Yes, you can teach an old brain new tricks! Neuroplasticity is a fancy term that describes this phenomena but you may be wondering why this is important. Most people enjoy the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality but increasingly, everywhere you look, the world is changing at an unprecedented pace. It is never pleasant to see or be around people who clutch for control and remain rigid when the winds of change blow. Here are some interesting facts about what science is learning about our brain’s ability to adapt and evolve at any age.
A thin tall grass grows around a tall, strong tree that has a thick trunk and giant branches. When heavy winds come, the thin grasses flex and bend effortlessly and remain standing in the morning. The tree will lose many limbs and possibly blow over and become uprooted. -Zen Proverb
What is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is defined as the brains ability to adapt, re-wire, and re-organize by creating new neural pathways. Neurons (nerve cells) can compensate as needed, either through consciously creating new habits, or in the case of injury and disease. This means that our environment and life’s circumstances literally change the structure of our brains!
Brain reorganization takes place by mechanisms such as “axonal sprouting” in which undamaged axons grow new nerve endings to reconnect neurons whose links were injured or severed. Undamaged axons can also sprout nerve endings and connect with other undamaged nerve cells, forming new neural pathways to accomplish a needed function.
For example, if one hemisphere of the brain is damaged, the intact hemisphere may take over some of its functions. The brain compensates for damage in effect by reorganizing and forming new connections between intact neurons. In order to reconnect, the neurons need to be stimulated through activity. –Medicine.net
What this means for You
This understanding is very hopeful for people dealing with trauma and unexpected injuries, but it is also great news for those of us feeling the pressure of changing times. Normally people prefer to assert their will on external circumstances to keep routines in place which don’t challenge us to step outside of our comfort zone. Unfortunately, life often changes beyond our control, and the ability to flow with these changes has to do with our ability to adapt mentally and emotionally. Some people may be naturally good at doing this but the overwhelming evidence from research tells us that this skill can also be learned.
Another example of neuroplasticity has been found in London taxi drivers. A cab driver’s hippocampus — the part of the brain that holds spatial representation capacity — is measurably larger than that of a bus driver. By driving the same route every day, the bus drivers don’t need to exercise this part of the brain as much. The cabbies, on the other hand, rely on it constantly for navigation. -the Big Think
This is one of many documented instances of how our brains have the ability to adapt and thrive within whatever environment we subject it to. There’s a very popular book by Norman Doidge, MD called The Brain that Changes Itself which has a huge collection of case histories detailing the phenomena of neuroplasticity. One fascinating aspect of this research tells us that the same forces which allow our brains to evolve and adapt can also keep us stuck.
Change, Adapt, and Grow
‘Neurons that fire together, wire together.’ This means that the more we repeat certain actions, or re-play particular emotional states, etc., the greater likelihood that these patterns will become entrenched (for better or for worse). For example, if you reach for a cigarette or unhealthy food every time you are sad, you may become stuck in this unconscious habitual pattern. It can happen with positive habits like doing yoga every morning also, but the most healthy thing for our brains is diversity. Yep, if you are a creature of habit this is your invite to spice things up!
Our brains are like muscles. Learning new things helps to slow age-related mental decline and even improves overall brain function, plus it tends to invigorate, inspire, and create positive self-esteem. Sensory and motor cortices improve when we exercise our body, since the brain/body connection is central to balanced health. There are other interesting discoveries like that memorization exercises help the auditory memory, and handwriting can strengthen motor capacities, while adding speed and fluency to reading. Any improvement in one area of cognition seems to enhance other faculties and bring about positive changes in other areas!
It can be as simple as taking a different route home, or getting lost and finding something you have never seen before. Get creative, and you will continue to get more creative…Maybe challenge your taste-buds to try some new spices, or try a new yoga class. Wherever you are in life from stuck/rigid, to flowing/flexible your brain will appreciate the opportunity to impress you with it’s ability to change, adapt, and grow. Evolution is a participatory sport, and it is best appreciated fully conscious. You have the ability to create new pathways, all you need to do is teach the old dog some new tricks!