Expand Your Wits and Horizon (with Neuroplasticity)

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

Here’s a small experiment for you: In a notebook or on a piece of paper, jot down a memory of a time when you were happy. Include details — what you were doing, what you were seeing, and how you felt. Don’t forget the sensory details — what did it smell like around you? What were the sounds in the background? Continue writing for as long as it takes for you to feel transported back to when you lived it. You may feel the rush of all you felt back then. You may only feel a tiny bit of it, but as long as you bring back even some of that feeling of happiness, you’ve stimulated the part of your brain that knows happiness — and the more you stimulate it, the easier it becomes for you to be and remain happy.

What you’ve just loosely experienced is called neuroplasticity.

Even as late as the 1960s, scientists believed the brain stopped changing after infancy and early childhood. It was widely accepted that by adulthood, the brain’s structure was not only permanent but that the brain no longer had the ability to change or adapt. Research in the last few decades has negated that hypothesis, proving that, in fact, our brains are malleable organs that continuously create new neural pathways and alter existing ones in response to new experiences, new information, and new memories. This forming of new neurons in our brains and the brain’s extraordinary ability to change is called neuroplasticity.

What this means is that you have greater control over your mind than you believe.

How can you use neuroplasticity to change your brain and change your life? Here are some ways.

LEARN NEW SKILLS

Neuroplasticity can truly change your life, letting you continuously learn new skills, to become a more interesting, and ideally, happier human being. Most of us, after a certain age, give up on the idea of adding new skills, talents, or knowledge bases to our repertoire, believing that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks, so to speak. In fact, the opposite is true. By learning a new language, taking up a new hobby, or learning a new skill — say carpentry — you’re actively employing both hemispheres of the brain and engaging in what is known as whole brain thinking.

In fact, when you become an expert in a specific skill set, the areas of your brain that deal with that type of skill tend to grow. Take the case of London taxi drivers who have been proven to have a larger hippocampus than the average London bus driver. The hippocampus is the area of the brain that specializes in acquiring and using complex spatial information in order to navigate effectively. Whereas bus drivers follow one specific route, taxi drivers have to navigate throughout the intricate streets of London (and take a difficult test to become cab drivers in the first place).

Research has also shown plasticity in the brains of bilinguals, that is, the left inferior parietal cortex is larger in bilingual brains than in monolingual ones.

Still not convinced? Consider this: In 2006, researchers imaged the brains of German medical students three months prior to their medical exams and then once again right after the exam and compared them to brains of students who were not studying for the exam at the time. What they found was that the brains of medical students who were studying for the test had learning-induced changes in the regions of the parietal cortex as well as the posterior hippocampus. These are the parts of the brain known to be involved in memory retrieval and learning.

CREATE NEW THINKING PATTERNS

One of the quickest and easiest ways to take advantage of neuroplasticity and change your behavior immediately is to change your self-talk. For the next few days, try and really listen to the ways in which you talk to yourself. Do you criticize yourself repeatedly for your shortcomings and failings? Call yourself stupid or idiotic? Foresee the future for yourself in negative ways?

Your individual thoughts form the structure of your brain and by changing them, you can change traits in yourself, such as confidence. And if that sounds too much like woo to you, consider the Sea Gypsies of Thailand who spent a lot of their time in boats off the coast of Myanmar and Thailand. According to studies, the Sea Gypsies have very advanced underwater vision. It’s twice as good as that of the Europeans — and they’re able to constrict their pupils by 22 percent. This enables them to gather shellfish without the aid of scuba gear. Neuroscientists believe that any child can very quickly learn this trick. Simply put, the brain orders the body to adapt to its environment in the best way to suit its needs.

Or, in other words, if the brain commands it, the body follows. And the words and commands you put in your brain become the fodder for everything.

LEARN TO PLAY MUSIC

In a data-driven study conducted at Northwestern University, researchers were able to pull together research from scientific literature linking musical training to learning. These same skills that the test subjects used to play the violin from day to day, spilled over to skills that included language, speech, memory, attention, and even vocal emotion.

The explosion of research in recent years focusing on the effects of music training on the nervous system, including the studies in the review, have strong implications for education. “An active engagement with musical sounds not only enhances neuroplasticity,” said study author Nina Kraus, “but also enables the nervous system to provide the stable scaffolding of meaningful patterns so important to learning.”

This isn’t the first study to suggest such a thing. In fact, The Journal of Neuroscience carried research by Christian Gaser and Gottfried Schlaug that compared professional musicians (who practiced at least one hour a day) to amateur musicians and non-musicians, and found that the gray matter (cortex) volume was the highest in professional musicians, intermediate in amateur musicians, and lowest in non-musicians in several of the brain areas that are involved in playing music: the motor regions, anterior superior parietal areas, and inferior temporal areas.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

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