Wisdom//

Good News for Behavior Change

Our brains are far more plastic than we once believed.

My interest in neuroplasticity was piqued last month when I attended an all-day workshop hosted by Thrive, Arianna Huffington’s latest venture. It’s pretty extraordinary that after a century of scientists telling us that the adult brain does not grow, we are stepping into a whole new paradigm—moving from the belief that the brain is fixed for life to the possibility for growth or restructuring. Some people bounce back from brain trauma. Some blind people find new ways to “see.” There are no guarantees and no miracle cures, but there is a chance things could change.

Recent research out of Stanford has shown that mice who missed the opportunity to develop their sight organs were able to regain the ability to see when exposed to movement and visual stimuli. Next, researchers want to learn if their understanding of neural circuitry in mice is also relevant to humans—without it, it’s far too soon to make that leap (even though it is tempting, isn’t it?).

Research is also showing that all those games designed to improve our memory are unlikely to do anything but make us good test takers. Instead, neurogenesis—the growth of new neurons—is spurred on by aerobic exercise. In other words, put down your crossword puzzle and go for a brisk walk! Essentially, cause and effect are actually challenging to determine in a system as complex as the human body. But what we’re learning about mice and seeing in humans, is worth a closer look.

That’s why my team and I were at Thrive’s workshop, held in conjunction with We’s well-being group, Rise by We. Arianna’s sister, Agapi Stassinopoulos, and motivational speaker Joey Hubbard led the charge, talking to us about the importance of sleep, minimizing distractions, and the brain’s apparent plasticity. So much of what they had to say about wellness in the workplace rang true for me—I run my own business and lead a digital innovation team in the well-being space, so we try to practice what we preach

Because working in wellness has led to studying behavior change, I was especially interested in the concept of neuroplasticity. I have long subscribed to B.J. Fogg’s model of behavior change, and, at first glance, it seems that an understanding of neuroplasticity could only enhance the value of the programs I help to create.

Fogg, a behavior scientist at Stanford, suggests we focus on tiny habits instead of striving for gigantic goals. In this TEDx Talk, he describes how he started doing two push-ups after every visit to the bathroom. The two push-ups slowly climbed up to eight, which added up to a daily total of fifty push-ups. According to Fogg, “Relying primarily on motivation to change behavior long-term is not a winning strategy,” but you can use motivation if you make that change tiny enough. The three components of Fogg’s model are ability, motivation, and a prompt—in his case, a trip to the restroom.

At this point, neuroplasticity is most helpful when it comes to understanding how the brain can restructure itself after a traumatic event or in response to a disability. For example, Paul Bach-y-Rita, an American neuroscientist, showed that blind people could learn how to use vibration as a method of “seeing” or understanding their environment in three dimensions—and quite astonishingly, using their visual cortex to do so. Similarly, fellow neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, demonstrated that the brain operated according to maps which were subject to change, and put that to the test with cochlear implants for deaf people, allowing them to hear for the first time.

A number of bestsellers on neuroplasticity have made it seem like a miracle cure, but author Norman Doidge, who some would say stands at the forefront of the field, argues against that stance in an interview about his book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, “I try to be extremely careful in the book to never give guarantees but to say in this situation this or that is worth a try.” Even recovering from a stroke—which depends on plasticity—takes years of repetitive exercise to regain use of a limb, for instance, and there’s no promise it will pay off.

Still, neuroplasticity is, at the very least, an encouragement to engage in BJ Fogg’s model of behavior change, and to know that change is possible. Thrive is putting these concepts to use in their new app, which focuses on “micro steps” as a manageable way to achieve goals. What’s my focus? Getting eight hours of sleep every night, and adding paper and pen to my nighttime ritual. I’ll be depending on far more than luck to achieve it.


During Rise and Thrive, my business partner, Flavio Masson, bonded with Agapi Stassinopoulos over his T-shirt.

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