Repetition is important for therapeutic success! Lasting change in the brain and nervous system results from consistent and persistent practice over time. It’s the basis for neuroplasticity.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to adapt and change. “Neuro” is for the nerve cells, or neurons, and “plastic” refers to the modifiable nature of our brain and nervous system. Neuroplasticity is the reason teachers teach and therapists treat. Because they see that with repeated exposure, practice, and attention, their students and clients learn and change; and so does their brain.
Brain Change Throughout the Lifespan
Despite the fact that scientists have only embraced the concept of neuroplasticity in the last fifty years, the brain has always changed throughout the lifespan. Obviously, an infant’s brain is vastly different from an adult’s. But we are not restricted to working with our existing wiring. Children with disorders and learning differences are not stuck with the mental and physical abilities they were born with. People with brain damage due to accidents or strokes can recover since the brain can reorganize and rewire around damaged areas. We can change our reflexive thinking. Even brain changes that occur due to aging don’t have to be a one-way downhill slide.
What stimulates neuroplasticity?
Neurons (nerve cells) connect or reconnect and change the brain’s structure and function when they are stimulated through repeated input. That input can be physical, sensory or mental, depending on what we are trying to learn.
Think about what is required to learn a new skill:
- To speak a new language, the inputs are the sounds, cadence, vocabulary, and grammar. These inputs must be practiced frequently and consistently over an extended time to be able to achieve fluency.
- To play a musical instrument, the inputs are the physical sensation of the keys or strings, the pressure required to produce the right sound, the correlation of the notes to the sound and rhythm, and the coordination of putting it all together. Again, it takes repeated practice (connecting and reconnecting neurons), persistence and refinement to learn to play.
Just as you exercise your body, you must exercise your brain to keep it healthy. Keeping your brain growing and learning requires real effort and real engagement. And repetition. Repeated practice can set you on an upward spiral, with the joy of the effort and the results spurring you to continue to try.
The stages of neuroplastic healing and change
Let’s get scientific.
iLs friend Norman Doidge wrote the book The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity to share what is known about how the brain works to heal brain disease and dysfunction. In it, he describes five stages of neuroplastic healing and change.
- Repair of the health of nerve cells: Strengthening the general health of nerve cells is especially important in treating autism, learning disorders and reducing the risk of dementia. This can be done by eliminating toxins and addressing food sensitivities.
- Neurostimulation of brain cells: This prepares the brain to build new circuits and overcome learned non-use in existing circuits. The stimulation can be in the form of sensory experiences, mental experiences, and physical exercises to revive dormant cells helping the brain to better regulate.
- Neuromodulation: Activates the parasympathetic nervous system (or in Dr. Stephen Porges’ terminology, the ventral vagal pathway). This is the system of health, growth, and restoration which is so important for homeostasis, or balance, within the nervous system.
- Neurorelaxation: Once in a relaxed state, the brain is most available for learning. This state also helps sleep to improve.
- Neurodifferentiation and learning: Once the brain is modulated and relaxed, attention is restored and the brain is better able to discern increasingly subtle differences in sensory experiences and to integrate them accurately.
While most people will go through each stage described, others may only require some of them depending on their situation and underlying issue.
Is neuroplasticity always good?
No! Negative thought patterns, destructive behaviors and addictions are all products of neuroplasticity. What we feed our brain affects the thoughts and behaviors we produce. We are what we repeatedly practice.
Just as we build upward spirals by consistently challenging our brain to meet goals, we can build downward spirals by consistently allowing our brains to remain stagnant or slip into addictive behaviors. It’s why stopping a bad habit – biting your nails, smoking, or self-doubt – can be so difficult.
Negative plasticity establishes unpleasant and unproductive behaviors and thought patterns. But, what we have learned can be unlearned. Bad habits can be replaced with healthy ones thanks to neuroplasticity.
How does iLs help?
iLs programs provide stimulation from multisensory inputs and movement in order to activate neural pathways used in processing of sensory information. Neuronal connections in these pathways are strengthened and new connections are established through repeated sessions. What specifically do we mean by repeated sessions? We suggest that the Focus System programs be done four times per week. As with most things, the more effort and energy you put in to it the more you get in return.