Brain Plasticity (Definition + Research)

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Practical Psychology

Do you have the ability to change?

I’m going to break down the basics of brain plasticity and what it reveals about your ability to change and develop. The limits that scientists once thought were in place may not actually exist. And this significantly affects our potential to become a better, more successful, or more likeable person.

What Is Brain Plasticity?

Brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, is the process in which your brain changes its wiring. Previously, neuroscientists believed that the structure and functions of the brain molded until adulthood. Then, people could lose brain cells or that the structure of their mind was set in place. 

Neuroscientists tried to argue the opposite. Neuroplasticity was introduced by psychologist William James back in 1890, but it was rejected. In the 1920s, studies on rhesus monkeys supported the idea of neuroplasticity. Again, these ideas, even though they were backed by empirical research, were rejected.

It wasn’t until recent decades that the studies and support for neuroplasticity became more accepted. Now that more and more neuroscientists are starting to lean into the ideas of neuroplasticity, more experts are looking into the ways that the brain changes every day, regardless of age. There is still a lot to learn on this subject, but it provides great hope for those who have suffered brain damage or psychological trauma. At any time, at any age, your brain can change and will continue to change based on your behavior and experiences.

Brain Plasticity and Growth Mindset

If you’ve seen my pages on Growth vs. Fixed Mindset, you know how revealing this question is. People with a fixed mindset may say no. They think your skills and abilities will plateau, your personality is set in stone, and that there isn’t much you can do to change who you are.

Someone with a growth mindset sees things differently. They believe that you have the ability to keep growing, learning, and changing, regardless of age or natural ability. You can see how a growth mindset is useful when you’re trying to learn a new skill, pivot your career, or get rid of harmful behaviors.

But what does neuroscience say?

Increasing research leans toward a growth mindset. Scientists studying brain plasticity believe that your mind can continue to grow, reorganize, and change its functioning - even after a terrible accident or after many years of life.

How the Brain Changes

Our brains are often compared to a filing cabinet, with different drawers, folders, and files. But that’s not exactly how it works. We aren’t just learning new information and stuffing it into the appropriate folder. Studies on neuroplasticity show that we are doing more than just adding updates - we are changing the chemicals, structure, and function of the brain with each of our behaviors. We can move drawers around. We can change the size of each drawer. We can take all of our files, spill them out on the floor, and put them into a different storage unit!

But let’s go back to the ideas of structural and functional change. The level at which we change our brain will determine if those changes “stick.” When we perform a behavior, our brain sends chemical signals between neurons. But those signals don’t impact long-term memory or change unless the networks, or structure, between neurons undergo a change.

Is Brain Plasticity Good or Bad?

These changes can be positive or negative. Positive changes may occur as you practice the piano, re-read your notes, etc. Negative changes may occur if you hit your head, use drugs or alcohol, etc. The brain may also make changes to your neural networks if they are not being used. For example, if you haven’t practiced the piano in 10 years, you’re probably going to need to relearn some things.

But it all boils down to one thing: your behavior. Your behavior has a significant influence on the changes made in your brain. Every time you sit down to practice or look in the mirror and call yourself a failure, you’re changing your brain. So it’s important to choose behaviors that facilitate the changes you want to make.

How Does Brain Plasticity Change As We Age?

Neuroscientists studying brain plasticity can see that your brain is changing, for better or worse, all the time. But what about the rate at which it changes, or when structural changes become functional changes?

These answers are harder to find. Current research on neuroplasticity shows that every person’s brain changes in different ways. There isn’t a set explanation why, for example, someone might be better at picking up a new instrument than picking up a new language. There is no one prescription for functional change in a set amount of time.

But there is hope for positive brain plasticity at all ages. Some studies even suggest that certain activities can increase memory performance in Alzheimer's patients.

When Is Brain Plasticity At Its Peak?

But what do we know about brain plasticity? That “neurons that fire together wire together.” The more you practice a skill or play a game, the more likely it is to stick in the mind. Malcom Gladwell once claimed that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in any skill. There is some truth to that - 10,000 hours of firing neurons together will certainly create strong connections in the brain. But 10,000 hours of practice for one person will certainly yield different results than 10,000 hours of practice for others. The way that you go about practice, and how it relates to how you learn best - will also make a difference in the end results.

If you want to develop a new skill or rewire your brain, you will have to take some time to learn about how you learn. Once you discover that, you can use it to practice over and over again.

How To Make a Change

The understanding that you have the ability to change, and with a strong sense of self-awareness, are very powerful tools to have in your toolbox. You know that you have the possibility to rewire your brain, change the way you think, and grow in ways that others may think are impossible.

And you know how you can do it. Through practice and through adapting your learning to your unique brain, you can continue to grow and change your mindset, skills, and potential.

Neuroplasticity shows us the possibility of growth, even after trauma or “falling behind.” At any age, after any experience, you can make positive changes to your brain and set yourself up to learn new skills, reach your goals, and be successful.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2020, May). Brain Plasticity (Definition + Research). Retrieved from

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