Brain Plasticity – Why You Need It and How to Enhance It
Neuroplasticity. Not something you hear about every day.
I think I’m most familiar with the term regarding young children and language acquisition. It’s well known that it’s much easier for kids to learn first and even second languages than it is for adults, in part because children’s brains are highly plastic. Meaning, their brains are highly adaptable in response to experience.
I’ve you’ve ever been around a toddler during a language explosion, you know what I mean. They listen, try out sounds, they put together what works, and whatever they’re working on becomes Phrase Of The Day.
Even when “Mickey” comes out sounding like “Mee-meek,” that’s what Broca’s area has decided works until little dude’s motor skills catch up and a new sound combination comes closer to the goal.
Whether young or old, brain plasticity is essentially how well we learn new things – how well we retain facts, how we learn new routes to places, how we move our bodies to improve at sports.
Naturally, we want to be able to learn new things throughout our lives, which is akin to saying we want to be able to create, rearrange and strengthen our neural pathways as long as we can. Furthermore, we want to preserve the pathways that serve us well, well into old age.
While there’s still plenty of research to be done on the topic, psychologists and neuroscientists have identified a few things we can do to add some pebbles to our brain plasticity buckets.
Exercise works to enhance brain plasticity in two ways. First, exercise encourages the growth factors that direct new pathway formation and change. Second, exercise reduces the risk of a number of diseases detrimental to brain function.
Who says we can’t run away from mental decline?
Playing an instrument requires the interaction of visual, motor and auditory brain regions. Creating and strengthening such a network could positively affect the cognitive and sensorimotor abilities that often come alongside music training.
If you didn’t learn an instrument as a child, not to worry. You didn’t miss the boat. One study showed that after only two weeks of piano lessons, non-musicians showed measurable differences in auditory processing. Even a few months of musical training has been shown to improve non-musical cognitive functions.
Learn new skills, physical and mental
If you practice something over and over, and each time it gets easier or you get better at your chosen task, pathways are being formed, changed or strengthened. This holds true whether you are learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or all of the U.S. state capitals in alphabetical order.
Neurons and pathways operate on a “use it or lose it” principle, so the more exercise they get, the more adaptable and strong they become.
Meditation’s protective effect comes as a side-benefit of its stress-reducing reputation. In other words, meditation reduces stress, which reduces the stress-induced release of cortisol and free radicals that have the potential to damage brain cells.
As a beginner who tends to be turned off by the woo woo, I find 8 Minute Meditation to be the most accessible guide. It’s a straightforward approach and there’s no religious alignment. Plus, eight minutes doesn’t scare me off! And remember, you’re always equipped for walking meditation.
Keeping sugar in check
As if we needed another reason to avoid sugar, one study that focuses on the hippocampus shows that diet-induced insulin resistance impairs cognitive function.
While there is no way to tell how long we will have our mental faculties, I think all of us can agree that we should do what we can to stack the deck in our favor.
Research that informed this article