The Amazing Ability of our Brains to Adapt

A young doctor with a magnifier is standing and looking at the brain model hanging above her hand at the blurred laboratory background. The concept of innovative approach in brain researching.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to find gratitude in the middle of all the craziness of today. 

For most of us it seems like our world has turned upside down with all the many ways we have had to cope with the impact of the pandemic. Some have coped better than others, for many reasons such as how great the changes have been, how easily we came up with ways to still manage and how much support we received along the way. 

Enter gratitude. It is amazing how our brains have the capacity to adapt to changes we experience, to assess what is going on and determine that old patterns of response may no longer be effective.   

Dr. Sandy Bloom uses the image of what happens when you throw a rock – basically it predictably flies through the air at whatever speed you sent it on and lands somewhere once it no longer can move through the air. It is predictable and factual. She then uses the image of what happens if you throw a bird into the air. It immediately will fly off in whatever direction it decides to go. Unlike the rock, the bird can make decisions and determine its trajectory and landing location. Our brains – like the bird – is capable of making adjustments once airborne.   

That is what makes our brains so amazing – they have the capacity to adapt based on what is known from previous experiences coupled with what a person wants to do in order to handle something new. That person can then use their creativity to determine how they want to proceed and where they want to land. 

This is not to say that adapting to change, especially dramatic and stressful change, is easy to do. Our brains do not like change. Our brains like to know what to do because we have done it so many times before where they don’t have to put a lot of energy into deciding how to do something differently.   

Abstract brain wave concept on blue background technology

Think about going to work. Pre-pandemic most of us had very automatic routines and often didn’t have to deal with a lot of new decisions or issues. Suddenly many of us were trying to figure out everything from doing Zoom, to dressing very casually, at least from the waist down!  We could mute ourselves to take an outside call or turn of the camera to step away and get coffee. We adapted. At first it was stressful but eventually we became more comfortable and even saw some benefits in living this new lifestyle. 

Children had to experience many adaptations as well. Unfortunately some of these were more challenging because children have clear developmental and social needs that were much harder to meet with all the required social distancing and isolation. Children, by their very nature, need support during times of significant adaptation. At the same time, they learn they have the strength not only to survive but to thrive once they make the adjustments. They learn that they have the power to adapt and somehow accomplish what needs to be done, maybe not at the rate that adults might wish for, but regardless, even children have the capacity within their brains to be adaptable. 

In the outstanding new book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Perry shares the following: “One of the most remarkable properties of our brain is its capacity to change and adapt to our individual world. Neurons and neural networks actually make physical changes when stimulated; this is called neuroplasticity. The way they become stimulated is through particular experiences: The brain changes in a ‘use -dependent’ way. The neural networks involved in piano playing, for example, will make changes when activated by a child practicing her piano. These experience -dependent changes translate into better piano playing. This aspect of neural plasticity (repetition leads to change) is well known and is why practice in sports, arts, and academics can lead to improvement. 

3D Illustration of Human Brain Neurons structure. A high resolution.

“A key principle of neural plasticity is specificity. In order to change any part of the brain, that specific part of the brain must be activated. If you want to learn to play the piano, you can’t simply read about piano playing, or watch and listen to YouTube clips of other people playing piano. You must put your hands on the keys and play; you have to stimulate the parts of the brain involved in piano playing in order to change them.”  

Part of why we are surviving this pandemic has to do with our brain’s capacity to adapt. We all have changed brains as a result of what has happened this past year. Some of the changes may not have to remain once we get back to something close to normal. Other things we may now really appreciate, like being able to work from home wearing our slippers and activewear!  

Let’s celebrate how amazing our brains are and how the Creator gave us the wonderful capacity to adapt as we move through difficult times. Of course, the most important principle of adaptation is to have the support that comes through the relationships with people who care for us. In addition, we can be nurturing of others who are having to make their adaptations by caring, appreciating and understanding how hard it can be to be when forced to change. 

 Invitation for Reflection 

  1. What have you had to adapt to as you navigated the pandemic?  What emotions did you feel along the way?  What support did you receive? 
  1. How helpful is it to appreciate that your brain can make necessary adaptations as new stresses emerge? How does this enhance your confidence in your ability to adapt because your brain can make those changes? 
  1. How can you continue a journey of adaptation as we face new changes in the coming months? 
  1. How can you be supportive of others, including the children in your life, as they continue to adapt to this whole new world we live in? 

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute 


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One response to “The Amazing Ability of our Brains to Adapt”

  1. Yash

    Our BRAIN really needs some appreciations like this…