Understanding Neuroplasticity can be key to good health and well-being. Here are six things to know:
1. The brain is flexible: Till recently it was standard dogma taught in medical school that there are fixed regions of the brain reserved for certain functions that cannot be replaced. There is a region in the brain that processes vision for example, and another region processes speech, and so on. If there is damage to say the region that services speech then we lose the ability to speak. What scientists are now discovering is that when there is damage to specific region, new regions can “learn” its tasks and take over that function. This ability of the brain to grow, adapt, and learn new things is known as Neuroplasticity.
2. It works both ways: The brain can both “learn” and “unlearn” based on the stimulus we provide. If we stop using a hand for long time then our brain loses its ability to control that hand for example. However if we challenge our brains with a task, then our brains grow in response to the needs of the challenge. The hippocampus of cab drivers of London is much bigger than that of the bus drivers. This is because the bus drivers go on the same route every day while the cab drivers rely more on their knowledge of the roads to do their tasks. The hippocampus stores spatial representations and its use is required to a greater extent by cab drivers, and it expands in response.
3. Brain decline can be reversed: Decline in brain functioning and shrinking of the brain due to aging are not a given any more. Age related shrinkage can be slowed down and in many cases it can be reversed. A key aspect of doing this is to first “calm the brain down” by doing meditation and/or yoga. This shrinks the portion of the brain associated with the stress response. When this happens it allows us to grow regions of the brain associated with reasoning and memory more easily.
4. The brain is a learning organ: Age related shrinkage might be more related to our “laziness” of not challenging the brain enough as we grow older than to the aging process itself. The brain is a learning organ and we need to “feed” the brain constantly by providing it with opportunities to learn new things. Neuroplasticity of the brain allows us to learn constantly at any age.
5. The brain is a whole organ: Though neuroscientists love to study different regions of the brain and how they are connected, it is important to not lose the big picture that the brain is interconnected. When we learn juggling for example, not only does the portion of the brain associated with complex visual motion expand, but it also has positive impact on all regions of the brain (and also the body). Neuroplasticity is not just about growing and improving specific regions of the brain, it is also about improving the whole brain.
6. Changes happens quickly: In as few as seven days, people who learned juggling for the first time showed significant changes in the brain structure. Another thing to keep in mind is that it is never too late for a brain to grow and learn. As soon as the stimulus is provided, the brain begins to learn and grow in response. Age is no barrier.
Our brain in an incredible organ that is able to grow, learn, adapt, and heal throughout our lives. This essay on Neuroplasticity should be a “wake up call” to be more proactive to grow and challenge our brain to realize its full potential.