Overcoming Tippy Toes with Neuroplasticity

Cast your mind back to Christmas 2019 and imagine someone telling you that within a few months all schools will be closed, supermarkets would be stripped bare, all public gatherings would be cancelled, millions of people would be working at home, or not working at all. These scenes would be repeated across the world.

Coronavirus dominated the news media for what seems like forever.  The use of the word unprecedented became well – unprecedented!  The size and speed of what happened was literally dizzying.

The coronavirus epidemic brought about a heightened level of change, change which for many us has now become our normal. Amidst all this there has been the personal impact on each of us, whatever the changes have been and no matter how much we consciously accepted or even embraced them, many of us find ourselves struggling to adjust or acclimatise.

But we do have something on our side, it’s our brain – the most powerful known entity in the whole universe – and it’s on your side because it has one extraordinary  property that is absolutely critical in times of change…..neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity refers to how the brain is wired and its capacity to rewire its neuro pathways and it works a bit like this…. 

When you think about something differently, learn a new task, or choose a different emotion, you are carving out a new road. If you keep travelling that road, your brain begins to use this pathway and this new way of thinking more and more.  Feeling and doing becomes second nature. The old pathway becomes used less and less and it weakens. This process of rewiring your brain by forming new connections and weakening old ones is neuroplasticity in action.

That all sounds very positive but does it work in practice…. here is a very personal story from Alex Ede, the Business Development Director of PRISM, which highlights neuroplasticity in action.

“I first heard the word neuroplasticity some 20 years ago when my son Peter was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of 4.  Put simply cerebral palsy means that a part of the brain (the cerebrum) is damaged, and this results in a loss of movement, balance and posture (palsy).  In Peter’s case the overriding view was that the damage to his brain would mean that he would struggle to live a normal life and would almost certainly be confined to a wheelchair.

So In Peter’s words let me start from the beginning:

When I started walking, my family weren’t filled with joy or happiness, instead they were scared that I was walking on my “tippy toes” and that something was wrong – it turns out it was!  I was taken to hospitals, doctors, physiotherapists and I was finally diagnosed with a disability called cerebral palsy.  I don’t remember being diagnosed, but I remember being just a kid who grew up knowing that the only way to walk was on my “tippy toes.” Yeah, it’s weird isn’t it? I thought everyone else was weird for walking on their flat feet. But, I was the odd one. 

I got to about 6/7 when I began to understand what was wrong. However, I didn’t understand why I had to go through all the things I did.

My mum, dad and I went to London to see a specialist who told me that I was going to be in a wheelchair by the time I was 16. Imagine hearing that as a kid? I genuinely didn’t feel like doing anything after that.

I would be the kid finishing secondary school in a wheelchair, or so I was told.

Reflecting on Peters story:   It is at times like this when you can accept the status quo or you can look to change it and one extraordinary specialist seemed to have the answer; if you keep Peter in a wheelchair he will never walk again, however if you let him attempt to walk however uncomfortable this is for him (and you) he will gradually find a way to do it.

 On the surface this seemed unbelievable…. Let’s hear from Peter again.

At school my class mates would look at me weirdly; not because of my disability, but because they didn’t understand my disability.

I could never be the “football guy” but I still loved playing it. I used to get frustrated watching kids run and do mad things whilst I would struggle to walk without tripping up every few steps. I would get severely bullied, people would rugby tackle me to the ground and watch me struggle to get back up. 

My parents developed a special kind of stretch and exercise routine.  Every night without fail I had to do these, it hurt.  I would cry and hug my mum simply saying ‘why me mum, why me?’

As parents watching it appeared as though for months nothing changed, Peter was still unstable, falling over uncontrollably, unable to get up… and then a magical moment happened.

Peter, impatient to be helped up, crawled to a garden wall and awkwardly managed to stand up unaided.  From this point onwards, over months and years, sometimes agonisingly slowly, Peter began to walk properly. Then he began to run short distances and even kick a ball.

He still fell over occasionally but was able to get up completely unaided.

At the age of 16 Peter went for his final gait analysis at Guys Hospital.  On his first analysis at the age of 4 he had registered 3 out of 10 on the scale, which meant in practical terms he could walk unaided for small distances, would be prone to falling over and could not get himself up again, as a consequence of this he was registered as disabled.

In this final test he scored 9 – almost perfect! 

We were all so proud of Peter. 

Now, at the age of 28, Peter drives, walks long distances, plays football and tennis, in fact has a full and normal life.

This, though occasionally feeling like a miracle, is not. It is this thing called neuroplasticity, the remarkable ability of the brain to change. In Peter’s case, it changed to bypass the damage and find ways to help him do the things he wanted.  Neuroplasticity makes change possible, although it takes total commitment, tenacity and, of course, a positive mindset by all concerned.  Peter’s exercise routine started when he was just 4 years old and continued well into his teens.

I’ll let Peter sum this up in his own inimitable style:

Whenever times are tough, and oh god they are believe me, there are times I feel like lying in bed and not wanting to get out, then I think of what I went through and how I overcame it. That is what gets me out of bed, that’s what makes me who I am.

This ability of the brain to create new neural networks and lay the paths for change are integral to PRISM.  By truly understanding ourselves, our behavioural preferences, our overdone strengths we can make changes.


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NATO Joint Warfare Centre Stavanger
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