Neuroplasticity: How Experience Shapes the Brain
The human brain can do some pretty amazing things, and scientists are still learning how the brain works and how to treat problems. Research has shown us that the brain is exceptionally adaptable to its own environment and human experience. Here is what you need to know about neuroplasticity and how it shapes the brain.
What Is Neuroplasticity
Simply put, neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to change and adapt based on our life experience. Our brain is composed of billions of neurons or cells that carry information via electrical signals. Research has shown that our brains are able to form new connections and even change their structure in response to our experiences.
Like many physical traits, neuroplasticity varies from one individual to another, with some individuals being more adaptable to change while others are less neuroplastic.
Early Understanding of the Brain’s Connections
In the past, it was thought that the brain had a somewhat limited ability to form connections. The brain was considered to be most malleable early in life when most learning occurs. This is called the critical period. In general, the critical period of development was thought to be from birth until puberty. However, not every area of development has the same critical period. For instance, the critical period for emotional development is birth until four years old.
While the critical period was thought to happen during childhood, the sensitive period lasted into adolescence. During the critical period, the brain was thought to still be capable of change but less malleable than during the critical period.
Modern Understanding of Neuroplasticity
In the past, it was thought that the brain could only change during the sensitive and critical periods; however, studies now show that the brain can create new connections and that even the creation of new neurons continues into adulthood. For instance, individuals who have developed amblyopia, or the inability of one eye to see due to poor brain connections, and who undergo vision therapy even as adults see an improvement in vision.
The two main types of neuroplasticity that have been studied are functional plasticity and structural plasticity. While functional plasticity involves the brain moving connections, functional plasticity allows the brain to change physically due to new experiences such as learning.
Can Brain Plasticity Be Improved?
While scientists are still trying to understand exactly how brain plasticity works, several things can be done to help the brain maintain plasticity. These include:
Creating a Rich Environment
Keeping your brain active helps neuroplasticity. This includes learning new languages, exploring new places, reading, and getting creative.
Get Enough Rest
Sleep plays a crucial role in your brain’s plasticity and your overall wellbeing. In fact, sleep deprivation has been linked to various problems, including mood disorders and decreased cognitive function.
Getting regular exercise can help preserve your brain and overall health. Like most organs in the body, the brain relies on blood vessels for its nutrients and waste disposal, so diseases that affect blood vessels such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes can also impact brain function.
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to adapt and change throughout life. Neuroplasticity is strongly influenced by experience, enabling neurons to adjust their activities in response to new situations or changing environmental demands. This means that brain health may be maintained or improved by activities such as learning, mental stimulation, and getting enough rest. And because neuroplasticity continues into adulthood, it's never too late to make the necessary changes for a healthier brain.