The Wonderfully Plastic Brain: Integrating Disciplines of Psychology for the Greater Good

Brain-training – ‘optimising your mental functioning…’ Is this a reality or just a new self-development craze, amongst the new wave of neuroscience obsessed research and practice? Coming in various forms from online exercises, games on popular consoles and even practitioner based techniques; it has the aim of increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of our mental or cognitive functioning. But behind all the excitement, is there any basis for the notion that we can actively improve our performance in this fashion? The answer seems to bring together integral elements of cognitive neuroscience and organisational/occupational psychology. The ultimate aim of organisations to increase their employee’s performance in order to allow them to flourish in their work place can be achieved according to innovative research from cognitive neuroscience. In fact, entirely new research fields such as NeuroLeadership and Interpersonal Neurobiology have emerged, staking their existence on this very notion.

A common theme in both of these fields is the plasticity of neurons and their connections or synapses. Synapses are the medium for information flow within our brain, allowing information processing and mental functioning. So the fact that they are plastic, or able to change and not set in stone from the day we are born, means that this malleable connectivity can work in our favour to reach optimal mental health and performance. Interpersonal Neurobiology, pioneered by Dr Dan Siegel assumes that healthy mental functioning is dependent on widespread connections and extensive integration of the mind, which is represented in the brain. The flow of information and energy through this system leads to good mental health. Dr Siegel has used these concepts to create the rather marketable model of the ‘Healthy Mind Platter’. This consists of 7 ‘essential’ mental activities which must be engaged in each day to allow for optimal mental health. Ranging from ‘sleep time’ to ‘play time’ to ‘focus time’, this platter represents a daily diet for a healthy mind. This emphasises the fact that mental health is as much in our own control as is the number the weighing scales report back to us.

I’d like to introduce the term ‘Self directed neuroplasticity’ at this point. If picked apart, it should become clear what this term refers to. It involves consciously and actively focusing attention towards gaining long term, concrete connections in the brain. But why is this an important concept? Within NeuroLeadership, it is the outcome of attention density i.e. the amount of concentration given to a mental experience, activity or idea. And it’s important because it shapes our strategies for problem solving. For example, if we focus on what has gone wrong, it’s the problems which will be accessed most easily. However, if we focus on solutions and more broadly, behaviours we want to promote rather than get rid of, the brain will begin forming new connections, in order to shape our identity i.e. how we perceive the world around us and our role in it. Our fascinatingly adaptive brain goes one step further by pruning or trimming away the neural circuits which are not used. This essentially emphasises the importance of positive feedback and solution focused thinking. Of course, for these new connections to form, time is needed, hence the importance of continually focusing on the ideas and behaviours we want to make permanent.

The concept of plasticity is at the heart of this blog, as it highlights our ability to adapt and change our own mental functioning for the positive. Research I conducted with colleagues at The University of Oxford is particularly relevant here. It found that training adolescents to have a positive cognitive bias i.e. tendency towards thinking positively, acted as a buffer against stress. However, those who were trained to have a negative cognitive bias were much more vulnerable to stress. Firstly, the fact that we could train either a positive or negative bias, confirmed the plastic nature of our cognitions. But more importantly, this plasticity and the direction of it, determined how well we cope with stress (Lau, Belli & Chopra, 2012). I want to think of these new fields of research as paving the way for a new practice. Perhaps one day in the future, we will each be able to perfect the desirable mental abilities that we wish to improve, just as athletes hone a skill, develop a technique and build physical athleticism.

Blog by Rajesh Chopra, Follow me on Twitter: @Raj_Glowatwork.

Interpersonal Neurobiology –

NeuroLeadership –

Lau, Y.F, Belli, S.R, & Chopra, R.B. (2012). Cognitive bias modification training in adolescents reduces anxiety to a psychological challenge. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, doi: 10.1177/1359104512455183: