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Self-Directed Neuroplasticity: Consciously Changing Your Brain Function

Self-directed neuroplasticity is a concept derived from the researcher Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz in his book, The Mind & The Brain (Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force). In the book, he makes a compelling argument that you aren’t at the mercy of genetically-predetermined brain activity. His research suggests that you play an active role in influencing brain function by deciding where to focus your attention.

Within the book he delves into the concept of “quantum mechanics” – a field of study with significant controversy and argues that the “mind” is not the same as the “brain.”  Regardless of the quantum principles outlined in the book, he was able to demonstrate that people are able to consciously change their brain functioning with proper attention and effort.  Dr. Schwartz even has brain scans proving the efficacy of self-directed neuroplasticity which show how OCD patients, stroke victims, musicians, and more have used this concept to change their brains for the better.

What is neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is a concept referring to the idea that the brain is capable of changing its function in response to your environment, thinking, emotions, behavior, as well as injury. It was once thought that the brain was “fixed” in the way that it functioned after childhood. Next it was thought that teenage years were the final stage of development. Although the brain is likely fully developed by the mid-20s, neuroplasticity refers to ongoing changes in neural pathways that occur for life.

What is self-directed neuroplasticity?

Since we know that the brain remains neuroplastic for life, self-directed neuroplasticity is a concept that allows us to consciously control how we want our brains to work. In other words, if you want your brain to become better in social situations, you’d “force” yourself to become more comfortable in these situations and your brain eventually adapt. Similarly, anytime you learn a new skill (e.g. how to juggle), your brain functioning changes and adapts to whatever you put in front of it.

How Self-Directed Neuroplasticity Works…

The theory is that the “mind” is responsible for controlling the brain. Schwartz makes a great argument for this occurring, but many people may be skeptical of such a “mind.” Schwartz argues that if we don’t have a mind, we are effectively automatons that shouldn’t be responsible for crimes, etc. – this is the attitude that we have no degree of self-control; we are at the mercy of our brains.

Most people would agree that it’s silly to think that we have no control over whether we commit a crime. Even if you don’t acknowledge that the “mind” controls the brain, think of higher order regions (e.g. prefrontal cortex) as responsible for controlling lower order ones; giving you self-control. The higher order areas allow you to refocus your attention and utilize willpower to alter your behavior, which in turn creates changes within your brain (i.e. neuroplasticity).

The concept of self-directed neuroplasticity involves:

  1. Attention: Any object can catch your attention at any given moment in time, that’s just the byproduct of exposing your brain to various stimuli. However, you have full control over the amount of attention to which you give a particular object, thought, or behavior. You could have a depressing thought and give it a lot of attention (further magnifying it), or you could choose to let it pass and refocus on something else. The goal is to pay attention to the stuff you want in order to make your brain “light up” and rewire the way you want.
  2. Volition (willpower): Simply paying attention is great, but attention alone won’t really change anything. You need to actually go down in the trenches and put in some work. If you are trying to change a particular behavior such as engaging in compulsive behavior, come up with a plan to refocus your attention, and partake in a different activity to change the way your brain is firing. With consistent practice, your brain will begin to fire up the circuits associated with the new activity rather than the unwanted one.
  3. Brain activation: The brain activation that occurs is in part a result of how you choose to focus your attention and guide your willpower. If you choose to feel happy and focus on gratitude, a different region of your brain will light up than that of feeling depressed. With practice (not overnight), the region of your brain associated with gratitude will overpower the region associated with feeling depressed because you use it more.
  4. Consistency (“You Don’t Use It, You Lose It”): Regions within your brain are constantly in competition for carrying out various functions. Whichever regions that you use more often, will effectively overpower the other regions and get more neural real-estate. The regions and neural pathways that you use less frequently will get less real-estate and may get minimized and/or eventually die down. Your daily habits make a big impact on your brain functioning because the neural pathways required to carry out those habits become strengthened in time, and those used less often get weaker.

How to Use Self-Directed Neuroplasticity

Hopefully you now realize that your behaviors, environment, social group, sleep cycle, supplements, drugs, etc. all have influence over how your brain is functioning. Being aware of the influences over your brain, allows you to consciously change the ones that may be causing more detriment than harm.  Below are some steps you may want to consider to help you harness the power of self-directed brain change.

  1. Awareness: Become aware of what you’d like to change. You may be aware of a variety of things that you’re unhappy with and/or things in your life that you dislike. Pick one thing at a time and become aware of the particular habit, mood, etc. that you’d like to change.
  2. Attention: Instead of letting your attention drift to something else, focus all of your attention on implementing a healthy thought pattern and behavior. This will require effort, but whatever you focus your attention on will become reality. If you choose to attend to feeling depressed, it magnifies the feeling. If you choose to focus on gratitude, it amplifies your happiness.
  3. Volition: Realize that at the beginning of attempting to change your brain, it’s going to be uncomfortable. Each person is set in their ways and the neuroplasticity is not meant to be comfortable, it’s meant to be effective. Think of it like throwing yourself into water without knowing how to swim – your brain either adapts and figures something out or your drown. While the “sink or swim” example may be extreme, you’ll likely face some degree of resistance near the beginning of your change. With willpower and keeping your focus on the gratitude instead of the depression (for example), your brain will adapt.
  4. Consistency: Understand that with consistency, your brain will be forced to adapt to the new neural patterns that you present. Try to engage the new neural pathways for at least 15 minutes each time the “bad” (unwanted) thoughts occur. This shifts focus away from the bad, and onto the good, leading to permanent brain changes over time. This will eventually overpower feelings of depression due to the fact that the brain will be lighting up with happiness. Consistent effort is key to making the change.
  5. Brain changes: With consistent focused effort (or mental force), you can change the way your brain works. Over time, the brain changes become more solidified – the more you maintain the healthy behavior, the easier it is to maintain. This is why monks who practice mindfulness or forms of meditation involving compassion tend to rarely experience depression – their brains become so “wired” to feel positive emotions after years of practice. Similarly someone who constantly thinks depressive thoughts is further enhancing the neural pathways for depression.

The importance of “doing the right thing” vs. misguided action

Let’s say I was utilizing the concept of self-directed neuroplasticity as a way to change my brain to learn a new skill. Let’s say the new skill I want to learn is tennis – how to play it well in order to change my brain from having minimal skill to being very skilled. Many people would get a racket from the store, and may casually hit around at the park.

While hitting around at the park may be a decent way to learn some of the basics, it may also be teaching you the wrong thing. Your brain may learn the “wrong” motor patterns of how to strike the tennis ball, body stance, footwork, etc. My point is that in order to get the result that you really want, it’s best to work with the best. If you are trying to overcome feeling depressed, find someone or multiple people that have successfully done it and implement their tips rather than trying to blindly guide yourself.

To overcome feeling crappy, you probably shouldn’t take advice from someone who hasn’t yet solved the problem – go to someone who already has. Although what worked for them may not work for you, at least you’re utilizing a method that actually worked rather than trying to “guess” what you should focus your attention and willpower upon.

A broader perspective on self-directed neuroplasticity

For more information as well as things you may want to experiment with, read the article “biohacking your mental health.” This discusses various lifestyle changes you can make that will have a profound impact on your brain functioning. Although you want to guide your brain to create new neural pathways and activation, it is recommended to do whatever it takes. Attention and volition go a long way, but various practices (e.g. meditation) and/or substances may solidify them.

  • Drugs: Some people may want to use certain drugs or supplements to help them change a particular behavior. In my article “How to use antidepressants properly” I discuss the fact that behavioral changes should be made while on the drug to change the way the brain works. Then when a person withdraws from the drug, the behavioral changes made on the drug should be maintained to encourage similar brain activity. Sometimes a person may want to use a substance to give them a preemptive boost to change.
  • Forced behaviors: The act of forcing yourself to follow through with new behaviors can be an arduous undertaking. The degree of difficulty can make many people quit due to uncomfortable feelings that arise. Although behavioral change is part of the battle, it is important to simultaneously target things from a cognitive perspective as well; hence why CBT is so effective.
  • Meditation: The act of meditating helps regain control of your attention. Without controlling your attention, self-directed neuroplasticity is useless. The greater the degree to which you develop your attention, the less you are an automaton or at the mercy of your preexisting neural patterns. Certain forms of meditation can be used to create specific changes in the way the brain works; long-term meditators have significantly different brain waves and activation than non-meditators.
  • Mindfulness: The practice of mindfulness helps you become more aware of your thinking as well as your behaviors. It allows you to be mindful of how your brain is currently working as well as with refocusing your attention should you want to change a particular destructive behavior. Some consider “mindfulness” as “Vipassana” meditation, but may simply consider it a way to consciously alter your perspective.
  • Visualization: The practice of visualization can create changes in the brain as well. In some studies, it was found that visualizing playing an instrument or engaging in a behavior produced the same brain change as actually doing the behavior. The thing with visualization is that it’s relatively difficult for some people to get specific enough and/or accurate enough to produce the same brain change. However the power of this practice shouldn’t be underestimated.

Is self-directed neuroplasticity easy to master?

It totally depends on the particular activity that you are attempting to learn, your personal motivation for making the change, as well as the degree of the change you plan to make. Take someone who is depressed with no motivation to change who wants to feel happy. Set them up with a program that would increase their happiness. If they’ve been depressed for years, it’s going to take time before they start feeling even a little bit better – this is because brain change doesn’t happen overnight.

  • Passion: I believe that passion or personal motivation to overcome a particular problem plays a key role in dictating the degree of difficulty it takes to change the brain. The more you really want to change, the more effort you are going to make in order to get over the hump. Passion is what separates the people who get results and change from the people who stagnate in the same neural “ruts.”
  • Degree of change: Someone making a significant change in their life may have a greater degree of difficulty than others. For example, if you haven’t worked out in years and you commit to working out daily for an hour, you may find that the change is so drastic, that your brain finds it “painful.” You may run out of energy, come up with excuses as to why you should quit, etc. This is because the brain was relying on old neural pathways, and they are so strong, that it’s going to take a significant amount of time to transition over to the “workout” ones. This applies for any habit or skill though, working out was just an example.

I personally think of self-directed neuroplasticity as a relatively difficult undertaking and one that requires significant skill. Most people are so “stuck in their ways” whether it be thought patterns, dietary habits, exercises, relationships, environments, jobs, etc. – that they simply don’t want to change. It’s easy to remain stagnant and comfortable, even if depression or unhappiness accompanies it.

Who can benefit from self-directed neuroplasticity?

Virtually anyone can benefit from understanding and implementing the concept of self-directed neuroplasticity in their lives. It is an empowering perspective that is clearly backed by science (brain scans prove that it works). The degree to which you experience improvement will be based on the degree to which you are able to: focus your attention and engage on new behaviors to make your brain adapt to the reality to which it is presented.

Along the way it may feel highly uncomfortable, but eventually you’ll figure out something that works. Regardless of whether it’s dealing with an anxiety disorder, depression, OCD, or a brain injury, you can deliberately train your brain to “light up” and function the way you want.

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{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Bianca August 23, 2015, 8:58 pm

    Thank you for your interesting article. I sincerely appreciated the detail and the concise manner you raised each point. A lot of what I read on this topic goes way over my head, but I feel the way you have written it was completely understood. Very much look forward to others. Thank you.

  • Peter Frederic March 25, 2016, 8:38 am

    Finally! These brilliant concepts are unfortunately lost on so many people (I’ve found an especially large amount at institutions like Harvard, Stanford, etc.). To some, the world will just stay flat until it becomes completely inescapable to believe otherwise any longer. Aristotle published “On the Heavens” in 349 B.C. and offered three extremely-sound, central arguments for the Earth being round but so many “great minds” required an additional 2,000 years to have it sink in. Finding research that is so fundamentally driven by CURRENT facts and open-minded studies is a true gift. Thank you.

  • Linda Fortner June 7, 2016, 9:34 am

    This article provided me with the proof I needed to believe that this works. I have been trying this but thought that there was no real truth to it and I was “stuck” due to genetics. Thanks so much for your article.

  • Andrea June 21, 2016, 6:15 pm

    Thanks for this useful article. I believe I directed my own brain, not knowing this…to a negative thought pattern. So with a lot of practice should be able to reverse it. It’s not going to be easy…

  • Susan Garey November 9, 2016, 12:34 pm

    Thank you for insightful article. I find it mandatory that I implement my brain’s neuroplasticity.

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