Neuroplasticity: How We Can Change Our Brains

Neuroplasticity: How We Can Change Our Brains

“We are at the dawn of a revolution, that of neuroplasticitĂ . It is in fact now clear that the brain machine can be constantly reprogrammed and revised in its functions, for the entire course of our lives and under our direct control ”. Michael Merzenich, Neuroscientist, pioneer of modern studies on brain plasticity. 

What is neuroplasticity?

And our brain's ability to change from a point of view structural and functional in response to external stimuli.



This is an extremely complex field of investigation, yet to be explored.

However, there is one very important thing that can now be said with certainty.

The old paradigm according to which the brain, after adolescence, has a fixed architecture and has lost its ability to grow, adapt and improve, is no longer valid.

On the contrary, it is now universally accepted that we are capable of act on our brain structures in a positive way (and negative) throughout our life.

This, of course, gives us great power.

That of improving our brain capabilities and fighting, at least in part, the deterioration that occurs over the years.

How neuroplasticity works

When you start learning any skill, whether it's playing tennis, playing the guitar, speaking a foreign language, too a group of neurons within your brain it begins to devote itself to it.

At the beginning they are few and not very specialized.

They work in an uncoordinated way with each other, they emit weak, slow signals, often even completely wrong.

And so you miss the ball, you miss the strings to hit, you don't recognize the sound of what you are told.



As you repeat the activity However, as you become more and more skilled, a number of interesting things happen in the brain.

More and more neurons are being recruited - in some cases it even appears to be coming create new ones - more and more connections are formed, stronger signals are sent, new interaction patterns are generated.

Similarly, when you stop engaging in an activity, your brain slowly starts divesting from it as well.

The signals become weaker, many intercellular connections are lost, the coordination between neurons decreases and the entire brain area dedicated to it undergoes a progressive impoverishment. 

In both cases we are faced to the phenomenon of neuroplasticity, only that the modality in which it happens and the final result are of opposite sign

Positive and negative neuroplasticity.

Like all changes, brain plasticity can be positive or negative.

We are talking about positive neuroplasticity when the brain increases the number of synaptic connections, their efficiency, their specialization and as a result is able to obtain a series of notable effects:

  • Learn faster
  • Improve memory and concentration
  • Resist stress and adapt faster
  • Manage emotions better
  • Recover from any damage
  • Even develop supra-human capabilities (I'll tell you shortly an example really on the edge of reality)

On the other hand, when neuroplasticity is negative, the brain is reduced in size and the number and efficiency of its connections decreases, with consequent functional decay.


The latter is the typical experience that many live in old age, but which actually begins much earlier.


How can we control it?

Factors affecting neuroplasticity

Scientific studies have highlighted many factors that interact positively and negatively with neuroplasticity.

The main ones are:

Social and environmental stimuli

A rich and varied social life keeps the brain younger. Conversely, the reduction of social interactions is associated with a greater likelihood of cognitive decline.

That's what can happen to the elderly when, on retirement, they do not replace the stimuli of working life with other equally strong ones.

But also to the children living in difficult social environments, deprived from a cultural and social point of view.

Stress

Stress suppresses neuroplasticity, which is stimulated by any activity that can reduce it: for example, meditation, yoga, mindfulness, exercise.

In particular for meditation, neuroimaging studies have shown that it is able to:

  • reduce the reactivity of the amygdala, a small part of the brain that is related to feelings of stress and fear (crf: Buddha's Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation)
  • help thickening the frontal cerebral cortex and hippocampus (the area of ​​the brain most involved in memory)

Sleep Quality

One of the modern productivity myths has been to sleep only 4-5 hours a night.


However, it is a big mistake.

Lack of sleep causes indeed hormonal imbalances (especially with respect to the secretion of cortisol, which among other things is one of the stress hormones) e cognitive decline.

Sleeping little and badly is a problem that should not be underestimated, but faced with decision, even with the help of experts.


Diet and exercise

These are complex variables to analyze, but there is now some agreement in believing that Omega 3, antioxidants and moderate calorie restriction are able to promote neuroplasticity.

This effect is even more evident when diet is combined with exercise.

Conversely, overweight, low physical activity, and trans fats are correlated with decreased neuroplasticity.

Brain training

Brain training, as I tell in one of my articles, is still a "minefield". It exists and works, but it is still not clear how, when, to what extent.

At the end of the article I will give you some advice.

And for more ideas, you can read this collection of easy and well-known mind training exercises.

Here instead, I want to tell you about a famous experiment which will show you how neuroplasticity is a natural response to brain training.

You must know that, in order to take the taxi driver's license in London, it is necessary to pass an exam for which the candidate must have memorized a labyrinth of more than 25 streets and lanes within 10 kilometers of Charing Cross in the heart of the city.

It normally takes about 4 years of preparation.

Eleanor Maguire, of University College London, analyzed a group of 79 aspiring taxi drivers by measuring size of their hippocampus at the beginning of the exam preparation and 4 years later, at the end of the exam.

The hippocampus is a deep brain structure heavily involved in memorization processes.

Dr. Maguire found that, in those 4 years, the size of the hippocampus had significantly increased.

Thanks to training, the brains of aspiring taxi drivers had become unmistakably more efficient.

To do this, he had undergone structural changes (the result of neuroplasticity!) So remarkable that they could be measured with magnetic resonance.

Neuroplasticity: How We Can Change Our Brains

Mindset e neuroplasticitĂ 

Even more important than the factors just seen, or rather pre-condition for them to be effective, is the Mindset with which you think about your brain capabilities.

To improve them you must first convince yourself that you can really do it. 

Let me tell you why.

In an article some time ago I said that people can have two types of Mindset:

Fixed Mindset: these people are convinced that they are born with a specific and immutable baggage of capacity, a "quantity of intelligence" that remains fixed for life or at least decreases with age.

Growth mindset: these people believe that their abilities can change positively and be increased throughout the course of their existence.

A little while ago we saw how diet, exercise, stress control, sleep, mental training, can positively or negatively affect your neuroplasticity.

If you have a "Growth" attitude then it will be natural for you to take care of all these aspects to get results.

If, on the other hand, you have a "Fixed" attitude, it will be more difficult for you to implement the strategies necessary to positively model your brain.

For all the "fixed mindsets" who are reading this article, here is a truly incredible and inspiring story of neuroplasticity.

A sensational case of Neuroplasticity: human echolocation

On the list of things we can do with neuroplasticity, I told you there are some really superhuman ones.

Among them, the one I find most exciting is the human echolocation.

Echolocation is the ability to identify the position and size of objects in the environment creating sounds and mentally analyzing their echo.

Bats, whales, dolphins use it, and it allows them to move in complete darkness avoiding obstacles and recognizing dangers.

Neuroplasticity: How We Can Change Our Brains

Incredibly, it is a skill that even humans I am able to develop.

In particular, some blind people are able to use echolocation in an extraordinarily efficient way, recording not only the position and size of objects, but even the material of which their surface is made. 

And they do it thanks to the sonorous echo they receive by clicking their tongue or hitting the ground with a walking stick.

At the base of this ability there is, again, neuroplasticity.

By performing functional magnetic resonance imaging of individuals capable of echolocating objects, Professor Thaler of Durham University made a surprising discovery.

It is not the areas of the auditory cortex that record the sound that are activated when the echo is heard, but those of the visual cortex!

In the blind who are experts in echolocation, therefore, one happens complete functional conversion of a cortical area normally assigned to a completely different function.

The visual cortex, which normally converts visual stimuli into images, learns to convert sound signals into images.

Obviously these images do not have the same precision of detail as those perceived with the eyes.

However, they are sufficient to allow the blind person to do things like ride a bicycle and dodge obstacles, walk in a forest full of trees, orient themselves in an unfamiliar environment.

It is a truly incredible phenomenon, which among other things is opening up futuristic scenarios thanks to studies on enhancement of signals through the implantation of electrodes cerebral.

What does the future have to offer

I wish now that you reflected on one thing. 

It may seem incredible today, but even a few decades ago there were very few gyms and those who frequented them were often seen as someone weird, obsessed.

Similarly, those who went for a run in the morning or decided to move mostly by bicycle were considered either a hippie or a fanatic of American fashions.

Today, however, virtually everyone knows that exercise is an integral part of a healthy and happy life.

In the same way, in a few years, brain training and neuroplasticity they will become concepts widely known and shared by all.

Natural part of our daily life and our health.

The concept of keeping the brain in training as if it were a muscle is therefore not simply a cliché, a myth or a pseudoscientific saying.

Neuroplasticity studies have shown that it is possible to exercise our brain to modify its structure and make it more performing.

As well as have shown that bad habits and disuse they impoverish and damage it.

It will probably still be a long time before these studies help us find a cure for degenerative brain diseases.

However, it is great to know that our brain and its health are also in part under our control.

Whatever age you are, whatever condition you are, use your brain to the fullest.

Surround yourself with intellectual and social stimuli.

Eat well, sleep well, move, meditate, relax.

Study, read, play, do crossword puzzles, sudoku puzzles, riddles.

Always try to learn new things.

Keep your mind open to new ideas, new trends, new ways of looking at things.

Make Sherlock Holmes' words yours:

“My brain rebels in the face of all forms of stasis, of intellectual stagnation. Give me some problems to solve, give me some work to do, give me the most abstruse cryptogram to decrypt, or examine the most complex analytic tangle and I will find myself in my element. "

A greeting! Anthony.

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