Our plastic brains – there are no excuses anymore

The prevailing view that the human brain cannot be physically altered, especially after early childhood, is no longer correct. Research in the field of neurobiology, in both animals and humans, has shown beyond doubt that various kinds of stimulation can change structures in the brain (with associated changes in ability) and that these transformations can continue to occur until the end of a person’s life.

In fact, the brain is constantly being reorganised according to the type of stimulation it receives, a condition now referred to as neuroplasticity. It also seems that the strategies and processes of thought (including logical reasoning), previously believed to be similar for all humans, are variable and can change. This means that people who grow up in different cultures don’t just think about different things they may also think differently; it also means that thought processes are malleable.

The caveat to all of this is that human brains and thinking patterns do not change rapidly or on a whim. Brain re-organisation requires conscious, sustained work with a particular focus. One only has to think of how much practice it takes to learn a musical instrument or a new language, especially as an adult, or the sustained effort required to re-learn how walk again after a stroke.

Neuroplasticity can be neatly summarised by the following three memorable phrases:

  • Neu­rons that fire together wire together
  • Neu­rons out of sync fail to link (or neurones that wire apart fire apart)
  • Use it or lose it

When two neurons (nerve cells along which messages are passed) fire simultaneously they become associated with each other, and the more this happens the stronger the connections become. As with any path­way, the more a par­tic­u­lar path is used, the easier and faster it becomes to travel along that path – it’s rather like a small country track becoming a main thoroughfare. In addition, pathways near one another become associated with each other whereas neurons firing out of sync remain unassociated and therefore less effective in achieving any specific outcome.

The corollary to all of this is that if a pathway is under­uti­lised, over time it will be co-opted by other path­ways that are branch­ing out and requiring more space. This effectively means that any ability associated with an underutilised pathway will eventually be lost – this could be an ability to speak another language, or perhaps more disturbingly, a mental thought pattern that promotes empathy and compassion through allowing someone to understand how other people may be feeling.

Norman Doidge’s excellent book, The Brain That Changes Itself (2007), provides compelling evidence about the quite extraordinary ability of the brain to re-organise, re-adjust and re-learn after an extensive part of it has been damaged. Maps of the brain have, until recently, apportioned certain functions to specific areas in a way that was believed to be immutable. However, while certain areas do tend to be responsible for specific functions, research has shown that areas can overlap as well as co-opt another’s functions (remember it’s ‘use it or lose it’). This is borne out by very recent research at the Georgetown University Medical Centre which demonstrated that people who have been blind from birth make use of the visual parts of their brain to enhance their sensation of sound and touch. This discovery also helps to explain why blind people have such advanced perception of these senses, which exceeds that in sighted people. It also demonstrates how active pathways will always take over unused parts of the brain.

Furthermore research has shown that mental practice (visualisation) of a motor skill not only alters the physical structure of the brain in the same way that actual physical practice does, it also leads to an improvement in physical performance. This has been demonstrated in both athletes and musicians. While mental practice is not as efficient as physical practice in improving performance, the combination of mental and physical rehearsal produces an even better result than physical practice alone.

Neuroplasticity means that our potential is not fixed as we can continually change the way our brains are wired (and therefore our mental and physical habits and abilities) by managing and directing our thoughts and actions. This is also true for mental conditions such as depression. Cognitive therapy harnesses brain neuroplasticity by training people to change their thinking patterns, which in turn alters brain circuitry so that more positive thinking patterns become established. This opens up a whole new world of never-ending possibilities, even for people who have suffered some form of brain damage. And it’s never too late to start.