Neuroplasticity is a favorite buzzword among psychology and neuroscience circles, promising that you can “re-wire” your brain to improve your health, well-being, and even quality of life. It is an umbrella term that refers to the capacity of the brain to change. It argues that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
What is neuroplasticity, and why is it so important?
The discovery of the brain’s capacity to change throughout life has been called the most important neuroscience breakthrough in 400 years. Why? Because neuroplasticity means that you can actually make your brain function better, even as you age.
Neuroplasticity can refer to structural and functional changes in the brain. While the majority of such changes occur in childhood during ‘critical periods’, it is true that our brains remain plastic in adulthood as well. Although the overall rate of change decreases, adults experience new brain cell formation and form new neural connections after learning or experiencing something new.
Even in middle or old age, the brain still adapts very actively to its environment.
Unfortunately, as many people age, the natural loss of brain cells and neural connections happens more quickly than their formation, resulting in mental decline1.
But it doesn’t have to be this way…
Brain plasticity to boost brain fitness
You can use brain plasticity to boost your brain fitness – just keep these 3 fundamentals in mind:
- Physical exercise keeps your brain in shape too. It seems that the more we learn about the brain, the more we realize physical exercise is critical to keeping it healthy. The same rule applies for neuroplasticity: exercise promotes new brain cell formation and new neural connections, all the while protecting against mental decline. Even as little as one 30 minute cycling session can temporarily improve brain plasticity2!
- Mindfulness matters (really!). Mindfulness is not a hand-wavy approach to building a better brain, we promise. It is actually a legitimate way to enhance your brain function, and there are over 1,000 published scientific studies on its health benefits! People who meditate have stronger neural connections throughout the brain3 and one study even demonstrated that meditation can reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activity4. And, you don’t have to be a Buddhist monk to boost neuroplasticity with mindfulness. Starting out with only 2 minutes a day can have an impact – the key is sticking with it!
- Brain plasticity goes both ways; it’s just as easy to generate negative changes as it is positive ones. Neural connections are strengthened or weakened based on what you do over and over in daily life. Just as a daily crossword puzzle can help your mind stay sharp, vegging out in front of the TV on a nightly basis will teach your brain bad habits. The good news? Our brains follow the motto “use it or lose it”. Unlearning a habit involves weakening neural connections through disuse. By making the conscious choice to replace your bad habit with a heathier alternative, you can leverage neuroplasticity and make it work in your favor.
By reading this article, you are already on your way to harnessing your brain’s neuroplasticity! Stanford University professor Dr. Carol Dweck tells us that people with a fixed mindset believe their talents and intelligence cannot be changed. These people don’t significantly change as adults. But those with a growth mindset understand that they can continue to develop abilities and increase mental capacities throughout life5. Simply accepting the concept of brain plasticity makes a difference.
Do you fall into the “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” camp? It’s never too late to change your mind. Now that you know the truth about neuroplasticity, you can choose to have a growth mindset. That alone can start you on your path to building a better brain, and learning some new tricks.
1 Quantitative evidence for selective dendritic growth in normal human aging but not in senile dementia. Buell, SJ and Coleman, PD. 1, 1981, Brain Res, Vol. 214, pp. 23-41.
2 The influence of a single bout of aerobic exercise on short-interval intracortical excitability. Smith, AE, et al. 6, 2014, Exp Brain Res, Vol. 232, pp. 1875-82.
3 Impact of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training on intrinsic brain connectivity. Kilpatrick, LA, et al. 1, 2011, Neuroimage, Vol. 56, pp. 290-8.
4 Brain mechanisms supporting the modulation of pain by mindfulness meditation. Zeidan, F, et al. 14, 2011, Journal of Neuroscience, Vol. 31, p. 5540.
5 Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York : Ballantine Books, 2007.
Morgan Ingemanson is a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Irvine studying neurobiology. She specializes in functional neuroimaging and has been investigating the use of robotic devices for rehabilitating motor function after stroke. She is interested in mapping CNS repair and developing therapeutic interventions for neurorecovery.