Maximizing your impact involves self-improvement and self-improvement should include improving our brains. It wasn’t that long ago that scientists thought that the brain stopped developing after the first few years of life. In fact, this is what I was told when I was growing up. I spent the first 30 years of my life believing that my brain could no longer develop. In the meantime I noticed that, over time, my ability to receive and comprehend a greater quantity of information and my ability to process the information and draw conclusions and make better decisions has been improving and is now significantly higher than when I was in my teens and 20’s.
Scientists thought that the connections that form between nerve cells occurred during a critical period early in life and then were fixed for the rest of our lives. As a result of this view, scientists also believed that damage to an adult brain could not be repaired by nerve cells forming new connections or regenerating and, therefore, the functions controlled by that part of the brain would be permanently lost.
However, more recent research on animals and humans has contradicted this very old and now very dated and justifiably frowned upon view. Biologists now agree that the brain continues to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life in this process is called neuroplasticity.
How does neuroplasticity work? Scientists believe that the brain’s neurons are continuously reorganizing. Research on monkeys indicated that the neuronal connections in many regions in the brain appeared to be organized differently each time the researchers examined them. Researchers have also seen evidence of neural pathways that were inactive or used for other purposes adapt in order to compensate for functions lost due to degeneration.
The brain’s initial development is mostly dependent on genetics. However, our overall experience including our interaction with our environment, social interactions and even fresh air can play a critical role in brain cell survival and the formation of new connections. The brain can also change or reorganize itself in response to injury or disease. This reorganization involves changes in the connections between nerve cells (neurons).
Reorganization and compensation also occurs across the brain hemispheres. There is evidence indicating that a healthy hemisphere can take over some of the functions of a damaged hemisphere. The brain can also reorganize in order to respond to the diminishment of or the loss of a sensory input by improving the processing of other sensory inputs. For example, blind people have been shown to develop enhanced abilities to process other sensory inputs such as hearing or touch.
In order to for new connections to be made they need to be stimulated by activity. In one study the researchers damaged a small part of the brain of monkeys that was responsible for particular hand movements. As a result of the lack of hand activity the neurons surrounding the damaged area also deteriorated and this caused further impairment of the hand movements. The researchers concluded that it is important to provide stimulation to neurons in order for them to remain active and form new connections and thereby facilitate the rehabilitation process
How to promote brain reorganization
One of the key principles of neuroplasticity is that brain activity promotes brain reorganization. Anything that gives the brain a workout stimulates brain reorganization relating to that particular brain workout. Brain workouts do not have to be math problems. Brain reorganization occurs during any intellectual challenge or social interactions. In the meantime, physical activity boosts the general growth of connections.
Next article in this series: “Subconscious Mind”