Scientists used to think that the brain didn’t change after childhood. While it is true that our ability to learn new things is greater in our early years, it turns out our brains reorganize, physically change, and alter the function of different parts through our lives.
Each time we learn a new skill, make a new memory, rethink, respond, react, interact our brains change. Your brain is changing right now reading this post.
Why is this important?
Exercising and strengthening our brains is as important as keeping our bodies strong and limber. The way you keep your brain in good shape spends on what you pay attention to, what you think, what you feel, and how you react to your environment. You can change your brain with purpose by understanding how neuroplasticity works.
Two Main Ways You Can Drive Neuroplasticity
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”*
Donald Hebb developed the idea that when two neurons fire at the same time repeatedly, chemical changes occur in both, so that they connect more strongly. Because neuroplasticity follows this rule, it’s fundamentally reversible. Neurons that fire together wire together, but when neurons “fire apart” their connection becomes weaker. That means your brain works on a “use it or lose it” principle. Information and behaviors that you do not use weaken and may be completely lost. This is called called “synaptic pruning.”
“It is almost just as easy to drive changes that can impair one’s memory or slow down one’s mental or physical control as it is to improve one’s memory or speed up the brain’s actions.”**
Brain change comes from external experiences
What we practice or are exposed to becomes part of our brain wiring.
Everything that happens in our life wires our brains. What we repeatedly do becomes wired – everything from muscle patterns (remember when you first learned to walk, ride a bike?), to skills (learning a native language – when’s the last time you thought about how to form a sentence?) to smiling or frowning (do you have to concentrate on each of your facial muscles to express a feeling?).
To keep our brains growing, functioning well and avoiding decline, we need to give it challenges such as learning new skills, exploring new places, changing routines and interacting with people.
Brain change comes from internal experiences
Mental & emotional exercise changes our brains too. What we think and imagine can change our brains for the better or worse. Where we focus our attention directs the synaptic connections, the brains wiring, and develops and strengthens connections.
We can purposefully and actively create the connections we want. Thoughts and images we replay in our minds create stronger connections. Make neuro-connections by thinking of things in sequence, create positive mental images, do crossword puzzles. (You already do this whenever you study for a test, read a book, rehearse what to say, worry about your future, ruminate on the past.)
Here are some proven ways to positively impact our brains:
Practicing mindfulness is learning to control your thoughts and develop ability to focus where we choose.
By decreasing stress, anxiety and depression meditation helps encourage neurogenesis (development new brain cells). This can happen in just a few weeks.
Neurons fire whether something is real or imagined. Imagining doing something is not very different from doing it in terms of brain wiring. Athletes use this to “practice” by imagining a perfect performance over and over. It helps them actually perform better. Research has validated that the practice influences physical changes from muscle strength to brain pathways.
Now that you’ve finished reading, give yourself a pat on the brain for all the new neuro-connections it has just made for you.
*neuro-scientist Carla Shatz
**Dr. Michael Merzenich, author of Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life