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What is Neuroplasticity?
As the survivor of a traumatic brain surgery I’ve heard a lot of things about the power of the brain. A neurosurgeon even said to me, “The brain is mysterious and changing – even us experts only know about 10% of what is happening in there.” Strangely that comforted me as it meant there was room for growth in my recovery; that what I might have lost I could work on again.
It turns out there is even a name for the idea of rehabilitating your brain, or even just continuing to learn over the course of our lifetimes. It’s called neuroplasticity, and it is defined as the adaptability and changes in the neural cells and synapses that make up our grey matter.
For a long time, the common belief was that when a person reached adulthood their brain stopped growing – just like their bodies. Further, it was thought that if something happened to your brain cells they were forever gone. Fortunately, researchers in the late 1940’s began to realize there were connections between areas of the cells. When one group was excited, there was activity or metabolic changes in nearby regions.
The knowledge even led to a simple sentence, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
It’s a basic insight as to how we learn. Remember back in school you had to practice at learning a foreign language or study facts over and over again for a history test? You knew your own language and had your own memories or history of your life to that point, but you acquired knowledge you didn’t have before because you repeated your thinking about the new subject until gradually new neural pathways were built and connections made.
A Walk In the Forest
The site whatisneuroplasticity.com provides a great analogy to understand what neuroplasticity is and how it works:
“Imagine you grew up in the woods. Everyday you took the same few paths to get the things you needed to sustain yourself. You never strayed from those paths at all. Then one day as you walk down your normal path that is heavily worn from years of use down to the river you notice a little building way off the trail you're on. You think wow I'd like to check that out, but you've never been off the trail. You decide to go check it out. You leave the worn path that you were on to ground that you've never stepped foot on before. You approach the door of the building then walk inside to notice that there is a large volume of books on the subject of building log cabins. You are looking around the room and notice a note on a table that states you are welcome to use the place anytime you want but please never take the books from the building with you.
So you begin to come and go everyday to read and focus on learning how to build new log cabins. Everyday as you come and go you begin to develop two fresh paths that diverge off of the worn river path that you use to get to the building. When walking to the cabin everyday these fresh paths begin to become worn and easily noticeable. Even though the paths never become as ingrained and worn as your original paths they are still distinct and worn. This is similar to how neuroplasticity occurs in our brains as we learn something new. The more we repeat something and use that portion of the brain in a focused way new neural pathways might develop in your brain.”
The Promise of Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity has become a buzzword lately, not just in medicine, but in popular culture. People searching for ways to prolong their lives, or at the very least extend the quality of their lives have turned to the idea of neuroplasticity to keep their minds sharp. We often hear about it as ‘training your brain’ and have seen the abundance of brain-teasers, memory games, and other cognition activities flood the market.
Whether it’s on your laptop or the crossword in your daily newspaper, undertaking a daily exercise of the brain has been shown to stretch those neural pathways. Continuing to learn can have other benefits – taking an active learning vacation, an organic cooking class, or learning to swim for example – not only stretches the mind by learning a new skill but also keeps the body healthy as well by working body and mind together.
Neuroplasticity is also crucial in the treatment of those with traumatic brain injuries or health issues. One focused area of research is using neuroplasticity to rehabilitate those with injuries sustained in combat zones. According to Dr. Celeste Campbell, PsyD, a neuropsychologist in the Polytrauma Program at the Washington, DC Veterans Administration Medical Center,
“Part of rehabilitation is aimed at trying to rebuild connections among the nerve cells — or neurons. This "re-wiring" of the brain can make it possible for a function previously managed by a damaged area to be taken over by another undamaged area. The connections among the cells are infinitely receptive to this type of change and expansion. In addition, we are now learning more about neurogenesis — the actual generation of new brain cells. Recent research has demonstrated that neurogenesis does indeed continue into and throughout adult life, although only in specific areas of the brain.”
For patients neuroplasticity has come to mean you aren’t necessarily defined by your injury. With rehab, there could be ways to create a new normal way of thinking and moving.
Now You Know You Have It – Use It!
Isn’t it great to know your brain’s cells can move off their existing pathways into new directions and that it doesn’t stop at adulthood? You’re not limited to thinking you can only go so far.
The neuroplasticity of your brain and continuing to learn keeps you from staying in a rut. It can be emotionally stimulating driving you to branch out with new hobbies and skills. It’s not bad for your career either – being open-minded, being willing to entertain new methods and opinions helps you be a better boss or team member.
Properly nurtured, continued learning is a powerful tool to have.
Even experts at the top of their field – like my neurosurgeon are willing to admit they have a lot to learn – and that’s a good thing. After all, wouldn’t you want to work with, or be treated by someone who keeps exercising their brain and has an open mind to new developments even at the top of their field?
As for me, a brain surgery survivor, neuroplasticity means hope. The parts of my brain that were affected may be lost – but instead of focusing on what’s missing I’ve started to focus on making the parts that are left stronger and perhaps one day even bigger.
So do you want to exercise your brain? Well here is where you have to start:
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