How Knowing About Neuroplasticity Helped my HDHD (Excerpt From Up Your Game)
I was born in the mid-eighties in Rome, Italy. I wasn't a terrible student, but I certainly wasn't the best either. Every parent-teacher meeting ended with the same sentence: "he's smart, but he doesn't apply himself." I was the kid at the back of the classroom, joking around with my friends and getting in trouble for distracting my classmates. I never seemed to take anything seriously, and I was genuinely convinced that my short attention span and my inability to complete any project were a part of who I was. I saw my friends getting ahead in all sorts of sports and extracurricular activities while I struggled with keeping my marks above an F and learning how to play bass guitar. I remember I had to quit taking music lessons after a couple of months because I wasn't getting any better, and I was falling asleep during practice. I was so sure that I had a mild learning disability that when all my friends signed up for University, I instead chose to move to Canada to try and find my path.
I first moved to Toronto, I was about 20 years old. My English wasn't great. I knew enough to get myself understood, but I was far from being ready to attend school or work in a customer-facing role.
After a few months, I was forced to push myself out of my comfort zone, and I started speaking more and more fluently. I was able to hold long conversations with friends and co-workers, and in a matter of a year, I was bar-tending and working on getting a degree.
For the first time in my life, I realized that my limitations were all internal. If I wanted to improve, I could do it on my own. All I needed was a framework, some practice, and the understanding that my brain was a living organism able to re-shape itself to overcome almost any obstacle.
A question kept on popping up in my head: "Does this mean that I can do whatever I want even though I was labelled as lazy and unmotivated for pretty much my entire life?"
I needed to push my limits now. If I could learn a new language in months, what could I take on next?
I decided to pick up music again. This time I was seven years older, and I had one goal in mind: applying the same process and mindset that helped me learn English to master new skills.
I needed to reverse engineer my learning experience and find out what allowed me to improve in such a short time. Enter Neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to renew and re-organize neural pathways to facilitate new brain function. It differs from neurogenesis in the way that your brain is not creating new neurons from scratch, but it's using its existing ones to create new connections. The good news is that our brains are continually generating new pathways, so the key is to promote a healthy environment that fosters proper brain function. As I started looking for a way to crack the code of neuroplasticity, I realized that our beliefs about our brains play a much more significant role than I had previously thought.
A Growth mindset
In other words, the first step was believing that my current state was not a fixed state. My cognitive abilities were not set in stone, and they could be profoundly enhanced with the right exercises and lifestyle changes. This belief system is called a Growth Mindset, and its antagonist is the Fixed Mindset. These two states of mind are self-perpetuating. If you believe you cannot improve your skills, you won't. If you think you can, and you understand what it takes to do so, you'll likely be able to do it.
In addition to a growth mindset, I also needed a lifestyle change that included more physical exercise. Moving my body helped me manage stress, but it also generated BDNF, a chemical that promotes proper brain function. After a few months that I had picked up running and weight lifting again, I noticed how focused and sharp my mind was.
I also committed to performing new and unusual tasks. That's because something as simple as brushing your teeth with your left hand if you are right-handed (or vice versa) can slowly connect two parts of the brain that were not connected before. The more we introduce new tasks in our daily routine, the more the brain creates new connections. If we repeat this process, those small paths we paved with our first repetitions will widen and improve our cognitive abilities.
Another way to promote neuroplasticity is by meditating. Just like exercise, meditation curbs stress by lowering cortisol, which is detrimental to brain function. Also, meditation is excellent training for focus and attention. Countless studies show a higher level of connectivity between the two brain hemispheres and increased gray matter in people that meditate regularly. I was sold! I started meditating right away and felt the benefits within days. Some of my friends began asking questions. They shied away from meditation because they saw it as a religious practice, but they missed the bigger picture. I told them not to call it meditation and instead, refer to it as "focus training." I remember telling them to close their eyes and focus on their breathing without trying to control it.
I finally came up with a blueprint to improve my cognitive abilities, and I couldn't wait to put all this knowledge to the test. Now that I knew that I could deliberately enhance my brain, I needed to incorporate these changes into my daily routine. It was such a small price to pay to get the life I wanted.
Deniero is an e-commerce and digital marketing entrepreneur, content creator and speaker. Follow him on Instagram @denierob and subscribe to his podcast Up Your Game.