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.
A growing number of research publications have illustrated the remarkable ability of the brain to reorganize itself in response to various sensory experiences. A traditional view of this plastic nature of the brain is that it is predominantly limited to short epochs during early development.
What Is Brain Plasticity?
The human brain is composed of approximately 85 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 — a concept called neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity.
Neuroplasticity can be viewed as a general umbrella term that refers to the brain’s ability to modify, change, and adapt both structure and function throughout life and in response to experience. Just as individual differences contribute to variability observed in brain structure and function, mechanisms of neuroplasticity also show significant variability across individuals.
Neuroplasticity underlies the capacity for learning and memory, and it enables mental and behavioral flexibility. Research has firmly established that the brain is a dynamic organ and can change its design throughout life, responding to experience by reorganizing connections — via so-called “wiring” and “rewiring.” Scientists sometimes refer to the process of neuroplasticity as structural remodeling of the brain.
One ongoing question that preoccupies the basic scientists pursuing this line of research is how routine everyday activities — sleep, wakefulness, even any sort of movement — may affect the ability to perceive things in the surrounding environment.
Neurogenesis refers to the creation of new brain cells. Scientists long believed that the brain was not capable of producing new neurons, but modern research has revealed that certain regions of the brain, particularly the hippocampus, are capable of generating new cells throughout adult life.
It wasn’t until the publication of a series of vivid studies involving brain scans that this new truth began to be encoded into the synapses of the masses. In 1995, neuropsychologist Thomas Elbert published his work on string players that showed the ‘maps’ in their brain that represented each finger of the left hand – which they used for fingering – were enlarged compared to those of non-musicians (and compared to their own right hands, not involved in fingering). This demonstrated their brains had rewired themselves as a result of their many, many, many hours of practice.
When the Brain Changes
Historically, scientists believed that the brain stopped growing after childhood. But current research shows that the brain is able to continue growing and changing throughout the lifespan, refining its architecture or shifting functions to different regions of the brain.
Despite the fact that the concept of neuroplasticity is broad, vague, and hardly new (the theory was born in the mid-1800s and was heavily researched throughout the 1990s), it is one of the most reliable and fundamental discoveries about the brain that we have to date. Intelligence is not fixed, it turns out, nor planted firmly in our brains from birth. Rather, it’s forming and developing throughout our lives.
Neuroplasticity is a series of miracles happening in your own cranium that means we can be better salespeople and better athletes, and learn to love the taste of broccoli. It can treat eating disorders, prevent cancer, lower our risk of dementia by 60% and help us discover our “true essence of joy and peace“. We can teach ourselves the “skill” of happiness and train our brains to be “awesome“. And age is no limitation: neuroplasticity shows that “our minds are designed to improve as we get older”. It doesn’t even have to be difficult.
Age is a key determinant of experience-dependent cortical plasticity. Important structural and functional changes tend to predominantly occur early in life during time-limited epochs of stimulus-driven plasticity known as critical periods.
Although the notion that the adult brain could undergo significant positive changes received sporadic attention, throughout the 20th Century, it was generally overlooked, as a young psychologist called Ian Robertson was to discover in 1980. He’d just begun working with people who had had strokes at the Astley Ainslie Hospital in Edinburgh, and found himself puzzled by what he was seeing.
How the Brain Changes With Learning
This means that when people repeatedly practice an activity or access a memory, their neural networks — groups of neurons that fire together, creating electrochemical pathways — shape themselves according to that activity or memory. When people stop practicing new things, the brain will eventually eliminate, or “prune,” the connecting cells that formed the pathways. Like in a system of freeways connecting various cities, the more cars going to certain destination, the wider the road that carries them needs to be. The fewer cars traveling that way, however, the fewer lanes are needed.
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.
Exposing your brain to novelty is one of the best ways to keep your brain active and healthy. According to scientific research, new experiences trigger the release of the neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) dopamine in the brain. This chemical makes us feel good and plays an important role in helping us feel motivated. Interestingly, the same study also revealed that exposure to novelty helps us in learning and information processing.
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.
Learning new things, such as an instrument or a new language, has a profound effect on neuroplasticity. Recent studies show that music practice forces the brain to work in new ways, an important contributor to neuroplasticity, and causes heightened connectivity between brain regions.
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.
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.
Sleep is perhaps the most important factor in increasing neuroplasticity and has major effects on the brain through neuroplastic mechanisms. Sleep offers a “soft wipe” of the brain which provides a blank slate for you to lay down new connections through new experiences, memories and skills.