Neuroplasticity: the ability to restructure your brain at (with) will

UCLA neuroscientist Dr. Don Vaughn explains the concept of neuroplasticity which states that our brain changes in structure as we learn and acquire new habits. According to the TEDx speaker, through the action of willpower, one may intelligently rewire one’s brain and forge novel mannerisms.

Stanford graduate, Dr. Vaughn discusses real-time neurofeedback as one of the protocols being currently studied to assist patients in achieving proper cerebral rewiring. Through this process, while their brain is scanned, patients are shown images that specifically trigger their urge/want system (ex: pictures of cocaine to a cocaine addict) and are tasked to use their willpower to control and reduce the effects of said images. Dr. Vaughn states that such procedure could be useful as a clinical or rehabilitation treatment.

Grit as cerebral rewiring tool

Dr. Don Vaughn, whose research has been featured on ABC, ESPN and Time Magazine, asserts that grit and fortitude are tools one may use to naturally induce one’s neurological rewiring. However, as not all individuals possess the level of willpower needed to successfully reshape their cerebral patterns, researchers focus on determining which protocol – ex.: interventional therapy, neurofeedback – is best to support each individual. Dr. Vaughn also offers simple solutions for those who fear they do not have the necessary grit to still modify their negative habits or addictions.

“The difference between gold and silver, it’s not muscles. It’s your brain. It’s, in that moment, being able to tune out all the negative thoughts that we stack up in our brain and focus on what there is to do.”

– Dr. Don Vaughn, phD

The Harley-Davidson experiment

Dr. Don Vaughn lead a team of researchers from UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior in studying the potential stress relief provided by motorcycle riding. Funded by Harley-Davidson, the study showed that focusing on the road for a certain amount of time allowed riders to mentally replenish, i.e. to shift focus away from their everyday problems. Extrapolating the experiment to elite athletes – specifically, on X-Games champion Scotty James – Dr. Vaughn found that top performers had the ability to clear out all distractions while they are competing and generate total focus on what they had to perform. Accordingly, he strongly suggests people find their own mental replenishment routine, whether it is hiking, riding, tennis, or any other stress-relieving activity.

3 mental preparation tips to enhance your performance

#1 | Sensei says: “Don’t think about it”

In order to perform to the highest level, Dr. Vaughn suggests that you should eliminate exterior demands and develop a strong training routine so that, come performance day, you do not have to think about what’s to be done. Hence, keeping your conscient brain functions to the minimum required while performing, as you should compete on “auto-pilot”. Per example, an OCR competitor should not be thinking about doing the rope climb while on the rope, but just be crushing it… automatically.

#2 | Sensei says: “Lean on your community”

In times where you feel like quitting any endeavour, the support from your community might make the difference, Dr. Vaughn suggests. Especially with a tight community like in OCR, other racers’ behaviour towards you – a smile, a tap on the back, a word of encouragement – is positive information that you treat in real-time, which helps overcoming your current hardship.

#3 | Sensei says: “Control your early warning system”

With great passion, Dr. Vaughn explains how our brain stem has a primitive area which role is to alert us on possible dangers (ex.: lacking oxygen or energy to perform). These early warning messages sent by our brain need to be controlled, as – in reality – the body can survive/perform for much longer than we think. Successful athletes have mastered these early warnings: they have trained their mind and body to go beyond these premature signals. They have, in fact, progressively rewired themselves to push their bodies harder and further.

Neurohacking: rewiring your brain (TEDx)

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