All of us are born with a nervous system that isn’t just capable of change but is designed to change.
That is the essence of the incredible breakthrough of neuroplasticity:
Your brain is not fixed.
Instead, it changes in response to your experiences, thoughts, and actions.
This allows you to think differently.
Learn new skills.
Forget painful experiences.
And adapt to practically anything life throws at you.
For a long time, it was assumed that only the young brain is plastic. (Something about an old dog and new tricks?)
But scientific research is now undeniable:
No matter how old you are, you can rewire your brain so new motor, cognitive and emotional skills are burned into the neural circuitry.
The most widely accepted conclusion of current research in neuroscience is that of neuroplasticity: Our brains grow, change and adapt at all times in our lives. “Virtually everyone who studies the brain is astounded at how plastic it is.” (Kurt Fischer, Harvard Medical School)
The most underrated feature of your nervous system
First, a quick note on how this works on a neurological level.
Research has shown that consistently repeating an action leads to clear physical changes in the brain.
Within our brains are billions upon billions of neurons, interconnected to form a complex set of neural pathways.
Your experiences, your memories, all the stuff that makes you ‘you’ is represented by the unique pattern of the quadrillion connections between your neurons. This pattern is summarized as your “connectome”.
Every time you perform an action (or think a thought), electrical currents travel down these pathways, from neuron to neuron, delivering the relevant messages.
The more you perform that particular action, the stronger the connection between the neurons, making the message travel faster.
That’s how an action (or a thought), with enough repetition, becomes automatic.
And the relevant brain areas physically change size — growing and shrinking as connections are strengthened or lost.
Okay, that was a very quick explanation.
But I don’t believe it’s necessary to get more technical to appreciate how incredible this is.
To me, having this mental image of billions of neurons, frantically sending messages around all day, working on strengthening and weakening connections — has been enough to rethink how I view myself.
I have a completely new appreciation and fascination for my own body and brain.
I now sincerely believe that I can change how I think, feel, react and work.
Not because of some empty, inspirational Instagram post.
But because of real, peer-reviewed scientific research.
So clearly, the concept of neuroplasticity is exciting and should be talked about much more.
Every self-development or productivity book should start with a chapter on neuroplasticity. You can’t talk about learning or habit formation without it.
But, as they say — there’s no such thing as a free lunch!
There are a few nuances to keep in mind if you want to leverage this incredible feature of your nervous system to your advantage.
1. Neuroplasticity in itself is not the goal
Neuroplasticity in itself is not brain change.
It’s a state of the brain and nervous system that allows for change.
It’s the nervous system’s capacity to change in response to experience.
The goal is to learn how to access this state — how to leverage this capacity— and intentionally direct it to achieve particular goals or changes.
It might sound like a detail, but it’s an important nuance to keep in mind. When you’re in a state of neuroplasticity, your brain is changing from every experience at that moment. So you want to make sure you are making the most of the learning experience — more on that later.
Now, onto the more practical part.
2. You need to pay deliberate attention
Our brains don’t change with every single experience — 24/7.
You need a cocktail of neurochemicals released into your brain to access a state of neuroplasticity.
The good news?
You can learn how to control the release of these neurochemicals subjectively.
You do this through deliberate attention.
If you want to learn as an adult, there needs to be a high level of engagement. You need to be curious. You need to be interested.
Alertness and focus are key.
The three main chemicals in the neuroplasticity chemical cocktail:
- Epinephrine: aids alertness
- Acetylcholine: aids focus
- Dopamine: aids motivation and reward
Their job is to highlight the neural circuits that need to change, increasing the likelihood of long-term change.
The best way to do this is by following this 4-step protocol, outlined in Episode 6 of Huberman Lab (How to Focus to Change Your Brain).
3. You Need Rest
Accessing the state of neuroplasticity happens during waking states.
But the actual rewiring and reconfiguration of our neural circuits happen during sleep and non-sleep-deep rest.
This is great news because it fundamentally means that there is no point in trying to engage your brain at maximum capacity at all times or sacrificing sleep to get stuff done.
Consider this your permission to relax.
We think we’re getting more done, but we’re only hurting the long-term learning process.
The discipline to stop is just as important as the motivation to start.
Solid research shows that 90 minutes is about the longest period you can expect to maintain intense focus and effort toward learning.
After 90 minutes, give your brain some rest.
Rest includes deep sleep, naps, relaxation, or any state where you’re not focused on learning (like a walk, but no podcast!).
Also, space intense learning bouts 2–3 hours apart. Most people can’t do more than 270 minutes of intense learning bouts per day.
4. Making Mistakes Is Good For You
To access optimal plasticity, you need to create mismatches or errors in how you perform things.
You need to signal to the brain that something is wrong; something is different; something isn’t being achieved.
Now, there’s a lot of hype around flow states.
That feeling of effortlessness, losing track of time, and being completely immersed in the task.
While being in flow can be hugely productive and enjoyable, it’s not an optimal mode for learning.
Flow is an expression of nervous system capabilities already embedded in you, of something you already know how to do.
Real learning is meant to be chaotic.
Mario Andretti, one of the most successful F1 race car drivers, famously said:
If you have everything under control, you’re not moving fast enough.
Making errors is critical for learning because it cues up the forebrain. It makes the nervous system pay attention to what’s not working and adjust accordingly.
So, 2 things to keep in mind:
Balance the difficulty level
When learning a new skill (whether a motor or a cognitive skill), it’s important to balance the difficulty level.
When the task is too easy, your nervous system is not learning from trial and error feedback.
When the task is too difficult, you’ll lose motivation and quit.
Research shows that the proper ratio for success vs. errors is 85%-15%.
So when you are learning or teaching, you should set the difficulty level so that there is a roughly 15% error rate.
Don’t worry too much about the specifics. I have no idea how to get a ‘15% error rate’ either.
The point is to keep in mind that errors are essential for learning, so don’t try to avoid them.
Appreciate the feelings of frustration
I hope you made it this far because this one was Liiiife Chaaaaaanging for me.
Most of us don’t like making errors. We get frustrated and annoyed. We feel like we’re wasting our time and are “just not cut out for this.”
But here’s the thing:
This feedback loop when making errors automatically triggers the release of epinephrine and acetylcholine.
(Remember the cocktail?)
Our brain is simply paying attention. The negative response is designed to focus us.
Not to make us feel uncomfortable or frustrated.
Those are cognitive interpretations. We’ve turned it into something negative. Something to avoid.
Instead, this is exactly when you need to make the most of the increased alertness and focus to persevere and “embrace the suck” of learning something new.
If you take the frustration and walk away, you are using the state of plasticity to rewire your brain according to the negative thoughts and feelings you’re having at that moment.
That’s what I did years ago after my first maths tutoring session: I interpreted my frustration as a reason to quit. Unknowingly, by doing this, I was reinforcing my belief that I am not good at maths and there is no point in trying.
According to Huberman, this impatience in dealing with frustration is why most people fail to achieve their goals:
Errors are the basis for neuroplasticity and learning…Humans do not like this feeling of frustration and making errors. The few that do do exceedingly well…The ones that don’t generally don’t learn much.
So, feel the frustration. Imagine the chemicals sloshing around in your system, setting you up for a great learning opportunity.
I wrote in more detail about the importance of mistakes for rapid learning, all coming from Huberman Lab Episode 7 (Using Failures, Movement & Balance to Learn Faster).
Everything changed for me once I started learning about neuroplasticity.
While it’s exciting, it’s not a magic potion.
It still takes a basic understanding and effort to get the most out of this physiological tool.
So, here are 4 things to keep in mind:
- Neuroplasticity is a state. Learn how to leverage this state to achieve your goals.
- The adult brain won’t change from every thought or action. To achieve a state of optimal neuroplasticity, you need to pay deliberate attention. Focus and alertness will release the necessary neurochemical cocktail.
- Real brain change happens during rest. Break up your workday into 90-minute learning bouts, and take regular breaks (real breaks!)
- Making mistakes is good for you. Lean into the feelings of frustration and recognize them for what they are: your brain working hard to adjust its circuitry.
💡 I’m working on a Master Guide with insights, tools and techniques learned from The Huberman Lab Podcast.
Similar to this popular post on 15 tools and techniques, but much more exhaustive.
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