If you ever doubt your ability to change, or feel stuck in your old ways, or wonder if it's too late, what I am about to share with you may surprise or amaze you. That was my reaction. The current science of the brain changed what I learned about the brain in the mid-1990s when I studied linguistics and cognition, and it wasn't even that long ago.
The truth is that we are continuously changing although we may not always realize it. For example, most of the cells and tissues in the human body keep regenerating and are much younger than the person in which they are found. You may have heard a statement that our body changes every 7 years. The average age depends on the types of cells and tissues, some take much less time to renew, others take longer. You habits and your lifestyle all have an impact on how your body turns out.
Neuroscientists tell us now that our brain can also rejuvenate and improve itself. Our brain forms new neurons throughout our lives, and the connections and functions in the brain change as well. What we do day to day influences our brain's function, and we can participate actively and consciously in the rewiring of our brain. The brain's ability to rewire itself as a result of life experiences is called neuroplasticity. That's right, our brains are plastic.
Norman Doidge in his book "The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science" talks about a paradox of change. The forces that enable us to change are also responsible for keeping us stuck. If we keep doing the same, we may think nothing changes, but in fact, the more we repeat a certain behavior, the stronger the corresponding pathway in the brain grows, making it more difficult to unlearn the pattern. The good news is that the same principle applies when we learn a new skill or habit. The more attention we pay to it and the more we practice it, the easier it will become.
As you read the following remarkable examples of neuroplasticity in action, consider how much power you actually have to shape your brain and your life. It's never too late to change and build new good habits.
1. The adult human brain has approximately 100 billion neurons. Education increases the number of branches among neurons, increasing the volume and thickness of the brain. Brain is like a muscle that needs mental work-outs. Learning and brain exercises slow age-related mental decline and even improve brain function.
2. Physical exercise promotes creation of new neurons in the brain, the process known as neurogenesis. It also stimulates sensory and motor cortices and helps the brain’s balance system.
3. As we age, we tend to shift cognitive activities from one lobe in the brain to another. There is also an indication that we use both hemispheres as we age for the tasks that used to take place in just one hemisphere. Perhaps, the brain optimizes itself to compensate for any weaknesses.
4. Specifically designed brain exercises have been shown to strengthen weak brain functions in children and adults with learning disabilities. For example, rote memorization can help the auditory memory. Handwriting strengthens motor capacities, and adds speed and fluency to reading.
5. Stroke patients recover some lost abilities when the brain reorganizes itself to move functions from the damages location to a new one.6. Because the brain physically changes its state as we think, it is possible to measure the changes electronically. As a result, there's technology that allows completely paralyzed people move objects with their thoughts and interact with computers.
7. V.S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, uses imagination and illusion to restructure brain maps and help people manage their phantom pain and some forms of chronic pain, which he believes to be a construct of the brain that is projected on to the body. For example, his invention of the mirror box helped many amputees get rid of the pain in the phantom limb. The brain is tricked into believing that the phantom limb is moving when the patient sees a mirror reflection of the moving good limb in the mirror box.
8. People can improve performance through visualizations because action and imagination often activate the same parts of the brain. When we need to learn a physical skill, mental practice of this skill can produce the same physical changes in the motor system as the physical practice. This effect has been achieved in experiments that involved people learning to play the piano, as well as athletes in training.
9. If you were to wear blindfolds for two days, your visual cortex would reorganize itself to process sound and touch. Once you take the blindfolds off, the visual cortex will stop responding to tactile or auditory signals within twelve or twenty-four hours.
10. The Sea Gypsies, Nomadic people who live in a cluster of tropical islands in the Burmese archipelago and spend most of their lives in boats on the open sea, can see clearly under water at great depths because they learn to control the shape of their lenses and the side of their pupils, constricting them 22%. Most of us can’t do that, and pupil adjustment has been considered to be affixed, innate reflex. However, in one study, Swedish children were able to learn the trick, and their brains responded to the training.
11. London taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus compared to bus drivers. It's because this region of the hippocampus is specialized in acquiring and using complex spatial information in order to navigate efficiently. Taxi drivers have to navigate around London whereas bus drivers follow a limited set of routes.
12. Collaboration between Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Dalai Lama explored the effects of meditation on the brain. The researchers compared the trained minds of the monks and those of the volunteers. The results showed much greater activation of powerful gamma waves in the monks than in the students during meditation. Moreover, even when the participants were not meditating, the trained meditators' brains showed a large increase in the gamma signal. In previous studies, mental activities such as focus, memory, learning and consciousness were associated with the kind of enhanced neural coordination found in the meditators. The intense gamma waves signaled higher mental activity and heightened awareness.
13. Plastic changes also occur in musicians' brains compared to non-musicians. Research shows that gray matter (cortex) volume is highest in professional musicians, intermediate in amateur musicians, and lowest in non-musicians in several brain areas involved in playing music: motor regions, anterior superior parietal areas and inferior temporal areas. There is also a dark side to neuroplasticity in musicians. When a musician frequently uses two fingers together while playing the instrument, the brain maps for the two fingers sometimes fuse in such a way that the musician can't move one finger without the other. This is a condition called "focal dystonia." To play again, the musician's brain maps have to be separated through special training.
14. Learning to juggle can increase gray matter in the occipito-temporal cortex as early as after 7 days of training.
15. Extensive learning of abstract information can also trigger some plastic changes in the brain. Brains of medical students showed learning-induced changes in the parietal cortex and the posterior hippocampus - brain regions involved in memory retrieval and learning.
Begley, Sharon. 2007. Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves. Ballantine Books.
Doidge, N. 2007. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York:Viking.
Davidson, R. J., J. Kabat-Zinn, J. Schumacher, M. Rosenkranz, D. Muller, S.F. Santorelli, F. Urbanowski, A. Harrington, K. Bonus, and J.F. Sheridan. 2003. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine. 65 (4):564–570.
Draganski, B., C. Gaser, G. Kempermann, H.G. Kuhn, J. Winkler, C. Buchel, and A. May. 2006. Temporal and spatial dynamics of brain structure changes during extensive learning. Journal of Neuroscience. 26:6314–6317.
Gaser, C. and G. Schlaug. 2003. Brain Structures Differ between Musicians and Non-Musicians. Journal of Neuroscience. 23:9240 - 9245.
Maguire, E.A., K. Woolett and H.J. Spiers. 2006. London taxi drivers and bus drivers: A structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Hippocampus. 16:1091-1101.
Schwartz, J.M. and S. Begley. 2002. The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York: Harper Collins.