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Learning new skills, especially skills that are intended for one’s mental and physical growth, is a fundamental element of fostering and maintaining brain health. Research suggests that the consistent acquisition of novel information can bring positive outcomes for the brain and mind via the process of neuroplasticity (Moritz, 2018). Broadly defined, neuroplasticity refers to the capacity of the nervous system to modify itself, functionally and structurally, in response to experience or injury (Bernhardi, Bernhardi & Eugenin, 2017). When this process is broken down into subcomponents, we observe that it possesses many factors that are inherent to psychological well-being as well as cultivating feelings of competence and purpose (Sarrasin et al., 2018). To learn new information with the aim of improving oneself involves departing from familiar stimuli that have been habituated within the brain and being exposed to a novel learning environment. It demands fostering a sense of curiosity to face challenges, otherwise known as adversity, to prompt growth in cognitive domains, subsequently driving the development of new neuronal connections (Gokeler et al., 2019). These functions have been evidenced to promote deeper information processing (e.g., Gruber, Gelman & Ranganath, 2014) and reward in the form of increased dopamine and acetylcholine secretion (Owens & Tanner, 2017).
The following is an outline of the various benefits that stem from self-improvement and novel skill acquisition. To begin, we will expand on neuroplasticity and discuss its role in novel skill acquisition. There is consistent evidence throughout literature that points to the benefits of keeping the brain “plastic” as opposed to hard-wired by previously learned experience. Following this, we will highlight the effect of mindset and belief concerning self-improvement and demonstrate the various ways that it benefits the brain and body. Lastly, we will provide a set of evidence-based practices including effective manifestation, journalling and stress management that have been shown to improve many facets of psychological and neurological health.
An individual’s life is marked by various experiences or conditioned responses that have been hard-wired into their neural circuits. As a result, their behaviour and thought processes largely revolve around these conditioned responses where it becomes increasingly difficult to integrate new information as time progresses (Mineka & Oelberg, 2008). Learning new skills, especially in the domain of self-improvement has been shown to provide the grounds for breaking hard-wired conditioned responses to promote neuroplasticity in the brain (Dayan & Cohen, 2011).
Upon the exposure to novel information with the subsequent intent to learn it, the neurons within the brain fire to an increasing degree and the neuronal axons grow and form connections with others to consolidate the newly learned information (Bernhardi, Bernhardi & Eugenin, 2017). Increased neuroplasticity is positively associated with a myriad of different benefits including, protection from neurodegenerative disorders (e.g., Alzheimer’s and dementia), improved brain function and even happiness (Shaffer, 2016).
Furthermore, neuroplasticity serves as a protective mechanism against many psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety and trauma. Many of these disorders stem from the loss of brain circuitry in the form of white and grey matter but can be positively reversed through the consistent plastic restructuring in the brain. Hence, when you are in the process of learning new skills for your improvement, your brain’s neural circuits are expanding and strengthening, creating new neurological pathways for your brain to function healthily.
Self-improvement and learning new skills are strongly associated with concepts of a positive mindset and self-belief. Recent studies have begun to suggest that when these processes are adopted during the process of self-improvement and learning, significant effects on the brain and physiology can be observed. Referred to as belief effects, researchers Crum and colleagues (2017) demonstrated that cognitive, physiological, and affective stress responses are largely dependent on the mindset and belief that one has in a given situation. More specifically, the study found that participants who perceived their challenges as positive and beneficial to their personal growth enhanced their psychological resilience, improved attentional bias towards positive stimuli and increased cognitive flexibility compared to those who did not (Crum et al., 2017). Moreover, during a stressful experience, mindset and belief can directly mitigate the release of the stress hormone cortisol by the secretion of its anabolic counterpart dehydroepiandrosterone-sulfate (DHEAS) (Frye & Lacey, 1999).
Hence, by adopting a beneficial mindset to self-improvement and novel skill acquisition, an individual can view the challenges stemming from these processes as a potential vector of personal enhancement and an opportunity broaden their psychological and cognitive repertoire. Ultimately, the self-perceived narrative that an individual possesses during challenging experiences such as self-improvement is key to generating beneficial physiological, psychological, and cognitive outcomes (Smith, Young & Crum, 2020).
Practices that Promote Neuroplasticity and Belief Effects
Over the years, many theories and practices have emerged in the field of self-improvement. Despite this, the field is saturated with different methods that have received varied rates of success and validity rendering it difficult to adequately sift through the various methods that may be relevant to a given individual. In light of this, it is crucial to use practices that have been evidence-backed in research. As we have explained above, neuroplasticity and belief effects are processes that profoundly impact the brain and body when properly cultivated. Practices such as visualization, otherwise known as manifestation (e.g., Ranganathan et al., 2004), journaling (e.g., Dimitroff et al., 2017), stress management (e.g., Greenberg, 2017) and confidence cultivation are inherently linked to the above-mentioned processes. They involve immersion into a novel learning environment, consolidating learned information and cultivating a positive mindset in response to a given situation. Moreover, when taking this into account, it is apparent that neuroplasticity and belief effects can be applied to almost any environment if an individual is proactively behaving to improve their psychological and physical wellbeing. Skills such as relationship building, learning to promote happiness and self-discovery can all be used to enhance neuroplasticity and belief effects if used effectively.
The Bottom Line
Being exposed to new information and possessing a positive mindset during the acquisition of new skills are two processes that have been shown to improve neurological, psychological and physiological outcomes (Shaffer, 2016; Crum et al., 2017). Firstly, when these processes are harnessed to the fullest degree, the brain will undergo a phase of neuroplasticity where new neuronal connections will form. This will subsequently enhance mental capacities such as memory consolidation, brain function and neural longevity. Second, ascribing a positive belief and mindset to the learning of new skills can restructure how your mind and body respond to challenges by attributing the focus on the positive factors as opposed to the negative. By doing this, certain facets including psychological resilience, positive attention bias and stress management are optimized (Crum et al., 2017; Smith, Young & Crum, 2020). Thirdly, throughout the field of self-improvement, we can observe various practices including belief and mindset-based manifestation, journaling, and stress management techniques. Adopting these practices in one’s personal life can significantly contribute to promoting beneficial neuroplasticity and belief effects which have a broad impact on brain health and psychological wellbeing. The important element within these practices is to ascribe a positive mindset and intention to them to grow to your full potential.
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Crum, A. J., Akinola, M., Martin, A., & Fath, S. (2017). The role of stress mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to challenging and threatening stress. Anxiety, stress, & coping, 30(4), 379-395.
Dayan, E., & Cohen, L. G. (2011). Neuroplasticity subserving motor skill learning. Neuron, 72(3), 443-454.
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Sarrasin, J. B., Nenciovici, L., Foisy, L. M. B., Allaire-Duquette, G., Riopel, M., & Masson, S. (2018). Effects of teaching the concept of neuroplasticity to induce a growth mindset on motivation, achievement, and brain activity: A meta-analysis. Trends in neuroscience and education, 12, 22-31.
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