Neuroplasticity: Can Thoughts “Rewire” the Brain?
Thoughts and other stimuli can “rewire” our brain by strengthening useful synaptic pathways and weakening less used ones, this is called neuroplasticity (AKA learning and memory). Some unused weakened pathways may be “pruned” away over time as a measure of efficiency. This is called synaptic pruning. Most re-wiring (or soft wiring) happens during sleep, but other aspects of memory are working all the time. It was previously thought our brains stopped growing, but now we know for sure, our brains (and thus who we are) changes every day as we experience new things (real or imagined). With these facts in mind we can confidently say “thoughts rewire our brains” and “thoughts shape our reality,” based on what we pay attention to, what we experience, and even what we think (as well as other factors).
This video from the Max Planck Society discusses synaptic plasticity.
FACT: In simple terms, what we think and experience as individuals changes who we are, how we affect others changes them, and thus be it in groups large or small, we all affect and shape each other on a neurological level. Another proof of political science as being of the utmost importance.
Is Neuroplasticity Science?
Even though the implications are sometimes used for self-help, neuroplasticity itself is neuroscience.
As we think or perceive the world around us, the connections in our brain change (especially during sleep when we process the day’s information). We can call this learning or memory, but the technical term is neuroplasticity not “rewiring.”
This allows us to discuss the ways in which the brain is soft-wired, how new neurons grow through neurogenesis, and how this relates to all areas of life. Even though it sounds “new age-y,” in laymen’s terms, we can say truthfully “thoughts can rewire our brains.” It may double as self-help (like this article “How to Rewire Your Brain For Success” by BigThink), but this is straight up neuroscience employed by both the biological and social sciences.
When we say “thoughts can rewire your brain,” we can be talking about the science, social science-based implications, and even sometimes referring to the metaphysical questions based on this, so context is important. On this page, we focus on the basic neuroscience as an introduction so you can understand the implications of neuroplasticity better.
A More Technical Description of the Neuroplasticity Basics
All perceived sensory information, and all conscious and unconscious thought (even in sleep), that is transferred to long term memory is encoded either as sensory information in neurons or as connections between neurons through synapses, creating neural networks. The synaptic connections (signals sent across the synaptic cleft with the help of glial cells) are constantly rewiring and changing the way we understand ourselves and our environment.
The sensory information in your neurons and the way that information is organized in neural networks is what makes us who we are (learning and memory). So, in the most real and neurological sense, “we are what we think.” Descriptions of this can get more complex, but the mechanics are as stated.
TIP: Neuroplasticity is sometimes referred to as synaptic plasticity or just plasticity. It was previously thought that only some synaptic plasticity was occurring in young people, we now know our whole brain reshapes throughout life, even growing new cells in some areas of the brain.
TIP: Saying “thoughts re-wire the brain” in regards to neuroplasticity is analogous to saying “everything is energy” in regards to mass-energy equivalence. For a 101 level introduction, this is fine, but it isn’t a scientific description.
How Synaptic Pruning Works With Neuroplasticity: Overview
As noted above, every time you have a thought (internal) or store a sensory memory from an external source, neurons are stimulated. When two neurons fire together they create or strengthen a bond when they fire apart a bond is weakened.
The weakening of synaptic connections is a key aspect of plasticity. Some unused pathways are “pruned away” altogether due to a process called synaptic pruning. Synaptic pruning is important because the brain eats up a lot of the bodies energy, and thus getting rid of older less-useful information is key.
This video discusses Neuroplasticity. The term we use to describe the plasticity of the brain beyond synapses.
Depending on the way we process stimuli and our internal thoughts, and, therefore, which neurons are stimulated at which times, the human brain rewires itself by:
- Creating new synaptic pathways between existing neurons.
- Strengthening useful pathways.
- Weakening less useful pathways.
- Deleting pathways that remain unused.
- And better organizing the connections between existing pathways.
FACT: Throughout all of this a healthy brain maintains all existing neurons, it just changes synaptic pathways between them. All in an effort to be more efficient while expended less energy.
TIP: The concepts on this page can be summed up in the sayings: “neuron’s that fire together wire together” and “neurons that fire apart wire apart.” Or rather, the information gathered from our senses is stored as memories in our 86 billion neurons. Each neuron makes up to 1,000 10,000 connections when it is stimulated at the same time as another neuron. The more two neurons are stimulated together, the stronger the connection.
Illustration of the biological aspects of thought.
What Do You Mean By Thought?
Thought, in the general sense that we are using it, is any conscious or subconscious processing of information originating internally or externally that can stimulate neurons.
Along with thought, all sensory input, watching someone’s behavior, feeling, picking up on someone else’s feelings, empathizing, and anything that you experience in any way can affect the way your brain stores information.
Science has shown that even thinking about something (like a sports player visualizing playing well) can strengthen certain pathways. It’s important to know that different neurons handle different types of experience (different type of stimuli), so visualizing something can help, but there doesn’t seem to be a replacement for actually doing something.
This video discusses synaptic plasticity.
Synaptic Plasticity and Synaptic Pruning in Detail
As the brain takes in information; new connections are made; useful existing connections are strengthened; less useful connections are weakened, and the least useful are eliminated. All of these “decisions” are made based on how often a pathway is used and are a matter of efficiency.
The ability of the synapses to weaken or strengthen based on their use is called “synaptic plasticity,” weakening pathways is called “long-term depression (LTD)” and the creating and strengthening of connections is called, “long-term potentiation (LTP).” We can refer to all this, and the behavior of the neurons themselves, as neuroplasticity.
In more technical terms, neurons in the brain make synaptic connections over the synaptic cleft when two neurons are active at the same time. If the neurons fire close together an existing connection is strengthened or created, and if they fire more than 20 ms apart a connection is weakened.
This video discusses how synapses work.
Weakened synapses are “trimmed away” by a process known as synaptic pruning. Not all weakened pathways get pruned, about 10% remain and are “switched onto standby” (your ability to “ride a bike” for instance might go on standby until needed again. We think of this as “muscle memory”).
This video discusses synaptic pruning.
How Does Synaptic Plasticity Relate to Thoughts Rewiring the Brain?
The more you use a synaptic pathway, the stronger it becomes (this results in learning and memory). Therefore, thoughts and especially repetitive thought change the wiring of your brain throughout your life in the short and long term due to the “plasticity” of your brain.
Neuroplasticity: How Does the Brain Grow?
When we are very young our brains intake all the sensory information they can and try to form that into a useful understanding of the world around us.
At first, our synaptic connections are rather chaotic, energetically costly, and not super useful. However, the average brain is built to make order out of chaos.
Throughout the development process, our brains grow 5 fold making new useful connections.
New connections are made by connecting our neurons through synapses and transferring information over the synaptic cleft (space in between neurons).
The old connections not needed anymore (like the association of a cartoon’s voice with a bowl of cereal or thinking that because you can’t see mom she can’t see you) are “trimmed away” by synaptic pruning and new more useful connections are strengthened as we learn and grow.
Our brains don’t stop growing until our mid-20s or even early 30s, but even after our brains stop growing we can continue put learn by putting our 86 billion neurons (each with about a 1,000 – 10,000 different connections) and the “neuroplasticity” our brain to use.
FACT: Neuroplasticity refers to the synaptic and non-synaptic plasticity of our brains throughout our lives. Scientists are sure of how our synapses can strengthen and weaken, but they think (and can show) other areas of the brain have the same ability too.
Thoughts Rewiring the Brain Isn’t Magic, it’s a Matter of Efficiency
The goal of the brain’s ability to connect useful pathways and trim away shorter ones is a matter of efficiency.
Firing off neurons is energetically expensive. The more efficient the pathways, the shorter the distance between connections, the less work the brain has to do, the fewer calories you need to eat to survive. Likewise, the faster your brain can produce a useful thought, the more likely you are to avoid a falling boulder, the faster you can learn to use fire for heat and stop touching it, the faster you can remember which berry makes you sick, and the quicker you can react to the large beast trying to get you before you get it.
How Much Impact Does a Single Thought Have?
Every single thought, or blip of information you receive, can affect your brain. While a single thought can affect the brain, repetitive thought can have an even bigger impact. (Remember all sensory input results in “thought,” thus your thinking, touching, smelling, learning, tasting, feeling, hearing, and how you respond to that input can all “rewire” your brain).
When we hear or see information repeated, repeat an action, or gather any type of sensual information (5 sense and beyond) the brain reacts by restructuring itself based on the synaptic pathways the new information uses.
When you have a thought often enough it can reshape your brain (connecting new pathways or shortening the connections between existing pathways) to make that information easier to access. When you don’t use a pathway it gets pruned away. The more useful information is, and/or the more it is repeated, the more impact it has on the wiring of your brain. Likewise, the less used another pathway becomes the more likely it is it will get pruned away.
When Does the Brain Rewire?
We take in information during the day; our brains do the bulk of rewiring at night while we sleep. This means that we have some real active control over what goes in, but we don’t have full control over how everything is going to be put together.
Opinion: Does this imply that one should be careful what they put in their head before bed? Well, that is very likely. You are probably best off when you “put stuff in your head right before bed.”
Can I ReWire My Brain on Purpose?
Yes. By reading this page, you are actually wiring yourself to understand your brain better. The fact that this was intentional on my part as the author means I am trying to stimulate your intellect which helps you to rewire your brain.
” You are a unique being and have the power to change your mind and the minds of others around you with little more than thought.”
How Many Neurons and Synapses Does a Human Brain Have?
- The average human brain has about 86 billion neurons (or nerve cells) and about as many neuroglia (or glial cells) which serve to support and protect the neurons.
- Each neuron may be connected to up to 10,000 other neurons.
- Neurons pass signals to each other via about 100–1000 trillion synaptic connections.
Fun Brain Facts
- The brain accounts for 2% of body weight but 20% of energy consumption.
- The human head is so big that humans need to be born with a collapsible skull to “fit” during the birthing process.
- The brain grows 5 fold after a child is born. As it grows it creates new connections and trims away old ones at a rapid rate. If it were not for “rewiring,” “pruning,” and human brains would be stuck in a child-like state of confusion their whole lives. As you can imagine the formative years of a child are paramount in regards to how they will develop.
- Despite commonly held beliefs to the contrary, a normal human uses 100% of their brain on a daily basis. Most of the portions one would think of as “unused” are storing subconscious information and neural and synaptic pathways.