Neuroplasticity meets Taoism: How to Shape Your Brain and Co-Create Your Destiny:

by Dr. Dana Leigh Lyons |

Neuroplasticity meets Taoism: How to Shape Your Brain and Co-Create Your Destiny:

Did you know your brain is plastic? Not that kind of plastic! (Though the way things are going…) 

Neuroscientists have proven that our brains are always changing. They are, in effect, plastic until the day we die. “Neuroplasticity” encompasses not just function, but the very structure of our B spot. (What? You don’t know about the B spot?)

Our brains—along with the rest of us—are literally shaped by our external environment, internal states, thoughts, and emotions. Turns out, mind-body-spirit isn’t just a hashtag. Our brains truly are embodied!

And yet, this story long predated neuroplasticians.

It has simply acquired new details and new names. At least as far back as the 5th century B.C.E., Taoist philosophers already had our plasticity figured out. Similar to the present neuroplasticians, these ancient Chinese visionaries saw more than firm frameworks and obsolete prototypes. They indentified on-going and continuous change as the Way, or Tao, of the Universe and us. 

We can visualize how much competent we are to change the track of things. 

This is true in the case of relation to ancient Taoist principles and modern discoveries in neuroplasticity and epigenetics. Alone, you are offered potent support for health and healing.

We get to see just how much capacity we have to change the course of things. 

This holds true not only in relation to ancient Taoist principles, but also cutting-edge discoveries in neuroplasticity and epigenetics. Alone, each offers strong support for health and healing. Together, they are all the more powerful. 

You too! No Exceptions!

Neuroplastic shifts are not exceptions, observable only in cases of significant pathology or prodigy. Rather, they represent the ordinary, everyday nature of our minds. These shifts emerge within an interconnected body-mind system, but also through interaction of the system and outside world. The mind then, is both embodied and relational.

Displaying how environment and experience mold our brains, neuroplasticity research complies with the science of epigenetics. Literally, “control above genetics,” this field arose from evidence that environmental factors can alter genes without changing DNA blueprints. 

These environmental attributes cover all acquired parameters such as aspects of the external environment and what we eat…along with internal conditions, thoughts, and emotions. In Chinese Medicine, external factors and inner states are perceived as entangled and indiscrete. Together, they constitute us.

Epigeneticists have revealed that our surroundings, events, steps, and even thoughts play a role in gene expression. Moving forward, they emphasize that modifications resulting from environmentally and mental-emotionally influenced gene expression pass down to future generations (Lipton 37).

Jonah Lehrer, science editor and writer, expressively summarized in Proust Was a Neuroscientist:

“What makes us human, and what makes each of us his or her own human, is not simply the genes that we have buried in our base pairs, but how our cells constantly interact with our environment and influence our DNA, altering our perceptions of ourselves. Life is a logical process. Our human DNA is known by its multiple possible meanings; it is a code that needs framework.”(44–45) 

Shape your brain, co-create your destiny

This interplay between genes and environment shapes the embodied brain throughout our lives. Emphasizing its role in childhood, physician and addictions expert Gabor Maté maintains: “The three environmental conditions absolutely essential to optimal human brain development are nutrition, physical security, and consistent emotional nurturing” (185). 

At any stage of our life, a social and sane environment is valuable for neural health and regeneration. Animal studies have shown that living in stimulating settings or engaging in regular mental training increases brain weight by 5 percent in the cerebral cortex (and up to 9 percent in targeted brain areas), with neurons increasing in size, blood supply, number of branches, and number of connections (Doidge 43). (Makes studying for exams more appealing, hey?)

Other things that move the needle include novelty (rather than just doing the same old thing), physical movement (even “just” walking), and mindfulness (including meditation but also single-tasking and paying attention to one thing at time). These, together with living in an enriched surrounding and taking in enriching content, have been thought to improve neurogenesis. 

The brain is not a passive recipient of such influences any more than it is of genetic code. Rather, it is an active participant. It takes form and re-forms in response to interactions of the whole body-mind within an environmental and genetic context (post-Heaven meets pre-Heaven, in Chinese Medicine parlance).

This interface and connection is the element of experience, and experience forms a plastic brain. As we exist in the world and respond to its actions, new interactions are created and already existing pathways illuminate with new use. 

And, as conscious beings able to observe and influence how we respond to environmental stimuli, we “co-create” our “destiny” (Lipton 104). Manifestations include subtle shifts as well as dramatic transformations in cognitive abilities, emotional tendencies, motor skills, sensory sensitivity, and conscious or subconscious habits and routines. 

Addiction…or agency

The neuroplasticity of an embodied, relational brain offers promise in the form of expanded possibilities and potential. Learning and unlearning influence and alter our minds. In the process, we alter our physical brains (and bodies) as well as our experience. 

Yet, this inherent malleability is not inherently welcome. It also opens the door to unhelpful patterns, perceptions, beliefs, and addictions. Instead of widening our opportunities, wayward programming may result in little expression of us.  In what’s known as the “plastic paradox,” repetition of unhelpful thoughts and behaviors causes rigidity, stagnation, inertia, and general stuck-ness in body and mind. 

How do we avoid such pitfalls? Well, sometimes, we just don’t. As humans, hard things happen to us. All the risks associated with plasticity cannot be

And, we have agency. We can use our visualization of a plastic, manifested brain to vigorously grow and strengthen patterns that are helpful and healthy. We can be guardians of our inner and outer environment. The stakes? Who we are…and who we’re continuously becoming. 

Where to begin?

So, just go fine tune your interface between self and world, genes and environment, already. NBD.

Just kidding. Thankfully, we can depend on ancient Taoists for this side. Yes—they had a lot figured out. But they also took great care not to exaggerate things. Indeed, they counselled: “See simplicity in the complicated. Secure distinction in little things.” (Lao-tsu 63)

In other words… 

Proven ways to support neurogenesis (literally, “neuron generation”): 
  • Pay close attention:  Meditate; draw; read a real book; engage in mindful, focused yoga practice or breathing; engage in mindful, focused anything that requires full presence; do one thing at a time.
  • Embrace novelty:  Change up your routine; visit places outside of your usuals and comfort zone; explore something new as an enthusiastic beginner.
  • Engage in physical exercise: Take a walk (ideally, outside); stretch your body in ways that are intuitive and delicious; engage in other movement that works for you and feels good; if you can’t move your limbs, focus on breath and posture.
  • Exist within an enriched environment Immerse yourself in a culture different from your own (whether in your own locale or another one); edit what you consume intentionally and rigorously; choose surroundings (online and off) that make you feel expansive, curious, and alive.

Also…do whatever you can to strengthen your embodied brain! 

An obvious yet vital starting point is eating nourishing, real food. A powerful backup is supportive herbal formulas

Together food and herbs are the Yin side of Chinese Medicine. They provide the nutrients our Yang side needs to function, complementing any brain-boosting lifestyle adjustments.

The result? Using your biological bendiness for good! Simple steps, done with consistency over time, bring big results. Our plastic, embodied body-mind pretty much guarantees it. 

(Use the code DANA at checkout for 20 percent off that herbal backup.)


Doidge, Norman. The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2007 

Lao-tzu. The Tao Te Ching. Trans. Gia-fu Feng & Jane English. New York: Vintage Books, 1972. 

Lehrer, Jonah. Proust was a Neuroscientist. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007. 

Lipton, Bruce H. The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles. Santa Rosa: Elite Books, 2005.

Maté, Gabor. In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2009

Dr. Dana Leigh Lyons is Dean of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine at Pacific Rim College in Victoria, BC. She offers online courses in Chinese Medicine, sobriety, and soulful living at Alchemist Academy. Alchemist Academy features courses for beginners (including on herbs and herbal formulas!) as well as NCCAOM-certified PDA/CEUs for practitioners. If you’re interested in brain shaping, make sure to check out Shifting Currents, Shaping Mind: Neuroplasticity Meets Taoism in Chinese Medicine.

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