You may have heard that after a certain age, your brain becomes fixed. You become stuck in your ways and learning new things such as a different language is very difficult, if not impossible. Well, the results of recent studies are definitely in disagreement with these theories. The key, they say, to keeping your brain in shape, lies precisely in the brain’s ability to change at any age, also known as neuroplasticity.
This concept was not always a popular theory. In 1913, the Spanish neuroanatomist, Santiago Ramon y Cajal stated that the adult human brain was “fixed, ended, immutable.” For example, scientists at that time believed that if an adult lost their sight, their visual cortex (the area in the brain where visual stimuli are processed) would become a neuronal black hole. It was believed that only children had malleable brains, capable of readily absorbing information and receptive to whatever programming instrumental-minded adults tried to cram into them. The rest of us were stuck with our rusty memories and our insufficient mastery of French; there was no way to stop and call for a brain do-over.
Around 1920, scientists began to question these theories and take a deeper look into our brain’s abilities. Today, people’s curiosity about how the brain works, combined with quickly advancing technology, scientists have discovered that adult brains are much more capable of changing and rewiring then we ever thought.
Welcome to the age of neuroplasticity! Studies are showing that neuroplasticity may have enormous implications not only for our physical health but for our mental health.
What exactly is neuroplasticity? It is a physical process that explains the thickening or shrinking of the grey matter in the brain. It explains the brain’s ability to forge and refine neural connections or weaken and sever (aka “prune”) them. These physical changes of the brain manifest as changes in our abilities. An example; each time you learn a new dance step, new “wires” (neural pathways) are made to give instructions to our bodies on how to perform the step. Each time we forget something, e.g. someone’s name, it also represents a physical change. Neural pathways that once connected to the memory have been degraded, or even severed.
Of course, at a younger age, the brain flourishes, gobbling up new sights, tastes and experiences. What recent research has shown, however, is that under the right circumstances the older brain can grow, too. Although certain brain machinery tends to decline with age, there are steps people can take to tap into plasticity and reinvigorate the mind. HOW? Read on…
Exercise your brain. There are scientifically designed, plasticity-based programs that target specific brain machinery to improve function; but there are also simple routines that you can do on your own. Based on their detailed understanding of the brain, neuroscientists suggest you choose activities that fit these criteria:
• They should teach you something new. By continually developing new skills, you can keep your brain strong.
• They should challenge you. Activities should demand your full and very close attention to drive chemicals into the brain.
• They should be progressive. You can begin an activity at an easy level, but make sure to keep progressing. Try improving on old activities you enjoy.
• They should engage your greater brain processing. Activities that require you to focus and distinguish between what you hear, see or feel and make decisions using that information to achieve complex goals drive the brain to change its abilities on different levels.
• They should be rewarding. Rewards amplify brain changes, leading to improved learning and memory. They turn up the production of crucial brain chemicals that contribute to learning, memory, and good spirits.
• They should be novel or surprising. New, positive and surprising experiences exercise the brain machinery that makes you bright and alert.
The benefits of keeping your brain in shape are numerous and valuable to living a long, healthy and aware life. Brain exercises can improve sharpness and memory. One study even suggests that mental training allows your brain to attain a greater level of consciousness. The basic message that science is sending today is that the brain becomes stronger with training and weaker with idleness. Keep your mind on its toes and these rewards will continue into the rest of your life.
5. The Potent Self: A Study of Spontaneity and Compulsion, by Moshe Feldenkrais, D.SC.