Do you have the ability to pick up the piano during a pandemic? Can you improve your hand-eye coordination? Is someone who was considered not-so-smart in grade school rise up and become more intelligent?
In recent decades, experts have expanded the possibilities for humans and their minds. Once, experts thought that certain traits and skills were fixed. If you were smart, you were smart. If you weren’t so smart, you would have to find other ways to get ahead in life. But recently, concepts like neuroplasticity have led more experts to believe that we have the ability to grow more than we had previously thought possible.
What Is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity, also known as neural plasticity or brain plasticity, is the process in which the brain changes its structure and setup as a result of different experiences. This might not sound so fascinating, but the capabilities that the brain has to grow and change can be truly life-changing.
How Neuroplasticity Is Related to Learning
Neuroplasticity suggests a growth, rather than fixed, mindset. If you believe that you can grow and change, you are more likely to see it through. Neuroplasticity has led many experts to believe that people are more capable of growth, change, and improvement than previously thought.
People who have experienced great trauma have been able to overcome their experiences thanks to neuroplasticity. This allows them to get back to "normal life" and growing faster.
How Does Neuroplasticity Work?
The brain contains over 86 billion nerve cells, also known as neurons. These neurons are connected to other neurons throughout the brain by synapses. When you learn something new, neurons send that information back and forth. As they send information, they form a connection that grows stronger and stronger.
Researchers once believed that brains stopped creating new neurons between the ages of 13-25, although the number wasn’t really confirmed for sure. Once you hit a certain number, however, scientists believed that you could only lose neurons. But in recent decades, observers have noticed that the same processes that strengthen the connection between neurons may also develop new neurons. The entire structure of a brain can change by forming these new connections and strengthening the pathways between neurons.
More research needs to be done to fully understand how brain plasticity occurs, but it provides great hope for people who have undergone trauma or want to learn something new. Neuroplasticity does not happen overnight, but the possibility alone is encouraging.
Two Types of Neuroplasticity
Traumatic brain injury, and other types of trauma, can seriously threaten a person’s ability to move, think, talk, or complete everyday tasks. But time and time again, you may have heard stories of people that “beat the odds” and learn to walk, run, dance - despite a neurologist’s warnings.
How does this happen? One explanation could be functional plasticity. This process changes the places where functions and neural connections take place. Each area of the brain has different responsibilities: processing stimuli, learning language, or storing memories. If one area of the brain is damaged, the brain may assign those functions to another, undamaged area of the brain. This gives people another chance to go about daily activities or live a “normal” life.
Another type of brain plasticity is structural plasticity. This occurs when you learn something new. The connections in your brain may grow stronger and make these areas more dense. Stronger connections, and a structure to support these connections, allow more room for growth and the acquisition of skills.
What Causes Neuroplasticity?
Experts have gathered eight different causes of neuroplasticity, although other causes may not have been discovered yet. The causes that they have identified include:
- Sensory stimuli
- Psychoactive drugs
- Gonadal hormones
- Parental-child relationships
- Peer relationships
- Early stress
- Intestinal flora
That’s right. The food that you eat and the people that you hang out with can have a serious impact on your brain development and function. Trauma, hormones, and substance abuse can also make a difference. I’m not saying that you should go take some psychoactive drugs and expect to become better at an instrument or sport. Neuroplasticity doesn’t always benefit us. Our brains can change for better or for worse, depending on our behavior and the effect it has on the brain.
Real Life Examples of Neuroplasticity
There is a lot that goes into changing the structure of the brain. Simply studying certain materials can change the way that you think and the structure of your brain. Other activities can cause permanent damage, or even reverse damage caused by injury or stroke. Check out these examples of neuroplasticity - the possibilities are truly endless!
Learning a Second Language
Learning your first language comes naturally, but knowing two or even three languages requires a bit more effort. If you start early, acquiring language appears to be much easier. Why is that?
Researchers suggest that this ease may be a result of neuroplasticity. In 2004, researchers looked at the brains of monolingual and bilingual speakers. They also made notes on when the bilingual speakers first started acquiring a second language. What they found was pretty astonishing. The inferior parietal region of the brain undergoes a structural reorganization when someone starts to speak a second language. The grey matter in this region of the brain becomes more dense, whether the speaker took up their second language early or later in life. The earlier the speaker became bilingual, the denser the grey matter. If you want to start building some new connections in your brain, it’s time to take up another language.
Cab Drivers Have Big Brains
Not all examples of neuroplasticity are intentional. Take the studies done on British cab and bus drivers. Bus drivers drive the same route every day, while cab drivers are challenged to get from one place to the other, driving a different route with every ride.
How do they do it? Experts suggest neuroplasticity. When researchers observed the brains of cab and bus drivers, they saw that cab drivers have significantly larger hippocampuses. The hippocampus is the area responsible for spatial awareness and mental mapping. A larger and more hard-working hippocampus makes it easier for cab drivers to get from Point A to Point B, wherever that point in the city might be.
Do cab drivers get into their profession because of their extra-large hippocampuses? Do bus drivers get into their profession because of their average-size hippocampuses? Probably not. The more likely explanation for this difference in hippocampus size is neuroplasticity. As cab drivers used this part of the brain to navigate the city, more connections were made and the area continued to grow.
Let’s Get Physical!
Neuroplasticity isn’t just the result of studying a textbook or reading a map. Physical activity can also change the structure of the brain for the better! Studies show that aerobic exercise “has a potent impact on promoting the function of the hippocampus and stimulating neuroplasticity. As the evidence-base rapidly builds, and given most of the supporting work can be readily translated from animal models to humans, the potential for AE to be applied as a therapeutic or adjunctive intervention for a range of human conditions appears ever more promising.”
This research even suggests that interventions based on aerobic exercise can help to treat certain deficiencies in the brain. Aerobic exercise also has the potential to increase your IQ score! Examples of this type of exercise include running, swimming, hiking, or any type of cardiovascular conditioning. Turns out exercise isn’t just good for your body - it’s good for your brain, too!
Neuroplasticity doesn’t just have positive results. Repeated exposure to certain drugs, for example, may change the structure of the brain and how it seeks out certain stimuli. Researchers say that “Exposure to amphetamine, cocaine, nicotine or morphine produces persistent changes in the structure of dendrites and dendritic spines on cells in brain regions involved in incentive motivation and reward (such as the nucleus accumbens), and judgment and the inhibitory control of behavior.”
This type of structural changes can also happen when a mother exposes a fetus to substances, including hard drugs or alcohol. General “stress” can also have an impact on the structure of the fetus’s brain, impacting development throughout its early life. (These stress management techniques can help reduce stress at any age!)
Why It’s Important to Understand Neuroplasticity
These examples show the potential for the brain to change throughout our early and later life. The choices you make and dedication you have to learning can permanently change how you think, understand, and store memories. If you experience an injury or brain damage, the choices you make can also help you recover and regain functioning. Neuroplasticity gives researchers a lot of hope for people who have suffered damage. Be sure to remember this concept as you face challenges, create goals, and set out to make positive changes in your life.