aims to set the standard for the role of the Neuroplastician®. According to this network, the Neuroplastician® is a non-clinical practitioner, educator, or coach who specializes in applied neuroscience. Members may be certified coaches, healthcare practitioners, educators, or organizational consultants. It is important to note that Neuroplasticians are not considered medical professionals and cannot provide medical advice.

We wrapped up a delightful conversation. My friend had a genuine interest in the emerging discipline of neuroplasticians. His encouragement ignited a spark driving me to reflect further, and inspiring me to pen this blog post.

Is neuroplasticity the essential human force?

What defines our humanity is the unique ability of our brains to arrange and structure, think and reflect. However, it requires a lot of energy to maintain the brain-body system optimized. Hence, the importance of healthy food to allow us to sustain this delicate balance. When we neglect the fundamental needs of our brain and body (good food, physical exercise, sleep, and good relationships) the organization of the brain-body system we’ve built begins to deteriorate, and decay sets in. Essentially, we are in a perpetual struggle against the second law of thermodynamics, which dictates that systems tend to disintegrate over time unless counteracted by a force holding them together.

This prompted me to the intriguing question: Could neuroplasticity serve as that essential force, preserving our cognitive integrity amidst the inevitable entropy?

There is growing evidence that the brain’s ability to change, called plasticity, can actually influence how we behave. We can indeed train our brain. #Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and adapt to new experiences and circumstances. These adjustments can affect our behavioral patterns, such as decision-making, emotion regulation and self-control. Through neuroplasticity we can learn new skills, change habits and adapt our behavior to changing circumstances. We can indeed rewire our brain and increase our #resilience by means of neuroplasticity.

There is also growing evidence that we are not just passively reacting to what happens around us. Instead, we actively engage with and shape our experiences and surroundings, which influences our behavior, emotions, and cognition. Surprisingly, this can make our differences even stronger. So, if brain plasticity is shaping the pattern of our behavior, it may be doing it in exactly the opposite way that people would think of it. Brain plasticity might actually be a tool of human nature that helps our habit-patterns and personality shine through.

Connect with me

Are you curious about applied neuroplasticity to grow resilience of yourself, your team and the whole organization? Let’s connect!

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Send a message: sonja.vlaar@attune.nl