What does it take to change your brain?
For decades, scientists were convinced that learning-related changes to the human brain occurred only within a certain “critical period” of our childhood development. In recent years however, evidence has been increasing in support of the notion that the brain works a lot like a muscle; its ability to change and grow depends on the effort we put into developing its different areas.
We now know that our brains have the capacity to be “rewired” throughout our everyday lives.
Brain cell (neuronal) connections change, strengthen and form new pathways throughout our lives. This quality is called brain plasticity. Plasticity is vital to us because it underlies our brains’ mechanisms of learning, development, skill refinement and rehabilitation from trauma.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies, for examples, have shown that musical training strengthens neural connections between the auditory and motor regions of the brain. This is probably because musicians learn and repeatedly practice the association of muscle movement with specific sound and visual patterns (musical notation).
One quirky study found that learning to juggle was linked to the reorganisation of brain nerve fibres associated with the processing and storage of complex visual motion – after only six weeks of training!
And to all you gamers out there – you may be pleased to hear that playing video games has been associated with increasing thickness of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the brain region thought to be responsible for strategic planning, working memory and reasoning. (Thanks GTA!)
So, how does plasticity work?
When we practice things like playing a composition, juggling, driving on manual, riding a bike or memorising a poem, with enough training these actions become “automatic” and we don’t have to act them out consciously. Plasticity has much to do with this.
“Neurons that fire together wire together” – Donald Hebb
This is a famous mantra within the neuroscience field that theorises how brain plasticity works. It roughly translates as: the more frequently a brain pathway that is associated with a particular task is stimulated, the stronger and more efficient it becomes. With time and repetition of the task, these connections become strengthened, and stimulating one brain cell in the sequence is more likely to trigger the next one to fire. This process “hardwires” that specific activity in our minds, so that it becomes smooth and perhaps almost effortless, requiring little attentional capacity.
Scientists study… the art of studying!
What really strikes me about neuroplasticity is that like practicing an instrument or playing a sport, the way we think also has the ability to alter our brain structure.
Silvia Bunge’s lab in Berkley recently discovered that studying intensively for Law exams for as little as three months significantly increased and strengthened neural connections between areas of the brain known for their roles in reasoning and skill learning (the parietal lobe and the striatum). This study, supported by many others, highlights that when we exercise different modes of thought, certain neural pathways are engaged and become strengthened. This may help to explain why the more we study, the better we become at absorbing new information. On the other hand, as habits die out, the neural pathways related to those activities may weaken, or eventually be eliminated (neuroscientists say “pruned“).
These findings underscore that intelligence is not a fixed character trait, but rather something that forms and develops throughout our lives. Interestingly, morale and exam results increase greatly when students are taught this idea that intelligence is a malleable characteristic!
Meditate on this
I have learnt that meditation doesn’t necessarily mean sitting in the lotus position and reciting mantras (although it can include these things). Meditation is the practice of focusing your thoughts/attention on a sound, object, visualisation or breathing, and can be exercised to increase your awareness of the present moment, reduce stress, promote relaxation, and enhance personal and spiritual growth. Interestingly, plasticity rules apply to meditation too :).
MRI studies of short term meditators have found a decreased density of neurones in the amygdala, an area known to play an key role in anxiety and stress. They have also shown that long term meditators have larger neurone densities than non-meditators in brain areas associated with attention, emotional regulation and response control.
If just thinking certain thoughts could be reorganising our brain structure, the implications could truly be great.
Fantastically, these studies highlight that day by day, our minds are building our brains. Just as physical training changes our bodies, exercising the way we think can physically change our brain anatomy.
Change your brain today
To me, the findings from these studies, taken together, point out that our sense of wellbeing may not be a predetermined trait, but more of a skill that can be related to where we regularly focus our attention and actions. Every time we place our thoughts or actions on something positive, we are strengthening the neural pathways that lead to more positive thoughts and actions – building ourselves to be happier people on “automatic” :).
In the words of George Bernard Shaw: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
…and of course I had to slightly edit those wise ole words of Barbie: “We are plastic – it’s fantastic.”
Good luck getting that tune out of your head.
Lego art: Nathan Sawaya and The Art of the Brick. Posted by Tu Pham
Hercules the Juggler: Ruth Isabel Guerra; http://www.pinterest.com/pin/269582727670433740/
Rose: Rosa Renaissance ‘Harzart’ by Ryan Lee Photography on Flickr