Brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, refers to the brain's ability to change and restructure itself by forming new connections (synapses) between neurons (nerve cells). Neuro pertains to the neurons or nerve cells that are the building blocks of the brain and plasticity to the brain's malleability or pliability.
This process of strengthening and making new neural pathways enhances, accelerates, and makes learning more efficient. The bottom line – it significantly improves brain function!
Until recently it was thought that changes in the brain only took place during infancy and childhood. It was believed that by adulthood the brain’s structure was set and permanent.
As early as 1890, psychologist William James in his book The Principles of Psychology indicated that the brain was not as inflexible as he previously thought. He wrote:
"Organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity."
Regrettably, his important theory was not advanced for many years.
Fortunately for all of us, research has since shown that the brain has the ability to continue to create new neural pathways and change existing ones. This regeneration facilitates learning new information, promotes the ability to adapt to new experiences, and it keeps the brain functioning optimally throughout life. The brain can even rewire itself after being damaged.
This is great news for all of us!
Today when we're living longer than before, it is even more important to have our brains function as optimally as possible, for as long as possible. As long as we continue to learn new things and challenge ourselves, our brains will continue to change and evolve.
2. Read more. Researchers at Emory University's Center for Neuropolicy have found that reading a novel can produce positive changes in the brain that last for several days. When we read the left temporal cortex of the brain is stimulated strengthening memory and thinking skills. Similarly, the cognitive and emotional involvement that occurs when we read improves and strengthens neural connections. Additional studies have shown that reading every day can significantly slow down late-life cognitive decline enabling our brains to remain healthier and functioning optimally longer.3. Maintain a proper diet and nourishment. Our brain neurotransmitters require a healthy diet particularly since they are primarily derived from amino acids. Studies have also shown that nutrients like omega 3 fatty acids, complex milk lipids, magnesium, and choline increase brain plasticity. While the brain represents only 2 - 4% of body mass it requires and consumes 20 - 25% of all the energy from food and nutrition.
4. Get plenty of physical exercise. Here it is again! Exercise is so important for overall great health, especially the brain. Exercise increases brain plasticity – even as little as walking 30 minutes a day! Exercise elevates the levels of brain chemicals that promote the formation of both new brain cells and new neural connections.
5. Get enough sleep. Recent studies have shown that sleep resets the waking hour build-up of connectivity in the brain. This process is essential for our brains to remember and learn. If sleep-deprived, the brain's neurons become over-connected and jumbled with electrical activity to the point that new memories cannot be properly established. Sleep resets the brain connections critical to memory and learning.
6. Engage in musical training. Playing music is one of the most demanding cognitive challenges there is. It requires a myriad of exacting actions including timing, control of pitch, auditory and motor actions, and the ability to produce sound in a variety of ways. Learning a musical instrument is an excellent way to develop neurological skills. Even listening to music can trigger plastic changes in the brain.
7. Learn to Meditate. Meditation has some positive effects on the brain's structure. It increases the thickness and strength of the frontal cortex of the brain. As we age the frontal cortex typically decreases in size, however, studies show that those who meditate experience less of this reduction.
8. Travel and explore. Traveling to a new city or country stimulates your brain. It requires you to be alert to new experiences, new sights, sounds and smells and possibly a new language. It also requires you to assess your new surroundings, make new decisions, and plan your time. Traveling is great for growing new brain cells and opening up new neural pathways!
9. Be social and develop stimulating relationships. Numerous studies have shown that social interaction and meaningful, stimulating relationships are paramount for neuroplasticity and brain health. Meeting new people and interacting with stimulating friends boosts neural development while shared experiences and social activity encourage our brains to explore new perspectives, attitudes, and emotions.
10. Enjoy a good laugh. Researchers have discovered that laughing involves many regions of the brain including those that activate areas critical to learning and comprehension. Unsurprisingly, complex jokes involving paradoxes or surprising punch lines increases brain plasticity. Additionally, for the brain to be most effective, one must be in a positive frame of mind. Laughter certainly enhances such a frame of mind!
The best thing you can do to improve brain plasticity/neuroplasticity is to continue to learn new things, engage in new experiences, and take good care of your body.
New information and experiences flood your brain with neurotransmitters that include dopamine, serotonin and BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), all of which make it much easier to learn more new things. We can indeed dramatically improve brain plasticity!Related: