It’s said that we’ve learned more about the brain in the past 15 years than in all of previous history. And one of the most important discoveries has been the concept of neuroplasticity, the brain’s capability to continually change throughout a lifetime. The understanding of brain plasticity has been hailed as the most important development in neuroscience in the past 400 years.
Until recently, it was believed your brain was largely hardwired and that your overall intelligence was set for life, but now it’s known that your intelligence can change. Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself, says, “The amount of synaptic changeover in the brain is much greater than we ever dreamed. The brain is far more malleable than we thought. It isn’t infinitely malleable, but far more than we knew.”
Your brain is constantly changing. It’s affected by everything that happens to you. Every action you take and even every thought you think changes your brain. Dr. Rudolph E. Tanzi is a professor of neurology at Harvard who discovered the first Alzheimer’s gene. He co-authored the book Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-Being with Deepak Chopra. In it they put forth a mind-blowing concept that the brain is not a thing as much as it’s a process.
They go on to explain, “If you think of everyday experience as input for your brain, and your actions and thoughts as output, a feedback loop is formed. The old cliché about computer software — garbage in, garbage out — applies to all feedback loops. Toxic experiences shape the brain quite differently from healthy ones. This seems like common sense, but neuroscience has joined forces with genetics to reveal that right down to the level of DNA, the feedback loop that embraces mind and body is profoundly changed by the input processed by the brain.”
Tanzi and Chopra sum up the recent discoveries that make it possible for anyone to improve their brain:
- Your brain is constantly renewing itself.
- Your brain can heal its wounds from the past.
- Experience changes your brain every day.
- The input you give your brain causes it to form new neural pathways.
- The more positive the input, the better your brain will function.
That your brain will change is inevitable, but do you have any say in the matter? The answer is a resounding yes! You can leave the state of your brain to chance or you can put your brain’s plasticity to work you. The term self-directed neuroplasticity is used to describe the process of intentionally harnessing your brain’s malleability to get the results you want. Some have called this sculpting the brain. By giving your brain the right input, you can train it to be smarter and happier.
Using Brain Plasticity To Get Smarter
Surprisingly, it’s only been within the past ten years that scientists have come around to the idea that overall intelligence can be improved. Before then, it was believed that a person’s level of intelligence was set at birth and could not be changed by any means. In 2008, a groundbreaking study discovered that intelligence is fluid and can be increased with the proper stimulus. Since then, scientists have changed their fundamental view of human intelligence. Here are two fascinating landmark studies that support this new view. One shows that you can grow a larger brain, the other that you can increase your IQ.
To become a London cab driver, an applicant must pass “the Knowledge” — the most difficult geography test in the world. Prospective cabbies spend three to four years on what may be the ultimate brain exercise — memorizing London’s 320 main routes, 25,000 streets, and the location of over 20,000 landmarks. Scientists wanted to know what becoming a human atlas did to a brain. It was found that London cabbies grew a measurably larger hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for consolidating memories and spatial navigation. Interestingly, those who studied for the test but failed did not show the same increase in hippocampus size.
Many children are led to believe that they aren’t very smart. Sometimes this is done by well-meaning parents or teachers who are trying to motivate them into working harder at their studies. Siblings and peers can pick up where the adults left off. Other kids with parents who are trying to boost their child’s self-esteem are constantly told how smart and talented they are. Interestingly, this too can limit kids by making them think things like intelligence and other talents are fixed traits rather than something that can be developed.
When students are taught about brain plasticity and how their intelligence is not fixed, it makes a dramatic impact on their grades and their morale. It can even help kids raise their IQs. By simply understanding that they had the potential to get smarter and do better in school, they did. Clearly the power of brain plasticity is a concept that every school-age child should be taught.
Harnessing Neuroplasticity To Be Happier
Just as you are not stuck with a set level of intelligence, you aren’t stuck with a set level of happiness either. One of the most powerful ways to train your brain to be happier is to monitor and change your thoughts. The average person thinks 50,000 thoughts per day and up to 70 percent of them are predominantly negative. And this creates neural pathways that do not serve you well.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is a neuropsychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and bestselling author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. He describes the brain as being like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. This negative bias is a survival mechanism that kept our distant ancestors out of danger but has become counterproductive in the modern world.
According to Hanson, you can train your brain to focus on the positive with these simple steps. First, look for and recognize those little bits of good wherever you find them. It doesn’t matter if it’s as small as a smile from your significant other, an enthusiastic greeting from a beloved pet or the satisfaction of crossing an item off your to-do list. Next, savor this positive experience. Visualize it in vivid detail, recalling how it made you feel since we remember things better when they are associated with an emotion.
Shawn Achor is considered a leading expert on happiness. He taught positive psychology at Harvard University and wrote the bestselling book The Happiness Advantage. According to Achor, “Training your brain to be positive is not so different from training your muscles at the gym. Recent research on neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to change even in adulthood — reveals that as you develop new habits, you rewire the brain.”
He recommends doing one of these surprisingly simple activities daily for three weeks to significantly increase both optimism and life satisfaction.
- Jot down three things you’re grateful for.
- Write a positive message to someone.
- Meditate for two minutes.
- Exercise for ten minutes.
- Write down the most meaningful experience of the past 24 hours.
Researchers believe that ultimately neuroplasticity will be harnessed for clinical applications such as treating anxiety disorders and depression, as well as age-related brain disorders.
Ways To Increase Brain Plasticity
Besides those mentioned above, there are other proven ways to increase brain plasticity. Supply your brain with nutrients that improve brain plasticity such as polyphenols, flavonols, and omega-3 essential fatty acids. Some online brain training programs claim to increase brain plasticity, but you don’t have to pay for a subscription to a brain training program. Any activity that stimulates your brain will do. Learning a new language, reading, playing chess or a musical instrument, gardening, arts and crafts, and doing home repairs stimulate the formation of new neural connections.
Neuroplasticity In Action
You’ve heard the expression, “It’s like riding a bike.” But I bet you didn’t know it was all about neuroplasticity! Usually a skill — like riding a bike — once learned is never completely forgotten. But you may need a short period of practice to kick your neurons back into gear.
Engineer Destin Sandlin is the creator of the educational science website Smarter Every Day. Like most of us, he learned to ride a bike as a child. In one experiment, he modified his bicycle with a pair of cogs to create a “backwards bike.” So when he turned the handlebars to the left, the wheel went to the right and vice versa. Sandlin thought he’d master this new way of riding in a few minutes, but that’s not what happened. His brain was so strongly wired, it took him 8 months of daily practice to unlearn the old way and learn the new way of riding his bike.
Interestingly, when he went back to riding a normal bicycle, he adjusted quickly since that neural pathway was still there. As you might expect, kids have more brain plasticity than adults and we lose brain plasticity with age. That’s why Sandlin’s six-year-old son was riding his backwards bike like a pro in just two weeks.
Enjoy this fun, real life example of brain plasticity in action: