Brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, is a term that refers to the brain's ability to change and adapt as a result of experience. When people say that the brain possesses plasticity, they are not suggesting that the brain is similar to plastic. Neuro refers to neurons, the nerve cells that are the building blocks of the brain and nervous system, and plasticity refers to the brain's malleability.
History and Research on Brain Plasticity
Up until the 1960s, researchers believed that changes in the brain could only take place during infancy and childhood. By early adulthood, it was believed that the brain's physical structure was mostly permanent. Modern research has demonstrated that the brain continues to create new neural pathways and alter existing ones in order to adapt to new experiences, learn new information, and create new memories.
Psychologist William James suggested that the brain was perhaps not as unchanging as previously believed way back in 1890. In his book "The Principles of Psychology," he wrote, "Organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity." However, this idea went largely ignored for many years.
In the 1920s, researcher Karl Lashley provided evidence of changes in the neural pathways of rhesus monkeys. By the 1960s, researchers began to explore cases in which older adults who had suffered massive strokes were able to regain functioning, demonstrating that the brain was much more malleable than previously believed. Modern researchers have also found evidence that the brain is able to rewire itself following damage.
“The mind of man is capable of anything.” - Joseph Conrad
Reasons Why the Brain Was Seen as Unchangeable
In his groundbreaking book "The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science," Norman Doidge suggests that this belief that the brain was incapable of change primarily stemmed from three major sources, including:
- The ancient belief that the brain was much like an extraordinary machine, capable of astonishing things yet incapable of growth and change.
- The observation that people who had suffered serious brain damage were often unable to recover.
- The inability to actually observe the microscopic activities of the brain played a role in the idea that the brain was relatively fixed.
Thanks to modern advances in technology, researchers are able to get a never-before-possible look at the brain's inner workings. As the study of modern neuroscience flourished, researchers demonstrated that people are not limited to the mental abilities they are born with and that damaged brains are often quite capable of remarkable change.
How Brain Plasticity Works
The human brain is composed of approximately 86 billion neurons. Early researchers believed that neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons, stopped shortly after birth. Today, it's understood that the brain possesses the remarkable capacity to reorganize pathways, create new connections, and, in some cases, even create new neurons.
Characteristics of Neuroplasticity
There are are a few defining characteristics of neuroplasticity, including:
- It can vary by age. While plasticity occurs throughout the lifetime, certain types of changes are more predominant during specific life ages. The brain tends to change a great deal during the early years of life, for example, as the immature brain grows and organizes itself. Generally, young brains tend to be more sensitive and responsive to experiences than much older brains.
- It involves a variety of processes. Plasticity is ongoing throughout life and involves brain cells other than neurons, including glial and vascular cells.
- It can happen for two different reasons. Plasticity can occur as a result of learning, experience, and memory formation, or as a result of damage to the brain. While people used to believe that the brain became fixed after a certain age, newer research has revealed that the brain never stops changing in response to learning. In instances of damage to the brain, such as during a stroke, the areas of the brain associated with certain functions may be damaged. Eventually, healthy parts of the brain may take over those functions and the abilities can be restored.
- Environment plays an essential role in the process. Genetics can also have an influence. The interaction between the environment and genetics also plays a role in shaping the brain's plasticity.
- Brain plasticity is not always good. Brain changes are often seen as improvements, but this is not always the case. In some instances, the brain might be influenced by psychoactive substances or pathological conditions that can lead to detrimental effects on the brain and behavior.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” - Viktor Frankl
Types of Brain Plasticity
There are two types of neuroplasticity, including:
- Functional plasticity: The brain's ability to move functions from a damaged area of the brain to other undamaged areas.
- Structural plasticity: The brain's ability to actually change its physical structure as a result of learning.
How Our Brains Change
The first few years of a child's life are a time of rapid brain growth. At birth, every neuron in the cerebral cortex has an estimated 2,500 synapses; by the age of three, this number has grown to a whopping 15,000 synapses per neuron.
The average adult, however, has about half that number of synapses. Why? Because as we gain new experiences, some connections are strengthened while others are eliminated. This process is known as synaptic pruning. Neurons that are used frequently develop stronger connections and those that are rarely or never used eventually die. By developing new connections and pruning away weak ones, the brain is able to adapt to the changing environment.
How can we use Neuroplasticity as a Tool of Self-Improvement:
Since the brain is pivotal to all we think and do, by harnessing neuroplasticity we can improve everything we do and think. Neurofeedback works with these fundamental principles of neuroplasticity to help you take control of your mind.
We will talk about Neurofeedback and Biofeedback on Train your Brain - Part 3.
How can you improve your Neuroplasticity:
1. Get enough quality sleep.
Your brain needs sleep to reset brain connections that are important for memory and learning. Just one night of losing sleep impedes the brain’s ability to reset itself, which impairs your memory. For adults 26 to 64 years old, the National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep per day.
2. Continue learning and keep moving.
Whether it’s learning a new language or a type of dance, the process of learning something new improves brain plasticity. Learning and practicing a new language has been found to strengthen the brain. You can also learn a musical instrument or an art skill.
The brain benefits from learning the way your body benefits from exercise. One study reveals that “the brains of the successful learners had undergone functional changes — the brain network was better integrated.”
But exercise itself is also beneficial to the brain. Cardiovascular exercises boost oxygen supply to the brain and increase brain volume. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise per week.
3. Reduce stress.
Stress is a silent killer, and it also diminishes neuroplasticity. If you can’t reduce the sources of stress in your life, you can change how you respond to it. An excellent way to de-stress is to surround yourself with nature or to travel. Meditation is another way to control your stress responses.
4. Find a strong purpose for what you’re planning to learn.
Dr. Michael Merzenich, author of Soft-Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life says that brain change will be more significant if you’re motivated and alert. If you find a good reason for learning, then you will try harder and focus more on the task. This has been found to enhance neuroplasticity.
5. Read a novel.
Researchers at Emory University have found that reading fiction creates heightened connectivity in the brain. Apart from this, reading stories provides a chance for you to relax.
You can reshape your life by reshaping your brain. Start doing the tips above to increase neuroplasticity at any age.
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