Every few years, the word “neuroplasticity” pops up in advertisements for brain-training mobile applications, the Alzheimer’s discussion, and a few other places. I mean, from a marketing perspective, it is kind of a gold mine. Neuroplasticity? That just sounds cool.
You have likely already heard about neuroplasticity, but if you have not, no worries. Heck it is ok if you do not remember this big word, just be mindful of the importance of it. Allow me to give you a plain-speak rundown of what this phenomenon is and how we can take advantage of it in our law enforcement careers.
Think about the word – plastic. Something that is plastic is malleable, flexible. Your brain is far more flexible and adaptable than you think.
Sure, we form habits and clutter our minds with distractions that can impede the learning process. It really is harder to learn a language when you get older. It truly is tougher to teach an old dog new tricks. We police can sometimes be hesitant about change.
The good news, however, is that you are never too old to take advantage of neuroplasticity. In the words of Dr. Joe Dispenza, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Your brain is all about identifying and fortifying neural pathways. In laymen’s terms, neurons are nerves cells. If that is still confusing, do not give up on this article yet, just keep going…
Let us dive into that concept a little more about what Dr. Dispenza stated. Learning is a complex machine that I do not purport to understand fully. However, I do know that neuroplasticity is a central component to it. When you put in the time and effort it takes to listen to a mentor, read, watch a video, or however else you learn, your brain takes notice.
Bob seeks out information regarding how he can qualify for the SWAT team. The brain says, “Oh, okay. Bob must really want to know how to get on the SWAT team.” Watching someone else do it is just step one. This gives your brain an incomplete blueprint, a starting point. Actually, attempting the task is where neuroplasticity really shines.
So, Bob goes to the SWAT training sessions to observe, practices at the range, exercises, and studies SWAT tactics. When he finally makes the team, his first room entry during training is not bad at all, but it could improve. Actually, that is just what he does, through repetition. Each time, his room entry continues to improve.
Well, each time Bob practiced, his brain was sending feelers out into that swirling and mysterious cloud of 100 billion neurons, trying to find the “path” that would enable Bob to become an effective SWAT operator.
Each time Bob made a mistake, his brain scratched off that part of the path, just like when you take the wrong turn in a maze, and you have to backtrack. Eventually, you find your way through.
Most of us without a background in neurology have an over-simplified understanding of how the brain learns new information and applies it. We picture the brain as this big, empty jar, and everything we have learned is just like a cookie in that jar.
As Dr. Dispenza explains, neuroplasticity, change, and learning are much more complicated. Each task we learn is represented by a pathway – a string of connected neurons that have been plucked from that cloud and given a specific function.
How is this relevant to our lives as law enforcement professionals? There is a whole set of significant implications that this immaculate ability of the brain introduces. Let us start with memory recall first.
Why Police Should Care About Neuroplasticity
How great is it to commiserate with old friends about the crazy stuff you did before you joined the police force (not after, of course)? When you think about the logic behind this, it is kind of crazy, actually.
What I mean is, when you remember something from your past in this way, you produce an emotional response with absolutely zero stimuli occurring around you. The neurologists, Dr. Dispenza, included, have some fascinating things to say about this.
When you are involved in any event, good or bad, all of your senses send data to your brain, which forms a unique pattern of neurons specific to that event. It sounds weird at first, but when else are you going to see, smell, hear, touch and/or taste the exact same thing twice?
So, think of your brain in this instance as a disposable camera. The event occurs, your senses quickly process the information, and an imprint is left on your mind in the form of a highly specific clumping of neurons. That is like your picture.
When we consciously recall the memory of this event, it is like taking out the picture in our minds. Suddenly, the nerves that “aligned” in such a specific way that day scramble into the same formation, and that is when a peculiar thing happens: you actually feel it happen again.
Most of us have heard that emotion is strongly connected to our sense of smell, and that is absolutely true. This phenomenon is also observed when we recall memories.
Your mind probably is not that blown by the conclusion of this winding explanation, right? Remember something positive from your past, and you will feel happier for a few moments. Remember something negative, and you will feel sadder. Got it?
If this correlation between memory and emotion were completely unchangeable, then Police Officers would have one more obstacle to deal with when trying to overcome traumatic events from the past.
The reason it matters so much to us, however, is that it thankfully can be tampered with. We can rewire this connection to help reconcile with ourselves after being involved in traumatic and stressful events.
Now, I do not mean to belittle any traumatic experiences that you have been through. I fully acknowledge that some of the things you may have seen or been a part of are far worse than a bout of food poisoning.
Still, the concept holds. For example, if the last time you discharged your firearm, you harmed or killed someone in the line of duty, that holster is going to feel very heavy on your hip if you do not do something about it. You do not need the added anxiety or stress.
You want to press on and keep doing what you are passionate about. You want to overcome this trauma, but every time you strap on your weapon, you relive that terrible call in your mind.
Here is what you do. Little by little, you must repair the relationship between you and your weapon by using it in controlled, low-stress scenarios. Have some friends and/or colleagues go to the range with you. After you are done “plinking,” go out to get some grub with them. Have fun.
Do this enough times, and you will effectively weaken the association between your firearm and the traumatic memory.
So, to recap, your brain flash-freezes a particular arrangement of neurons that correspond to everything they sensed during the traumatic (or any other) event. Since your firearm played a vital role in the event, every time you see it, you recreate this awful experience in your head.
In order to overcome this trauma that has formed an association with your firearm, you must create a new arrangement of neurons. In essence, you have to associate a more pleasant memory with the firearm to replace the old one.
The stronger the trauma, of course, the more conditioning it will take to overcome it. But do you see just how powerful this can be for law enforcement professionals struggling with depression and PTSD?
If you can identify the negative associations you have made with everyday objects/people/smells or whatever else, you have step one in the bag. Even if it is not related to trauma, every negative thought is a point against your mental wellbeing.
Step two is a bit more nuanced. Reflect on why you do not like these things. Was it something that happened, or just an impression you formed after hearing others talk?
After you have identified what triggers the negative thought and what created it in the first place, you can begin repairing your perception by forming healthier associations with these things.
It is wise to target the big stuff first, like our example of the problem with the firearm, but do not make the mistake of discounting the impact of the little stuff. It all adds up, as they say. Through active work on rewiring your mindset because of neuroplasticity, you can realize you do not have to be stuck with negativity and decreased mental health.
I hope this helps. If anything, you can say the word neuroplasticity and sound smart, like I do.
– Scott Medlin
Scott Medlin has worked in law enforcement in since 2007. Prior to that he was in the United States Marine Corps. He was deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and in 2005. He was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps and earned his Bachelor’s Degree. Through deployments and time in law enforcement Scott has valued inspiring others. Scott has helped fellow officers keep marriages together, pull through during hard financial times, overcome depression, and provided encouragement whenever an officer needed it. Scott is willing to share his mental health fights as a means to teach others how to become aware and overcome.