Until recently, the common scientific belief was that the brain was plastic — or changeable — only during childhood and young adulthood, the period when a person grows to maturity. However, as far back as the 1890s, psychologist William James observed in his book, The Principles of Psychology, “Organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity.”
What is Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt as the result of experience. The term is a combination of neurons, the word for nerve cells, and plasticity, or malleability.
Neurons begin developing in humans during the third week of pregnancy. Before birth, they are created at an average of 250,000 per minute to form the millions of nerve cells a person needs. By the time a baby is born, this development has largely ended.
Writer Kendra Cherry notes that in the 1920s, Karl Lashley, a researcher, saw evidence of changes in the neural pathways of Rhesus monkeys. By the 1960s, researchers had realized that stroke victims often regained certain functions, evidence that the brain was more changeable than previously believed.
Today, neuroscience and neuroplasticity are expanding areas of study and scientists are excited about unravelling the brain’s secrets.
Neuroplasticity and Learning
Interestingly, it appears that the brain is constantly adapting and reorganizing. Neurons are regularly forming new connections through pathways called synapses. These reorganizations may result from learning, memory formation or experience, or they may result from damage to the brain.
When you study a language and learn its vocabulary, the brain adapts to accommodate new neural connections; this is called structural plasticity. If you have a stroke that damages a specific area of the brain, it may reorganize to shift the functions usually done in that region to another part of the brain. This is called functional plasticity.
Why Is Brain Neuroplasticity Research Important?
Neuroplasticity offers hope to all of us that cures can be found for illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease, one in which neurons seem to erode and become useless, and for brain injuries.
On a smaller scale, it may help us learn to repair the “wires” in the brain connected to memories that seem to have eroded – for instance, those that make it difficult for us to recall someone’s name. If we can learn to repair neurons or help them to regenerate, perhaps we can reverse or prevent these problems or fix them once they occur.
Neuroplasticity Training – How Do We Promote It?
One approach to stimulating neuroplasticity is mental exercise. Just as physical exercise builds muscle, mental workouts can prompt the brain to reorganize connections more quickly.
Today, many specialized brain workouts or challenges are available, but even trying new experiences, putting yourself in a social situation or doing physical exercise will stimulate neural activity and help build new connections.
Simple activities, such as doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku puzzles regularly stimulate the brain. Challenge your brain: learn something new and practice it until it becomes easier for you. Stimulating yourself is the best way to keep those neurons firing. The brain enjoys stimulation, so learning is generally a positive stimulus for the neurons.
Drugs can also stimulate neuroplasticity – but not just any medication! Researchers have learned that drugs that make the hormone norepinephrine more available to the brain assist with rehabilitation after movement loss by helping new synapses form between neurons. Drugs may work best in combination with physical or rehabilitation therapy, because when used alone, they can be costly and may have unwanted side effects.
The focus of rehabilitation therapy is to stimulate neurons that may not have been active for a while. Specific, targeted physical activities may promote self-repair or neural stimulation that leads to the formation of new pathways. This approach may be especially effective with older adults, because it appears that the brain reorganizes with more difficulty as we age.
Neuroplasticity Exercise – Timing is Everything
Stephanie Liou, writing for Stanford University’s HOPES project, notes that using an injured body part immediately after a brain injury may increase the damage. However, waiting too long to shake the neurons out of their slumber may render the connections between them impossible to repair.
Generally, rehabilitation is best after a week or two, but it must be done carefully and under professional guidance so that the new patterns and pathways don’t squeeze out other useful ones.
Meditation and Neuroplasticity
Exciting research into the effects of meditation on the brain by some of the leading neuroscientists in the world is showing that the brain is capable of changing for the better. Science is only scratching the surface in terms of the brain and our ability to influence and bring about change through meditation.
Below is just a brief list of findings regarding meditation and neuroplasticity. Meditation can:
- Trigger patterns of neural pulsing that produce relaxed alertness
- Activate positive emotion circuits, building resilience and resistance to depression
- Increase serotonin, a neurotransmitter that supports mood, sleep, and digestion
- Thicken the anterior cingulate, strengthening attention and self-observation
- Thicken the insula, strengthening internal sensing and empathy for others
- Stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) for relaxed well-being
- Strengthen the immune system, improve cardiovascular health, dampen chronic pain
With all the amazing positive changes meditation can have on your brain, it’s no surprise that meditation has gone mainstream. Not meditating yet? Want to start working on improving all parts of your life with meditation? It’s easier than you think.