Our Brain is Plastic – and Adaptable
Recent developments in neuroscience have shown that we can continue to learn new skills and improve our memories and cognitive abilities well into old age.
From the 16th century until recent times, it was widely held that the brain was an immutable machine made up of parts that each had a specific function and location.
Research now shows that our brain and nervous system are not fixed but plastic; that is the are capable of changing, adapting and re-writing themselves through activities such as sensing, thinking, seeing, acting, imagining and perceiving.
The Science of Neuroplacticity
“Brain plasticity is a major change in our understanding of the brain and challenges thee neurological nihilism of the last 400 years”, say Norman Doige, author of – The Brain That Changes Itself (Scribe, 2010).
The prevailing belief used to be that our brain was fixed in form and function, and from childhood onward only changed through deterioration with age.
The discovery that the brain can change and reorganise itself is revolutionising the treatment of stroke patents as well as those with brain injury, chronic pain and other debilitating neurological conditions.
Brain-plasticity – or neuro-plasticity – also has a wide ranging application for enhancing learning and performance, improving IQ scores, warding off age-related cognitive decline and helping to address emotional and psychological problems such as obsessive compulsive disorder.
Innovations in Brain Plasticity
Scientist Paul Bach-y-Rita (1934 to 2006) was one of the first pioneers in the practical application of neuroplasticity. His findings overturned the belief that the brain operates on a one function, one location basis.
Inspired by helping his father recover mobility after a massive stroke, Bach-Y-Rita’s work showed how closely our sensory systems work, and that when one area is damaged, another can take over.
He created a special chair programmed with vibrating wires at the back and connected to a large camera that enables blind people to see. The experiment showed that the skin can function as a retina with vision being processed through the sense of touch.
Adult Brains can Grow
Our rain’s plasticity is at its peak in childhood when we are constantly learning new skills and abilities. As we age and start to practise already mastered skills, we rarely employ the same intense mental focus.
However, as research carried out by Californian based neuroscientist Michael Merzenich has demonstrated. The adult brain can continue to grow and develop.
Merzenich believes that exercise and retraining the brain in the right way can lead to healthier cognitive function. He maintains that practising a new skill can change the physical structure of our brain by forming hundreds of new connections between neurons (nerve cells0 in our brain maps.
Poist Scienc,e Merzenich’s company, carried out a controlled double-blind study in 2006 on a group of adults from 60 to 87 who had participated in an auditory brain-training program for eight to 10 weeks.
The results, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed the training was successful in reversing aged-related decline: man of the subjects turned back their memory clock by 10 or more years, with some seeing a 25-year reversal.
If you want to boost your brain power, there’s a wealth of online brain-training exercises now available. Designed not only to improve our memory but also our ability to quickly and accurately process what our brains hears and sees, the exercises and games are fun, challenging and stimulating. And most programs enable you to keep track of your scores so you can monitor your development.
Mental Muscle Training
The key to retaining – or even regaining – mental agility is to treat the brain as a muscle; as with the body, the use it or lose it rule applies. One of the best things we can do as adults is to learn a foreign language or perhaps a new dance routine.
Learning any new skills requires intense and steady focus and involves repeating particular actions over and over again. It’s not a process that can be rushed; going slowly, focussing on one thing at a time and paying close attention is essential for sustained learning.
“While multi-tasking is often hailed as an efficient and useful habit, it’s ultimately inefficient, as the likelihood is that neither task will be done well”, says Martina Sheehan of brain-training organisation Mind Gardener.
“And it’s a bad habit to get into, as it trains our brain to constantly search for informati0n and stimulation.”
Doige advises, “You need to rest between exercising your faculties, because sleep and naps consolidate plastic change”. “People who are always ‘switched on’ are usually stressed out, and if this is a chronic problem, it releases brain chemicals that actually shrink parts of the brain”.
Avoiding the plastic paradox
The changeability of our brains can work for better or worse; “Neuroplasticity properties that allow us to change our brains and produce more flexible behaviours also allow us to produce some rigid ones”, writes Doige, explaining that we can get stuck in a rut.
He calls this the plastic paradox. Each time we repeat a bad habit, whether physical, mental or emotional, it strengthens a brain circuit and prevents the use of that space for a good habit.
Unlearning and weekending connections between neurons can be just as important as forging new ones by learning or doing something new.
This is also how psychotherapy works, says Doige, explaining that brain scans have demonstrated that the brain can reorganise itself after treatment with psychoanalytic, interpersonal and cognitive behavioural therapies.
Talking through problems can help people to learn new ways of relating by wiring new neurons together, at the same time releasing or unlearning old memories or ways of responding and thinking.
Using our Imagination
Equally powerful is the power of our imagination. A study carried out by neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone at the Harvard Medical School on two groups of piano players – one actually playing and the other doing mental practice – showed that imagining something and doing it activate the same parts of the brain.
Other studies have demonstrated that we can even increase our muscle strength by performing an exercise sequence in our imagination.
This is not to undermine the importance of engaging in physical exercise and keeping fit and mobile. Cardiovascular exercise helps to strengthen the heart and blood vessels that supply the brain as does a healthy diet. Even waling at a good pace can strengthen the growth of new neurons.
‘Everything we think, do and learn changes our brain. This opens up a wonderful world wee we can continually improve and develop what we think and who we are”, says Sheehan.
“Paying attention to where you are directing your mind is all important’, she adds. “Mindfulness is one of the most important skills you can develop if you want a clear and calm mind’.
By Charlotte Francis