What is Neuroplasticity?
Every time you learn something, experience something new or practice a skill you physically change your brain. This is called neuroplasticity and it is defined as the brain’s ability to mould and to shape itself in response to thoughts, experiences, emotions and movement.
The brain is made up of billions of tiny cells called neurons, connected together in a dense network. Just like turning on a light switch activates the electrical current in one room but not in all of the other rooms in the house, different neurons will be activated depending on what you are doing at any one point in time.
If you are listening to music, the neurons in the auditory system of your brain will be activated. If you are looking at a beautiful view, the neurons in the visual system will be activated.
More often than not, however, two systems can be active at the same time. Do you remember the last time you learned a new skill?
Let’s go back to when you first learned to drive. You probably sat in the front seat staring in bewilderment at all of the levers buttons and pedals that you had to push and pull at different times. Meanwhile you were listening to the driving instructor’s advice and trying to remember everything they said.
Now, however, driving seems easy and you can barely remember why it was so difficult in the first place. This is because the neuronal activation between seeing something and knowing what to do (for example seeing a red light and moving down a gear in preparation) has become an automatic association. The neurons in your visual system activate in response to seeing the red light and the neurons in your motor, or movement, system activate your leg muscles to push the clutch. The message system between these two sets of neurons has become highly efficient due to the many times you did this as you practiced for your driving test.
Q. Why is Neuroplasticity important?
- A. Used correctly, it gives us a strong and healthy brain.
One of the most fascinating things that recent neuroscience has discovered, is that not only do the networks of neurons become more efficient the more you practice, they also increase in size. This is because learning grows the grey matter in the brain.
One group of researchers who showed this looked at the size of German medical students’ brains before they did a set of exams, while they were studying for their exams and 3 months later .Much like doing weight lifting builds muscle, this group of researchers found that the memory centre of the students’ brains was built up after they had studied for their exams.
You don’t have to study to be a doctor to build your brain though. The same group of researchers found that learning how to juggle over 3 months also grew the grey matter of the brain .
But why should we care about the size of our grey matter?
After all it’s not as though we can show off a 6-pack in our brain…
One reason is that maintaining the grey matter in our brains is important for all of those abilities that we take for granted but which are so important for every day function – our ability to remember, to plan, to reason and to carry out complex tasks.
Yet some things in life can decrease grey matter and temporarily hinder these abilities. Long term stress is one of these threats. Short bursts of stress actually improve memory and learning allowing us to focus and perform better. Chronic, or long-term stress, however, hinders our ability to learn and can reduce neuroplasticity and grey matter in the memory centres of the brain.
Keep our brains supple and in good shape
Education, learning new skills and enjoying new experiences may actually be important for protecting our brains and these abilities .
The good news is that studying for exams or learning to juggle are not the only things which increase grey matter. Researchers have also found that stress management programmes such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction can decrease stress, improve the efficiency of our brains and also build up grey matter [4-6].
So try out a new skill, go somewhere new, be open to experience and try some stress-management programmes. You might just be building up the muscle of your brain…
- Draganski, B., et al., Temporal and spatial dynamics of brain structure changes during extensive learning. The Journal of Neuroscience, 2006. 26(23): p. 6314-6317.
- Draganski, B., et al., Neuroplasticity: changes in grey matter induced by training. Nature, 2004. 427(6972): p. 311-312.
- Robertson, I.H., A noradrenergic theory of cognitive reserve: implications for Alzheimer’s disease. Neurobiology of aging, 2013. 34(1): p. 298-308.
- Hölzel, B.K., et al., Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 2009: p. nsp034.
- Hölzel, B.K., et al., Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2011. 191(1): p. 36-43.
- Kilpatrick, L.A., et al., Impact of mindfulness-based stress reduction training on intrinsic brain connectivity. Neuroimage, 2011. 56(1): p. 290-298.