Understanding Neuroplasticity
Consulting Educational and Communications Expert
Trends in Education

Learning changes the brain

"Pensar es servir"

Every mind is creative

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What is neuroplasticity?

Your brain is you. It is as unique as your fingerprint, but designed to change throughout your life. It is your command centre that mediates your daily experiences at every level, controlling who you are, what you do, how you feel, and even how your brain changes.

The brain’s inherent ability to change itself is called neuroplasticity. Experience changes the brain and brain change occurs when learning takes place. Every physical, sensory, and mental activity that is continuous or repeated over time—including thinking, learning, and imagining, as well as feeling, attitude, and perception—changes your brain. Neuroplasticity is the key to brain change and brain fitness.

Massive brain changes occur during infancy and early childhood when normal brain development depends on environment, including stimulation from the people interacting with the child or infant. The brain creates its systems and pathways during this "set-up period" and prepares us for lifelong learning. During this critical period, the brain is so plastic - i.e., changeable - that learning is effortless, requiring only exposure to new stimuli. The result is rapid formative growth.

Scientists used to believe that brain changes don't occur beyond the critical periods of childhood. We now know that our brain changes structurally as well as functionally according to how we use it throughout our lifetime. Experience changes the brain and plasticity is a dynamic process. Regular exposure to an enriched environment, acquiring new skills and abilities, adapting to a new culture, learning a new subject, and recovery after injury are all conditions that develop new pathways and connections between areas of the brain, new synapses between neurons, and even new neurons.

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Neuroplastic change may be positive or negative

Learning and memory are two related concepts in neuroscience. Brain change is long-term learning and involves memory. After the childhood period of effortless learning and formative brain change, learning requires focus and attention as well as practice and repetition over time. Neuroplasticity is the key to brain change.

However, neuroplasticity is neutral and the nature of bran changes varies. Learning may be positive, as in acquiring useful knowledge and skills, or negative, such as forming harmful patterns of behaviour or descending into drug addiction.

Physical, mental and sensory activities change the brain. For example, our sensory receptors (eyes, ears, etc.) receive information from the world and translate it into electrical impulses, the "language" of the brain. Electrical impulses travel along pathways that connect different parts of the brain. The brain interprets the information it receives, and we experience this interpretation as as seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling, tasting, etc. As our skills develop and our behaviours become habitual, pathways become more pronounced and more efficient. Learning becomes long-term and unlearning becomes more difficult.

Scientific evidence confirms that our neurons are "basically identical" to other animals', including marine snails as well as chimpanzees, all of which have plastic brains. This similarity between our brains and those of other animals has enabled scientists studying our brain and our genes to discover the distinguishing gene that allows humans to grow roughly 100 billion neurons, compared to chimpanzees, whose brains are roughly one-third the size of ours. The number of synaptic connections made possible by 100 billion neurons are astronomical and far outnumber the particles of the known universe.

These astronomical numbers indicate the complexity of the brain and the enormous challenges for neuroscientists who study it. They also indicate the potential "brain power" enabled by neuroplasticity for creativity, adaptation, and change, as well as cognition, consciousness, and contemplation, for the brain is also the seat of the mind. In addition to regulating our blood pressure, breathing, and heartbeat, and controlling hunger, thirst, sex drive, and sleep, our brains also generate the emotions, perceptions and conscious awareness that guide our behaviours and our actions.

Four types of plasticity

Source: Norman Doidge, M.D., The Brain That Changes Itself

Research scientist Jordan Grafman has identified four types of neuroplasticity:

1. Map expansion - changes at the boundaries between areas of the brain resulting from daily activity

2. Sensory reassignment - changes in the sensory areas that occur when impairment or loss of a one sense results in the affected area of the brain receiving and processing imput from another sense

3. Compensation - changes in strategy or approach to a task that result when the usually preferred approach is no longer available, for example, following brain injury

4. Mirror region takeover - changes that occur when the brain copes with loss of function in one hemisphere by recruiting the mirror region of the opposite

Neuroplasticity for everyday life

Understanding neuroplasticity is a journey of discovery that takes us in two directions: outward into the world of knowledge and research in neuroscience, and inward for insights into the workings of our minds and the potential for balancing and realigning our everyday lives.

This journey requires learning new concepts like critical period, brain mapping, and rewiring the brain, as well as considering everyday concepts like memory, forgetting, learning, decision-making, and culture from new perspectives. It means becoming familiar with some plasticity-based therapies that are helping individuals cope with brain disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It provides insights into the complexity of the brain and helps uf to understand why so many questions and problems related to our brain remain unresolved.

However, relating what we know about neuroplasticity to metacognition, and understanding what is required to build and maintain brain fitness enables us to apply that knowledge to our everyday lives and personal goals. The rewards are life-changing.