The term “neuroplasticity” has almost become a household word these days (even Spellcheck didn’t try to correct it). The concept is both simple and profound. Our brains change throughout life. They change by creating and strengthening connections among neurons – the cells in our brains that communicate – and by pruning away unused connections.
While there has been strong scientific consensus for some time about neuroplasticity, the extent to which our brains can change, at any stage of life, is only starting to become clear.
It makes sense that our brains would be malleable when we are young. That’s when we typically have to do the most learning. Learning to process visual information, grasp, walk, hear the sounds of the languages we are exposed to, and talk requires the brain to use the experiences it encounters to wire our brains to do those things. We acquire knowledge by connecting neurons to each other into neural networks of vocabulary, facts, processes, and memories.
And it turns out that same kind of wiring process connects different parts of the brain to enable higher-order thinking, self-regulation, and creativity. Some fascinating research by Dr. Silvia Bunge at the University of California at Berkeley was recently described in Psychology Today. The ability to reason involves “long-distance” connections between two parts of the brain – one at the very front of the brain in the prefrontal cortex, and the other farther back in the parietal lobe (top of the head). Bunge found that the strength of these physical connections at the age of 6 predicted reasoning ability later in life.
So, should we give up hope if children haven’t developed that strong structural connectivity by 6 or 7? Absolutely not! Bunge also found that adults can improve their reasoning skills and that there is evidence of changes in the brain when they work at learning to reason. The plasticity of the brain does diminish some as we age, but neuroplasticity still rules.
In an article in Neuroscience Stuff, New York University psychologist Gary Marcus says, “The idea that there’s a critical period for learning in childhood is overrated.” So, if the windows for learning new things stay open, how do we take advantage of that?
As the article goes on to explain, the secret is to continue to learn like a child. What does that entail? Loosening our grip on perfectionism, for one thing, focusing on the outcomes rather than how we do something, and lots of flexible practice. The idea here is that if we practice the same thing over and over again in the same way, we will be limited in how we can apply that skill. If we integrate that skill with others and create smart variations of the way we practice, our capacity to learn that skill will be enhanced. (These principles, by the way, are built into BrainWare SAFARI cognitive training software.)
An example might be helpful here. Let’s say we are learning to sail a boat, and every day when we practice, the wind is blowing from the same direction and the water conditions are always the same. We get really good at that. Have we learned to sail? Perhaps. But it might be better to practice under a variety of conditions, gradually increasing the level of difficulty so that we continue to build on and refine our skills.
Scientists are beginning to be able to see neuroplasticity even at the cellular level now, in ways that suggest that the ability of the brain to change at any age is even greater than any one has imagined. Researchers at Harvard Medical School have found that the neurons responsible for creating new memories are more flexible than previously understood. In other words, once a group of neurons is not needed for a given memory, they can be recruited into other networks with great efficiency.
The research continues to accumulate, and the wonders of our powerful, flexible, trainable brains continue to intrigue us.
What we now know for sure is that when the world around us changes, our brains change. And when we decide to learn new skills, whether physical, academic or cognitive, we can take advantage of neuroplasticity to change our own brains.
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