Cultivating the Right Mindset for a New Decade by Dr Tara Swart

Dr Tara Swart is hosting a workshop at this years London Wellbeing Festival on Saturday 23rd May 10.30 - 11.30, read more about her workshop and buy tickets here;


With effort and by keeping our brains in peak physical condition, we can forge fresh ways of thinking, strengthening our higher-level brain functions—such as complex decision making, problem-solving, planning, and self-reflection—and cultivating the right mindset for a new decade. 


People often ask me how long it takes to form a new habit. Of course, it makes a difference in how complex the habit is. For instance, it takes a lot longer to improve emotional intelligence or mindset than it does to master a new gym routine. But neuroplasticity promises that with dedicated effort, change will come. This principle of neuroplasticity—the power to create new pathways in the subconscious and conscious parts of our brain—is the key to any deep and lasting shift in our habits and mindset. 


It’s important not to overcomplicate it. Everyday examples of neuroplasticity are all around us. When a colleague and leadership expert that I teach with at MIT Sloan decided to find out more about the latest neuroscience research that was going on there, she shared the story of meeting one of the neuroscience professors who asked her what she had for lunch the previous Tuesday. As she focused on remembering, then told him the answer, he said, “That’s neuroplasticity! You just strengthened the connection for that particular memory simply by recalling it.” This may seem like a small thing, but it is a simple example of how we strengthen connections in the brain with every thought or memory. 


Try it yourself, right now. Call to mind a day: last Friday, for example, or a memorable day further off: a significant birthday. Think through it in sequence. What happened? Where were you? Who else was there? How did you feel? Is this a happy or a difficult memory? By recalling it, you have fired up another connection between the neurons in the memory area of the hippocampus deep inside the brain. The more you relive a memory and/or the more intense the emotions associated with that memory, the stronger the connection becomes. This is a result of repetition as well as the intensity of emotion, making it either a fond memory that easily floats to the front of the mind or a 

dreaded memory that you want to forget but keep reinforcing by mulling over it. Either way, remember the phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together.”  


The brain is dynamic, flexible and capable of rebuilding its pathways with dedicated effort. Whenever I hear somebody say, “It’s just the way I am” (I hear this a lot when I ask people what’s keeping them stuck or limiting their goals), I challenge this belief. It’s so important that you fully grasp what neuroplasticity means; in particular, what it will mean for you. It needs to make sense to you personally and for what you face in the decade to come. 


Think of your brain as a tangible structure like the hardware of a computer—the keyboard, monitor and drive. Your mind then is the intangible software that you run on this computer. But in this metaphor, you are not a computer that sits on your desk powerless to change. Instead, you are both the coder who upgrades the software to transform the data (your thoughts) and the engineer working behind the scenes to finetune the hardware itself (your neurons). You also control the power supply that fuels the computer, with energy determined by the choices you make about what to eat and drink, when and how to exercise and meditate, who to interact with and where and how to live. You are the architect, designer and housekeeper, with the power to create, maintain and prune neural connections. This process is neuroplasticity in action. 


Brain scans show that all sorts of activities can induce change in the brain, but three factors in particular have the most impact. Ask yourself how much of each of the following factors you currently have in your life, and how you might be able to introduce more of them: 

Novelty: new experiences such as travel, learning new skills and meeting new people. Novel experiences can even stimulate growth of new neurons. When was the last time you tried something totally new? 

Aerobic exercise: this has been found to increase oxygen-rich blood flow to the brain and allow us to release brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), the endorphin that allows the growth of new neurons. Do you regularly walk 10,000 steps per day and do 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week? 

Emotional stimulation: the more you experience something and the more intense the emotion associated with it, the more powerful is the effect on the brain. This is why even having shared a traumatic event can be very bonding. Emotions have a neuroendocrine effect. For example, sharing laughter with your loved ones has a beneficial effect through the release of the bonding hormone oxytocin which is associated with trust. Can you think of any examples of strong emotions, good or bad, that have locked in strong memories for you? 


Cultivating your mindset for learning and adaptability in 2020 and beyond is the best thing you can do for your brain and ensures that your brain will work smarter for you, going forward.  


Dr Tara Swart is hosting a workshop at this years London Wellbeing Festival on Saturday 23rd May 10.30 - 11.30, read more about her workshop and buy tickets here;