May 6, 2015

Brain plasticity: what is it and how can you use it?

Following up on my two recent posts Is neuroscience relevant for coaches? and How do you find your path through the jungle of neuroscience? I now want to share some thoughts about what I think is one of the most fascinating topics in neuroscience: brain plasticity (also often referred to as neuroplasticity). For decades people have been thinking about the brain in rather statical terms. While they thought that brains of young people were in full development which enabled them to learn many new things they viewed brains of adults as hardly malleable anymore so that learning new things for older people would be much harder if possible at all. Also it was thought that damage to the brain normally was irreversible. And finally it was thought that little if anything could be done about the fact that with ageing brain functions deteriorate.

Since a few decades, more and more is known about the capacity of our brain to keep on developing. Our brain is actually never static. A few examples of how plastic our brain is. Each time we focus our attention on something, something changes in our brain. Each time we learn something new, we rearrange parts of our brain. Each time we go for a brisk walk, new neurons emerge in our brain. And is it true that by definition damage to our brain is irreversible? No. In many cases new areas in the brain can take over the function of the damaged areas (read more here and here). And is it true that nothing can be done about the deterioration of our brain functions as we age? No. It is true that many (perhaps all, but I am not sure) of our mental capacities deteriorate as we age but the idea that we have no other choice than to passively let this happen, is not true. There is a lot we can do to stay mentally fit and to prevent or, at least, delay many mental problems and age vitally. How? By using a combination of daily physical and mental exercise. One way to train our brain is to do specifically designed brain exercises. Two other ways are to learn a new language and to learn playing a musical instrument. Recent research shows that brain plasticity in older people may happen through different mechanisms but still does happen (read more).

You might think that the findings about brain plasticity would be received with great enthusiasm by both medical professionals and laypeople but this is not always the case. Is suspect this is partly due to the idea that people have that the brain plasticity findings are too optimistic. But I think that is a wrong view on brain plasticity. While I can see the positive side to brain plasticity, I can just as easily see its brutal side. By the way we act and focus our attention our brain can not only focus in a healthy but also in an unhealthy direction.

The topic of brain plasticity seems like an important topic to follow. A good way to start learning about it is to read a recent book by one of the pioneers of the field, Michael Merzenich: Soft-wired: How The New Science Of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life.

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