The 3 pounds of grey matter between your ears is the most complex system in the known universe. The field of neuroscience has gone through a scientific golden age in recent decades, and this is largely due to amazing discoveries on your brain’s neuroplasticity. In this first of a two-part blog, we’ll learn why neuroplasticity is down-right amazing.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Neurons include many different cells which are all specialized for communicating what is going on in and around your body, with the command center being your mind. Plasticity is a reference for the flexibility to change, which is why some neuroscientists will state that ‘the brain is plastic’. Put simply, neuroplasticity means ‘your brain is adaptable’.
Everyone is familiar with the idea that if you exercise your body, your muscles and cardiovascular system will adapt, making you fitter and better able to exercise. In a nutshell, this is what your brain does when it’s stimulated.
Whether you’re processing sensory information, focusing on tasks, thinking deeply, using your imagination, or even just dreaming – your brain is geared to constantly adapt to the demands placed on it. Believe it or not, there are lots of changes going on in your head while reading this blog.
How Neuroplasticity is Different from Physical Fitness
Comparing fitness gains from the brain and physical exercise is actually an oversimplification. Though the effects are similar in principle, there are some key ways they are very different. The biology of the brain and central nervous system are built to adapt in ways much more efficiently than muscle cells do. This happens in surprisingly sophisticated ways.
4 Remarkable Ways Your Brain Adapts
- Not only can your brain grow new brain cells like muscles can – a process called neurogenesis – but your neurons can rewire structurally to generate new networks for greater connectivity. These networks are vast – there are around 100 trillion connections between your neurons!
- Your brain cells can improve the speed at which they can communicate with each other through increasing myelin, a coating around neuron connections. This increases their electrical efficiency, allowing neuron signals to travel at greater speed across networks.
- Neurons which are not used over time can be trimmed back through a process called synaptic pruning, keeping your brain’s resources optimized. In the first years of our life, our brains go through massive amounts of pruning, a little like Michelangelo sculpting a masterpiece from a piece of marble. A recent discovery showed that this process occurs into old age.
- The overall activity of your brain can adapt by speeding up or slowing down brainwaves, which are the frequencies by which large groups of your neurons fire in synchronous waves. For example, being mentally alert requires faster brainwaves. Research shows that brainwave changes can be sustained over time.
Why These Are a Big Deal
The net effect of all these systems is that your brain has the potential to adapt far more rapidly and robustly than the effects of exercise on your muscles and with much longer lasting changes. Compared to the effects of exercise, it’s a little like training on steroids. In fact, the latest neuroscience research is showing more and more that conditioning your brain can have transformative effects on human performance and quality of life.
There is an operation called a hemispherectomy which baffles neuroscientists even today. It’s needed in life-threatening conditions such as severe epilepsy, where literally half of a person’s brain has to be cut out. In theory, this should be devastating because each half of the brain manages very different functions, such as controlling one side of the body. However, up until teenage years, when half of the brain is removed, the other half has the capability to rewire itself into a whole new left-right brain.
The brain essentially detects a catastrophic change and rapidly adapts, functionally rebuilding itself without any outside help. Remarkably, patients can make an almost complete recovery and lead a normal life. Just how this is possible is still a mystery, but it provides staggering proof of why neuroplasticity is a tour de force of human evolution.
Enjoyed this? Look out for the second part to this blog where you’ll find out life hacks for harnessing the power of your neuroplasticity. You can also check out this related blog:
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