Changing Our Brains Through Neuroplasticity
Did you know that your brain is incredibly malleable, moldable, and receptive to change? That we can physically alter the actual structure of our brain based on how we use it? This flexibility is a result of a concept called “neuroplasticity.”
“Neuroplasticity” is just a fancy way to say that our brain is constantly taking in new information and creating new learning pathways based on that information. Our brain reinforces specific information and behaviors with repeated exposure. This is done through neural pathways: pathways in the brain that connect important information. These pathways strengthen or weaken with use or disuse; the “use it or lose it” concept.
Think of neuroplasticity as a footpath in the woods. The first time you travel down a new path, it may be difficult to see and a little rough around the edges. The next time you travel down that path, you wear it down a little more, making it more clear and easy to use. The tenth time you travel down that path, it is solid and you navigate it with ease. Alternatively, if you don’t use that path for a year, it will become overgrown and difficult to navigate once again. This is what happens in our brain when we repeat (or do not repeat) behaviors, information, and experiences.
Now consider this concept in the scope of alcohol use. The first time we take a drink of alcohol, our brain releases a surge of dopamine and makes us feel good. Our brain notices this enjoyable experience. The next time we drink alcohol and receive a dopamine surge, our brain takes note again. Over time, we begin to strengthen the neural pathway that tells our brain that alcohol makes us feel good. This is often how people find themselves going from the occasional drink to drinking regularly in order to feel good. Clearly neuroplasticity can have negative consequences; this associative learning and addiction are closely intertwined.