I have fought against the idea that just because I’m older I can’t reform my old mentalities, use new inventions, or learn something new. Case in point, I took up mobile gaming of RPG’s and strategy games, learned how to play trading card games, let go of my old biases about anime, and questioned my mentalities about societal norms and beliefs.
I even started to learn how to play the guitar. All within the past five years.
I wholeheartedly believe that we all are a work in progress and that we need to be able to move beyond the past and view the future as promising. The advantages of being mentally flexible are numerous.
For starters, the ability to learn something new enhances our health on multiple levels and can aid us in preventing certain diseases. It can even decrease, or repair, effects of trauma. We can go to researchers to explain what happens to your brain when you learn something new.
Defining neuroplasticity and a brief history
The wonderful gift that our brain can change or adapt throughout our lives is otherwise known as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the process by which our brain can create new relationships between neurons. Neuro refers to our neurons, or brain cells. Plasticity, as defined in Sharp Brains, “is the capacity of the brain to change with learning.” This process starts while we are still in the womb and can continue for all of our lives.
Neurogenesis is a word describing the ability of our brains to grow new neurons. This ability negates the previous idea from scientists that at a certain age, our cells can no longer learn, but instead, die off.
The idea that our brain cells are incapable of change was believed up until the 1960s despite being theorized back in 1890 by psychologist William James. He published his thoughts in his book The Principals of Psychology.
In the 1960s, researchers began studying adults who had survived massive strokes and yet were able to regain skills lost from the stroke. This study sparked the idea of our brain cells being capable of forging new paths, including after a trauma.
Now we know it is possible to not only change the paths of our neurons but to grow new ones. Between neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, we can not only upgrade our brain’s software, but also our hardware.
Effects of expanding knowledge on our brain
When we expand our knowledge of a specific skill, the portion of our brain that utilizes those skills will enlarge. Our brain is like a muscle that if you focus on one part of it, it strengthens the corresponding brain area. This is very similar to lifting weights by focusing on one muscle of the body. Examples sited in Sharp Brains include:
- Our hippocampus is the area of our brains that acquires and utilizes spatial information to navigate. This was shown to be evident in London Taxi drivers who navigate various routes in comparison to bus drivers who follow a set path.
- The left inferior parietal cortex grows larger in those who speak more than one language.
- Gray matter, or the cortex, increases in professional musicians who practice for one or more hours a day when compared to amateur musicians or non-musicians. Several areas were affected including motor regions, anterior superior parietal area, and inferior temporal areas.
- Medical students during exam periods have shown changes in the parietal cortex and the posterior hippocampus. Both regions are associated with the ability to recall memory and learning.
Traits of Neuroplasticity
As with anything else, there are certain characteristics of neuroplasticity:
- While age does not limit the potentiality of learning new things, it does have an effect. A toddler, for example, will create new neural pathways far faster than someone in their 50’s.
- Plasticity has two methods in which it takes effect.
- Structural plasticity is the change created when we learn something new, whether it is due to an experience, a new hobby or skill, or learning information similar to a student.
- Functional plasticity is the act of the brain utilizing an undamaged section of the brain to compensate for a damaged portion.
- Your environment and genetics do play a role in how well your brain adapts and learns.
- It isn’t just the neurons that allow for plasticity. Two of the additional cells it requires are:
- Glial cells, which surround the neurons to insulate and support the neurons.
- Vascular cells, which provide proper blood flow to bring nutrients and energy to the neurons and the brain in general.
- As wonderful as plasticity is, it can also be a reflection of changes in the brain due to drugs and certain diseases or conditions.
Benefits of brain plasticity to heal the brain and prevent damage
If you have ever witnessed a stroke victim recover their capabilities, you have seen the brain at work after trauma.
Whether you have suffered a brain injury due to a stroke, car accident, concussion, etc. your brain, over time, will do everything in its power to rebuild.
Stages of healing after a trauma or brain injury
Healing or recovery after a horrible event or condition takes time. Just like our body, our brain need time to heal and format a method of recovery. In their book, Translational Research in Traumatic Brain Injury, researchers Su, Veeravagu, and Grant break down the steps by which the brain reacts and recovers from a brain injury.
- Immediately and for 1-2 days after the incident, cell death occurs in addition to a decrease in cortical inhibitory pathways. It is theorized that this allows the brain to search for new or potential backup neuron networks.
- After more days or weeks, the cortical pathways stop being dormant and become very active and responsive. This is followed by an abundance of neurons and synapse formations. Various brain cells are called to replace damaged cells, heal gliotic scar tissue, and reform vascular cells around the neurons to ensure blood flow.
- Weeks later, new synapses and axons are created and begin to increase their stimulus-response, allowing for remodeling and cortical changes for recovery. It is at this point that a greater emphasis should be placed on physical therapy (and potentially psychotherapy) as this is when your brain is best going to restructure itself.
Methods to repair or prevent the decline of your brain
Repairing the brain is not just limited to brain injury, such as a stroke. It is also possible to remap the brain from chronic pain, depressive or anxiety disorders, ADHD, OCD, and Autism. Keep in mind, this re-mapping is not a “cure” but an alternative method towards better functioning.
- Meditation or mindfulness
- Light to moderate exercise and/or yoga
- Learning a musical instrument
- Learning a foreign language
- Mental games such as crossword puzzles, sudoku, or memory games
- Learning a new, complex subject
- Repetitively doing a task for practice to learn, re-learn, or improve your skills.
- Some video games
- Eye-hand coordination tasks or games (juggling)
How can I improve my brain’s ability to learn?
- Some studies have shown intermittent fasting to aid in facilitating brain plasticity.
- Traveling introduces your brain to new stimuli, new experiences, and new learning opportunities. Additionally, people are usually happy while traveling and dopamine aids in brain plasticity.
- Memory training can enhance connectivity in the prefrontal parietal network and possibly prevent memory loss related to age.
- Learning a musical instrument has shown to connect various parts of your brain together, further brain growth, and create new neural pathways.
- Practice doing something using a weaker side of your body, such as your left hand if you are right-handed. This forces your brain to create new neural pathways to accommodate.
- Reading not only encourages learning new vocabulary or concepts but also spurs your imagination, which can connect different neural pathways.
- Learning new vocabulary can enhance your memory skills and enhance your visual and hearing skills.
- Being creative enhances the areas of your brain even while at rest. This can boost introspection, memory, empathy, attention, and focus.
- Dancing increases dopamine, which can aid in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s or other brain degeneration. It also increases blood flow which is essential for your neurons.
- Sleeping is a must for retaining any new learned information or skill.
- Be social. Studies have shown that being with other people stimulates the brain through conversation, releasing dopamine and additional physical activity.
- Owning a dog encourages further socializing and physical activity while reducing depressive symptoms.
Learn Something New Today!
Our brains are remarkable. It allows us the ability to learn and adapt at any point in our lives. It is essential that we give it a workout to stay healthy – just as we do for our bodies.
The brain has proven to be the cornerstone to our survival, not because of what we can dream up, but because adaptation is what makes survival possible. After all, memories are where our happiness lies and being cognizant of the world is what opens our eyes and ears to new possibilities.