Self-Directed Neuroplasticity: Tilting the Mental Spiral Upward

[This activity/article is adapted from the cognitive well-being chapter of Flourishing Classrooms. For all 144 activities from this book, covering every domain of well-being, click here.]

“The truly important manifestation of will, the one from which our decisions and behaviors flow, is the choice we make about the quality and direction of attentional focus. Mindful or unmindful, wise or unwise—no choice we make is more basic, or important, than this one." ~ Jeffrey M. Schwartz

Our mental travels are often circular, so a small tilt up or down can make all the difference. After getting 32 percent on his first physics quiz, Luka has a cognitive train wreck: not only will he fail the course—and all of school—but he himself is a failure, with no chance for success. His teacher Ms. Moussa has been assigned physics for the first time and is feeling like a bit of an imposter, at first. She keeps focusing on adapting positively and has reached out to another physics teacher in the district for support. Her habit is to see struggle as emblematic of courage and resilience, which is why she was given this new opportunity in the first place.

Both Luka and Ms. Moussa have woven a mental pattern by habit— one harmful, one helpful—which literally changes their brain. This incredible capacity for self-directed neuroplasticity arises from several key qualities. 

Will: our human capacity to choose and maintain attentional focus

Plasticity: the brain’s changeability throughout life, not just in youth

Association: the tendency for neurons that fire together to wire together

Patterning: the streamlining and strengthening of mental patterns through repetition

Decay: the diminishing of inactive neural connections 

These qualities combine to rewire the brain for wellness over time through repeated, non-invasive, brain “operations.” These operations can flexibly groove positivity or mitigate a host of cognitive challenges like stress, anxiety, depression, bias, addiction, or even the brain’s own inherent negativity bias. Months after practicing self-directed neuroplasticity significant increases in positive emotions persist, while negative emotions decrease.

On the positive side of self-directed neuroplasticity, “savoring” involves noticing, intensifying, and integrating good experiences. These experiences could be happy memories, the anticipation of future goodness, or a healthy focus on what’s good right now. On the side of negative experiences, self-directed neuroplasticity can downregulate negativity, pivot thinking upward, or engage in the crucial—and cognitively purifying—practice of complete acceptance. Rewiring negativity can boost well-being even more than savoring, especially where a negativity bias is strong. The activity below suggests a positive practice with which to begin and then several options to work with negativity using the same core operations of self-directed neuroplasticity:

Self-directed neuroplasticity benefits also extend to other wellness domains beyond the cognitive, boosting physical health, emotional regulation, and eudaimonic self-determination. Sharing what’s good with others, and asking about their goodness, capitalizes socially on cognitive practice. In a world of immediate gratification, students and teachers can learn to appreciate the long-term empowerment that comes from self- directed neuroplasticity. Habitual cultivation of healthy thinking becomes a lasting trait that tilts the spiral of mental activity upward.

Summary:  Rewire for wellness with repeated neural “operations.” 

Time: 10 minutes (initial), 10–30 seconds (ongoing)

Trust Required: Low-medium

Keywords: caring, cognitive, choice, emotional, empower, foundational, gratitude, hedonia, integration, lifeplay, mindfulness, prep-free, resilience, short-’n’-safe, support

Table 6.1