How to change your mind – the power of neuroplasticity

Are there aspects of your mind you’d like to change? Emma explores the power of neuroplasticity and offers some suggestions of how we can start to forge new pathways.

Woman in forest

What is neuroplasticity?

You have the power to change your mind far more than you may realise. The scientific community believed for a long time that our minds were ‘fixed’ and unable to change once we matured into adulthood. However, there’s now evidence to show that you can indeed ‘teach an old dog new tricks’. We can literally change the state of our brains. This ability to alter the structure and function of the brain is known as neuroplasticity –  ‘neuro’ meaning ‘brain’, and ‘plasticity’ referring to the brain’s malleable and changeable plastic-like nature. Neuroplasticity is – much like our brains – a constantly growing and developing area of research, with fascinating insights about the possibility and power of our minds emerging all the time. 

Our changing brains

Neuroplasticity is essentially the idea that the brain changes due to learning and experience. It was first discovered as far back as 1882 by Italian physiologist Angelo Mosso, who was measuring changes in blood flow to the brain in his experiments. 

Several years later however, the dogma changed and scientific literature reverted back to the idea that the brain was ‘hard-wired’ like a machine, capable of many things, but not change or growth.

In 1948, Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski coined the term ‘neuroplasticity’ to describe observational changes in brain cells (known as ‘neurons’), but the term wasn’t widely used until the early 1970s, when researcher Michael Merzenich’s work finally showed that the brain retains its ability to change, learn and grow throughout our entire lives – Merzenich was dubbed the ‘father of neuroplasticity’ and is still working prolifically today. You can watch one of his Ted Talks here. 

The fact that our brains can change means there are now many more opportunities to help heal brain injuries and prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia. But this also includes possibilities to change the way we think, feel and live our everyday lives. If your self-talk is damaging, if your habits are holding you back, if there are skills you’re eager to develop, or if you simply feel like you’re stuck in a rut, there’s good news – you can change your mind!

If your self-talk is damaging, if your habits are holding you back, if there are skills you’re eager to develop, or if you simply feel like you’re stuck in a rut, there’s good news – you can change your mind!

The language of the brain

Before we continue, there are a few sciency words we’ll need to know in order to speak the language of the brain:

  • Neurons: nerve cells in the brain that transmit information and communicate via electrical and chemical signals. There are around 86 billion neurons in the human brain.
  • Synapses: the small gaps between neurons. They allow information to pass from one neuron to the next, promoting the transmission of messages through the brain.  
  • Neurogenesis: the production of new neurons. This begins at week 3 of human development at a rate of 250,000 per minute until birth. Until the recent breakthroughs in neuroplasticity research, it was believed that neurogenesis (the growth of new cells) wasn’t possible in adults. However, now we know that we can indeed grow new neurons throughout life. In 1999, researchers at the Stalk Institute in San Diego discovered neurogenesis occurring in the brain of a 72 year old. 
  • Pathways: neural pathways connect distant areas of the brain and nervous system to each other, and each pathway is linked to a specific behaviour. Every time we repeat a behaviour, we strengthen this pathway. Habits are an example of strong or ‘well-travelled’ neural pathways. 

Our plastic brains

When we’re born, our brains are typically at their most ‘plastic’ state, especially within the first 5 years of life, known as the ‘critical’ window of opportunity for learning and development. Even though we can keep learning and changing throughout our lives, many of our deepest beliefs and habits are formed in the brain before we’re 5 years old. Within these years, the brain can develop connections faster than at any other time in life, which can then impact life-long learning. 

How beliefs and habits are formed

Psychologists believe that by age 7, most of our internal beliefs are fully formed. Who we interact with, how enriched our environment is, and especially the words we hear all shape our brains and determine our personalities. Many of the beliefs and habits we have today are likely still those that were formed in our early years. These include our thoughts about family, our internal sense of safety, how much confidence we have in ourselves, and even our tolerance to stress.

High levels of stress or trauma in early childhood – known as ACES or ‘acute childhood experiences’ – can create strong neural pathways that set us up for more fearful, stressed and anxious brains even in adulthood. These experiences don’t have to be earth shattering either. They could be related to a parent who shouted at home, not receiving enough attention, or even watching a scary movie at a young age.

For many of us, a stressed-out nervous system could be related to ACES. The good news is, the advances in our understanding of neuroplasticity mean that we can take steps (more about this below) to re-wire our programming and reclaim a calmer, more trusting and safer sense of being. 

How neural pathways are created

As we age, our life experiences, the words we speak and thoughts we have are all constantly sending messages from one neuron to another via the synapses. The more we repeat a certain action, the more we send the same information through neurons and synapses. This eventually creates a neural pathway. Our habits and automatic behaviours are essentially neural pathways that the brain creates to make actions easier and more efficient. The brain uses about 20% of the body’s energy per day, so it creates these pathways in order not to waste energy over-thinking all the actions we do. Brushing your teeth or driving your regular route to work are all actions with a deeply ingrained neural pathway. We do them automatically and may hardly even consciously remember doing them after they happen. 

Changing neural pathways

The more we repeat and practice an action, the stronger and more well-trodden that particular neural pathway becomes in the brain, and thus the easier that action becomes. Things we learn in childhood are usually easy to continue into later life, but we can still learn new skills at any age as long as we repeat them enough. The downside to strong neural pathways, however, is that many of them are linked to behaviours that don’t serve us well. 

Pause for a moment to consider some of the things you repeat on a regular basis… 


One of the most common repetitive actions that shapes our brains is our self-talk. The words we use and the thoughts we have create strong pathways throughout the brain that ultimately shape our perception of the world and our experiences within it. Researcher, speaker and meditation teacher Joe Dispenza explains that our words impact our thoughts, our thoughts impact our personality and our personality ultimately becomes our ‘personal reality’. To put it simply, if you keep telling yourself you’re ‘not good enough’, your brain will believe it to be true. If you keep thinking negative thoughts about your future, your brain will be wired to expect that future to arrive. If you’re a long-time negative self-talker, it can be difficult to change your inner dialogue. But it’s possible to not only change how you speak to yourself, but how you think, too – it just takes practice! 

Forging new paths

We can understand a little more about the workings of the brain by imagining it as a forest. Think of your mind as a forest; the well-trodden sign-posted paths that wind their way through the woods are the habits you’ve been holding for years, some of them good, some of them not so good. The paths that are easy to walk are the ones everyone travels along – they take less effort to navigate and they’re sure to end up at the same destination time after time…

If you want to create a new habit, you need to create a new pathway in the forest. At first this can be difficult – you may encounter obstacles, you may feel as though you’re hardly progressing, and you may feel like giving up at times. After you’ve trodden along this pathway for a while however, the route becomes easier to remember, and the journey is much less effortful. The pathways you used to walk along become overgrown and eventually stop being used in a process ironically known as ‘neural pruning’.  

If you want to change your mind, you’ll need to stop walking down the same old pathways, and start forging a new path for yourself. As Einstein said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” Once you’ve uncovered a new path, there are also several ways you can make it much easier to remember the route.

7 ways to change your mind 

1. Engage your emotions

The more we emotionally invest in an action, the more we’re likely to remember it well. Research shows that the more positive our emotions are when we’re learning something, the more likely we are to retain the information. Our brains want to do things we enjoy, and especially things that elicit a release of dopamine – a hormone linked to motivation and reward. If you’re picking up a new habit, be enthusiastic about it and practice gratitude to increase your mood whilst you’re engaging in the habit.  

2. Change your language

The words we speak are incredibly powerful, and can directly shape our brains. Words like ‘can’t’, ‘try’, or negative statements about ourselves can all make or break our ability to learn new skills or change our minds. Speaking negatively to ourselves can also release a stream of stress hormones like cortisol, which prevent us from being able to learn effectively. Switch ‘try’ to ‘will’ or ‘can’; change ‘can’t’ to ‘can’t yet’, and instead of statements like “I’ll never be able to achieve this”, change your language to “I’m open to the possibility of achieving this”.    

3. Visualise

Visualisation and meditation are incredibly powerful, and are some of the most effective ways to create and strengthen neural pathways. Visualising movement for example, stimulates brain regions involved in movement, priming the brain so that we can move more efficiently. If you’re learning the piano, visualising your hands moving across the keys can make you better at playing the next time you sit down. If you’re a yoga teacher, you may already be in the practice of visualising your class sequence so it flows more easily as you teach. Joe Dispenza’s work involves visualising a positive future for yourself. As our thoughts are so intrinsically linked to our actions and experiences, it reasons that what we focus on will influence how our lives play out.  

4. Use ‘triggers’

Habits and learning experiences are even more effective when we use external cues like our environment, a time of day, or a social situation. Walking into the bathroom in the morning is a ‘cue’ to brush your teeth. In the very same way, you can use these cues to make new neural pathways in the brain related to starting a meditation practice, eating healthily or drinking more water. The key is to do the action consistently in the same place or at the same time to strengthen these neural pathways. 

5. Feed your brain

Our brains need a lot of fuel to simply go about everyday tasks, let alone learning new habits and creating new neural pathways. Some of the best brain foods include the omega 3s in fatty fish, the antioxidants in dark coloured fruits like blueberries or greens like broccoli, as well as pumpkin seeds, walnuts, turmeric, dark chocolate, eggs, and green tea. If you need a boost, the brain’s preferred source of fuel is glucose – a.k.a carbohydrates, so ensure you’re not excluding healthy carbs like root vegetables and fruit from your diet, as your brain needs them to function optimally.  

6. Optimise your sleep

Sleeping is where our memories and experiences consolidate. Without proper sleep, we can’t properly create or maintain neural pathways, and it can be harder to respond and focus. By improving your sleep, your brain will be able to create strong pathways and clear away inflammation that can be damaging for the brain. There’s also evidence to show that improving sleep can effectively help prevent Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline. Simple steps to improving sleep include finishing your evening meal at least 3 hours before bed, dimming lights in the evening after sun set, avoiding excessive screen use, engaging in a relaxing activity to help reduce cortisol levels, as well as ensuring your bedroom is dark, cool and quiet. 

7. Repeat

Remember – our neural pathways are strengthened the more we use them, and become ‘overgrown’ when we don’t. It really is a case of use it or lose it! Once you’ve chosen how you want to change your mind – whether by altering your beliefs and self-talk, learning a new skill or creating a habit – repeat it often. Studies show it can take between 18 to around 254 days to create an ingrained habit, so use the tips above and start changing your mind. 

Are there aspects of your mind you’d like to change? Have you experienced the benefits of neural plasticity, or learned new skills through the magic of neuroplasticity? Let me know in the comments below.

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Image courtesy of Marcos Gabarda on Unsplash.

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Emma NewlynEmma is a 500hr registered yoga teacher, writer and holistic therapist based in Sussex, UK. With a passion for yoga philosophy and Ayurveda, she loves bringing these ancient methods to the modern world in an accessible and easy-to-implement way through her writing and courses. Emma leads the Yoga, Ayurveda & Holistic Health course in person the UK and also online Modern Ayurveda & Holistic Health courses, giving students tools and techniques to enhance their health and wellbeing.