Prof. Mandy Wintink
Prof. Mandy Wintink

If you think it’s too late to change your brain, think again. Our brains change throughout our lives, thanks to a process called neuroplasticity, says University of Guelph-Humber psychology professor Mandy Wintink, author of Self Science: A guide to the mind and your brain’s potential (Iguana Books).

“It’s true that the brain becomes more resistant to change as we get older, but in the last 20 years of research we’re realizing just how much it changes,” says Wintink. “My own PhD research was about how new brain cells are born. If you set about changing, you can change. There’s hope for all of us.”

Understanding how your brain works can help you learn how to make it work better. And you don’t need to wait until you’re faced with a health crisis to start changing your brain. You can start right now.

“With neuroscience, a lot of people are focusing on disease, health and prevention, but there’s a lot of wonderful everyday things that the brain does,” she says. “I want to help people to use their brains a bit better.”

Neuroscience can help us understand how our brains affect our thoughts and behaviour, which in turn can help us make better decisions. One of the most important ways we can experience this benefit is when deciding whether to try something new.

“Most of us hate and fear failure, so we’ll sometimes avoid doing things because we don’t want to fail,” says Wintink. Not only is failure good for us, it encourages us to change our behaviour and learn from our mistakes, which increases our chances of future success.

If, for example, you gave someone a baseball and asked them to throw it at a target, chances are they would miss the first few times, but each time they would likely improve their aim a little more, making the small changes needed for success.

“Your brain will learn and adjust, so you end up with greater accuracy,” says Wintink. “In fact, studies have shown that people with more errors to begin with end up doing better at the end – they were learning from their mistakes and improving. Our brains are wired for trial and error, but first we need to try.”

Positive thinking is another common theme in self-help books, but it can also help us change our brains.

“We often hear ‘be positive,’ but it’s actually something we can train ourselves to do. If we’ve always looked at things from a negative perspective, our brain is trained to think that way. We can literally fail to see some of the positives,” she says. “If we can flip that and train our brain to do otherwise, we activate our neuroplasticity and change our brain.”