Neuroplastic thinking in the digital age.
Neuroplasticity refers to our brain’s ability to adapt which it does continuously in response to the environment. Not only do our brains ‘read’ the environment and send out the appropriate signals to the rest of the body to deal with what is happening, the brain itself also adapts developing new neural pathways so that it can respond even more efficiently in the future. The brain is continuously adapting and changing on a moment by moment basis to our ever evolving needs. Different pathways are created and fall dormant and are discarded according to our experiences.
New connections are created between our neurons when we learn something new and as a consequence our brains are being continuously rewired as we adapt to new circumstances. It is understanding this process and using it for positive change and the development of resilience that is the major concern of positive psychology. Using ‘interventions’ to strengthen our character and virtues the goal is to re-pattern and rewire our brains so that the quality of our thinking becomes as resourceful as possible enabling us to tackle our problems in a more efficient and effective way.
There is ongoing research into the impact of stress on both the human body and mind. It is believed that stress can actually kill brain cells, although the jury is still out on this conclusion. For many decades it was believed that the brain was ‘hardwired’ with a finite number of brain cells that slowly died as we age. However, it may be that the brain not only has the ability to continuously adapt and change what it already has (neuroplasticity), but that there is the possibility that the brain can grow new neurons (a process called neurogenesis).
Positive psychology as a scientific discipline has developed ‘interventions’ that have been successful in reducing stress in the workplace and at home. This reduction in stress has been shown to significantly improve performance and enhance the ability to think quickly and respond to emerging situations effectively. These interventions develop practices around empathy, compassion and kindness and have a significant positive impact on people’s sense of well being and ability to cope in today’s fast-paced technological whirlwind. The practices of loving kindness, gratitude and developing compassionate leadership develop character strengths that really do enable us to live empathetic, creative and interactive lives.
At work these capabilities become even more important. When a team or organisation is under attack from an outside threat, automatic survival modes kick in. In this hyper-vigilant and hyper-stressed state, the ‘ordinary’ default mode is ‘every one for themselves’. This is perhaps the least resourceful and useful state to be in when trying to deal with complex threats and issues. Yet this is the ‘normal go-to’ mode for humans who, without awareness and training, have brains that have been wired for survival for eons.
With the very recent findings of positive psychology and the new opportunities that understanding neuroplasticity brings, we have an opportunity, perhaps unique in history, to take a pro-active approach to how we actually wire ourselves to think. It is also perhaps no accident that this capability is emerging just at the time in history when it is most needed.