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What is neuroplasticity and how can it help us?

10 months ago

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By Nethmie Dehigama About five years ago, I happened to watch a TEDx Talks video titled ‘After watching this, your brain will not be the same’. The speaker Dr. Lara Boyd discussed her work as a brain researcher at the University of British Columbia. She explained how about 25 years ago, it was believed that the only changes that took place in the brain were negative ones – i.e., the loss of brain cells with ageing or damage due to strokes, etc. However, studies done over the years using advanced technology, showed that all of our behaviours change our brain – and it is not limited by age! What is the key to these changes, or in more scientific terms, the reorganisation of the brain? It is neuroplasticity. What is neuroplasticity? Dr. Celeste Campbell describes it in very simple terms: “[neuroplasticity] refers to the physiological changes in the brain that happen as the result of our interactions with our environment. From the time the brain begins to develop until the day we die, the connections among the cells in our brains reorganise in response to our changing needs. This dynamic process allows us to learn from and adapt to different experiences.” In other words, neuroplasticity is the ability of your brain to physically change and reorganise itself by forming new neural connections, in response to your behaviour. Studying neuroplasticity has been very helpful in the medical world, especially when it comes to people’s recovery after a traumatic injury or illness such as a stroke.  How does neuroplasticity work? Your brain can change on three levels:
  1. Chemically – this happens at the initial stage of learning something new and contributes to short-term memory or short-term improvement in motor skills.
  2. Structurally – here, neurons in your brain change their connections, essentially altering your brain structure. This involves long-term memory and long-term improvement of motor skills. This type of change requires more time and effort.
  3. Functionally – this happens when entire networks in your brain change or reorganise. As these networks are used over and over, they become more efficient when activated.
Now imagine that the above three types of changes work together or in ‘concert’ with one another. Neuroplastic change generally needs these five components to work:
  1. Challenge and novelty – the skill should be new to you and not too easy.
  2. Intention – the behaviour or skill you want to practise should have some meaning and relevance to you. This is because neuroplastic change is associated with the feeling of being rewarded while engaging in a new task. 
  3. Specific attention – focus on the exact task at hand. 
  4. Repetition and intensity – Doing something once does not create change. Repetition is important, as well as how much and how frequently you engage in your task.
  5. Time – it takes time for change to happen. Be patient and keep going!
Researched examples
  1. Mindfulness practice is known to improve memory, attention, and emotional regulation. Here we see how the behaviour – which is practising mindfulness – leads to positive changes in the brain characterised by better memory, etc. 
  2. Learning other languages has shown to increase grey matter and strengthen white matter in the specific area of the brain.
  3. London taxicab drivers have been observed to have larger brain regions devoted to spatial or mapping memories. This is most likely because they have to memorise and study a map of London before they receive their taxi licences. 
  4. Stroke survivors could regain their lost motor skills by engaging in repetitive and increasingly challenging exercises. 
  What can we learn from this? I’m not a doctor and I cannot speak for anything medicine-related. However, after learning about this concept, I realised that as individuals, we can learn to ‘hack’ our brains in order for us to live more fulfilling or easy lives. Neuroplasticity is always happening in our brains to some extent, so why not consciously use it to our advantage? Since birth, we have certain behaviours and patterns etched into our brain – our habits, the ways in which we react, how we think, etc. Knowing about the neuroplastic nature of our brain means that we have the power to change the things that we do not like about ourselves, whatever those might be. Celebrity therapist Marisa Peer, known for her Rapid Transformational Therapy training, as well as her speeches, talks about how we are able to change our brains for our betterment. I remember in one video she mentioned how, even at her old age, she makes sure to do something new every day to challenge her brain – small things like brushing her teeth with the opposite hand or while standing on one foot. These constant challenges she gives herself help her stay alert and keep her mind excited and active. So, maybe you want to improve your concentration and focus, mood, ability to learn and remember information, memory, productivity, and so on. Now that you know about the malleability of your brain, you can intentionally work on developing yourself in the ways that you want to. That is how you are wired!    Author bio: Nethmie is a digital marketer, writer, songwriter, and literature enthusiast. She has a BA (Hons) in International Communications.   PHOTOS © COGNIFIT, PSYCHABLE, GARETH FURBER, THE BEST BRAIN POSSIBLE  

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