Brain plasticity—also called neuroplasticity—is an odd term for most people, with the word ‘plastic’ causing images of Tupperware to pop into your head.
However, brain plasticity is a common term used by neuroscientists, referring to the brain’s ability to change at any age, for better or worse. As you can imagine, this flexibility plays an incredibly important role in our brain development (or decline) and in shaping our distinct personalities.
Brain plasticity is a physical process. Grey matter can actually shrink or thicken, connections and communication between brain cells can be forged and refined or weakened and severed.
Changes in the physical brain manifest as changes in our abilities. For example, each time we learn a new dance step, it reflects a change in our physical brains – the formation of new ‘wires’ (neural pathways) that give instructions to our bodies on how to perform the step.
Each time we forget someone’s name, it also reflects brain change — ‘wires’ that once connected to the memory have been degraded, or even lost entirely.
As these examples show, changes in the brain can result in improved skills (a new dance step) or a weakening of skills (a forgotten name).
Often, people think of childhood and young adulthood as a time of brain growth. Conversely, older adulthood is often seen as a time of cognitive decline, with people becoming more forgetful, less inclined to seek new experiences, more ‘set in their ways’.
But what recent research has shown is that under the right circumstances, the power of brain plasticity can help adult minds grow and improve. Although certain brain machinery tends to decline with age, there are steps people can take to tap into plasticity and reinvigorate that machinery.
We just have to keep our brains fit and healthy with activities and exercises that challenge the brain’s machinery and make the most of its inherent plasticity.
At this point, you may be wondering about some specific examples of skills and activities that have been found to be particularly useful for maintaining and growing brain health.
It may be helpful to consider a few examples of how a more brain-healthy life might be organised. Here are some ideas:
The bottom line? Refocus and re-intensify your active hearing, seeing, and feeling. Re-engage with life again, with vigour, seriousness, and challenge.
Nurture behaviours that are demanding on every level of perception and cognition — from addressing details of sensation and perception through complex levels of reasoning and planning. Learn to learn again.
Celebrate every small step in progress, because small steps can lead to big achievements and the pleasure that accompanies them. Avoid the effortless path. Stop hiding behind the mindless, brainless, struggle-free behaviours that you mastered in your younger life. In other words, stop going to such great efforts not to engage in real life!
Grow again, in your everyday activities, by improving old abilities and by developing new ones, by leading a life more richly supplied with interesting experiences, and by adopting a positive attitude and reclaiming your thirst for joy in life.
If you follow this path, there is a good likelihood that you can look forward to a better, happier and far safer life, all thanks to your brain plasticity.
This is an extract of an article written by Dr Michael Merzenich PhD, who is often called the father of brain plasticity for his pioneering work in the field. The full story appears in How to stay Healthy, Active and Sharp in Retirement, one of the five books in the 50Plus Books range. To learn more about the book, click here.