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Research shows flexibility of human brain

Change is often hard. But new research shows that the human brain is much more flexible than once thought. This week on WRVO's health and wellness show "Take Care," hosts Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen speak with David DiSalvo, the author of the book "Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain's Power to Adapt Can Change Your Life." DiSalvo says this discovery is one of the biggest coming out of neuroscience research in recent years.

Lorraine Rapp: Not that long ago, it was thought that the personality we were born with was largely influenced by genetics. But now science is showing that our brain’s ability to adapt and change is far greater than was once thought. What’s your thought?

David DiSalvo: The overriding implication is that our brains our incredibly adaptive marvels of nature. In the last 20 years of research coming out of neuroscience and cognitive psychology has shown that things like personality and ingrained habits and some things that we’ve taken to be – quote, unquote – genetically predestined actually are a lot more malleable than we previously thought. And we do have the ability to control, to certainly influence to a great degree, a lot of these things.

Linda Lowen: So this can happen throughout life. Because the belief was, once you reach a certain age, you were stuck. You were not going to learn a new language, pick up new habits….

DiSalvo: The understanding was, early in life our brains are sort of like a sponge. Information was constantly being absorbed and processed. And then moving into adolescence something called the pruning period would happen. If you think of pruning your rose bushes would occur, where the most necessary things would remain and a lot of the extraneous things would be pruned down. And then the thinking was after that, for the rest of life we had a static, very powerful organ – but a static organ. And what we now know is while certainly the sponge period and the pruning period definitely exist, our brains are not static after that, that there are significant areas of our brain that are “plastic.” What that really refers to is a flexibility, a malleability an adaptability in brain tissue. If you had to point to kind of the biggest discovery in neuroscience in the last couple decades, that’s been it.

Lowen: You identify a tool that we can use that will really lead to lasting change. What is that tool?

DiSalvo: There’s a couple tools that I talk about in the book. But, the tool that everything else is kind of hinged on is metacognition, which is the uniquely human ability of thinking about our thinking. That we have the ability to take a third person perspective on ourselves and think about our thinking in the process of thinking. By doing that, we gain greater control over this adaptability mechanism, which enhances our ability, for instance to change good habits, bad habits, whatever habit it is. We all know how difficult they are to change once they are established. What research has uncovered is that as people become more experienced and skilled in being able to enable change through metacognition, habits, while still not easy to change, are changeable.

Lowen: If somebody wants to apply metacognition to their life, just one simple, small entryway into thinking about thinking, what would you advise them.

DiSalvo: I think one thing that they can do – I call it the awareness wedge, some researched have called it a cognitive pause – the example I always give of this, is you’re in a car on a highway and somebody cuts you off in traffic. In that fraction of a moment, you have a chance to insert that wedge between your current thinking and that next action. I think of it as actually visualizing a wedge that comes down into your thought process and literally stops where you are and provides a pause to the next step. Metacognition is really just a term, which is the ability to stop and separate ourselves from that thinking pattern.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.