“I’m just off to the gym to give my brain a workout”. That’s not something that you hear people say very often! No one would doubt the link between exercise and muscle development, it’s a well understood fact; if I want to grow my muscles I need to work them. Unsurprisingly the same fact is true of the the brain.
You may have heard that the brain is plastic, which of course doesn’t mean that the brain is made of plastic (even if mine sometimes it feels like a blob of plasticine!). Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change throughout life. If you imagine pushing a coin into a piece of clay, that clay changes in some way and retains the shape of the coin. Some very clever people have discovered that the brain works just like this. Neuroplasticity occurs in the brain:
- At the beginning of life: when the immature brain organises itself.
- In case of brain injury: to compensate for lost functions or maximise remaining functions.
- Through adulthood: whenever something new is learned and memorised.
In his book “The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge describes numerous examples of functional shifts. In one of them, a surgeon in his 50s suffers a stroke. His left arm is paralysed. During his rehabilitation, his good arm and hand are immobilised, and he is set to cleaning tables. The task is at first impossible. Then slowly the bad arm remembers how too move. He learns to write again, to play tennis again; the functions of the brain areas killed in the stroke have transferred themselves to healthy regions!
In this example the brain compensates for damage by reorganising and forming new connections between intact neurons. In order to reconnect, the neurons need to be stimulated through activity.
In the same, when way you become an expert in a specific subject, the areas in your brain that deal with this type of skill will grow? For example a 2006 study on professional London drivers showed that taxi drivers had a larger hippocampus region of the brain when compared to bus drivers. Why is that? It is because the region of the hippocampus is specialised in getting and using complex spatial information in order to navigate well. Taxi drivers have to navigate around London whereas bus drivers follow a limited set of routes. The same results have been seen consistently for example in the brains of bilinguals, musicians and students preparing for exams.
It was once believed that the brains networks became fixed as we aged. The past two decades have revealed that the brain never stops changing and adjusting as we learn throughout our lives.
Now this is exciting because it suggests that you and I are very capable of growing our brains, and that’s an extremely healthy thing to be doing as we age. What’s more, it doesn’t even need to take long, in fact just a moment. The human brain will retain information captured in just a few seconds or less. All we need to do is make a habit of expose ourselves to that learning content.
At iManage we are just weeks away from providing you with a bunch of fun new learning moments to help grow your brain. We are calling it the LOL_v project (little online learning video). It’s something we are going to encourage anyone, anywhere to contribute to or just enjoy completely free of charge. Follow my blog or twitter feeds for all the forth coming details.
Twitter: @bbbannister & @iManage