NEUROPLASTICITY (a.k.a. ‘neural plasticity’ or ‘brain plasticity’): the ability of the brain to form and reorganise synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury. – Oxford Dictionary
How does neuroplasticity work?
NATHAN WALLIS: Over the last couple of decades, we’ve seen our understanding of neuroplasticity flip on its head. We used to think that neuroplasticity only occurred at two points: firstly, when babies are first born (and they have to learn about life, movement, and everything else from scratch); and secondly, in response to brain trauma. We now understand that it’s a normal, natural condition of the brain.
The London Cabdriver Study changed everyone’s perception of neuroplasticity; it demonstrated that the hippocampus grew significantly as the cabdrivers learned the 25,000 street names necessary to navigate around the city of London.
What does neuroplasticity look like in everyday life?
NATHAN:Learning new things, developing new habits, or changing old habits – these things all change the brain as you grow new neural pathways and lay down myelin to cement those pathways.
Think about something as simple as tying a shoelace. There was a time in your life when that was a real challenge, and it took effort and concentration. But by repeating that action over and over, it’s become practically effortless.
In terms of changing the way we think or behave – or creating different pathways in the brain from those we’ve used before – we can choose to do things differently from our usual ‘default’. And by reinforcing those pathways by repeating that choice over and over, we can make structural changes in our brain.
Dr Edward de Bono talks about using seven different coloured hats as a problem-solving mechanism – where you put a different hat on to examine a problem from various angles and perspectives. In his theory, a black hat represents a critical and cautious perspective. That can be a valuable perspective, but if a person’s always got their metaphorical ‘black hat’ on, they’ll tend to be pessimistic and depressed. Now, if that same person then forces themselves to ‘put the yellow hat on’ – to work on seeing things in a positive light – then over time (three months on average), their thought processes will actually shift so that they truly begin to see things more positively.
Repeating new habits instead of falling back on your old ways helps the brain to figure out that you’re now doing something a different way than before, and after about 90-100 repetitions, it becomes automatic.
There are shortcuts, and there are processes that take longer … but essentially, the brain will do anything you train it to do. Our prefrontal cortex helps us decide that we can do things differently from how we’re used to doing them. For example, I can make myself become a gym person – even though it’s not in my natural temperament – by getting up and going to the gym … once I’ve done that for three months, it becomes instinctive and I no longer have to exert a great deal of willpower to do it.
How does understanding neuroplasticity help us in education?
NATHAN: I think it helps us to stop seeing kids in limited ways; to understand that things aren’t fixed. Having a clearer understanding of how our brains work can help change teachers’ expectations … just because a child isn’t good at maths now, it doesn’t mean that they’ll always be bad at maths! And, in fact, if you help them get those processes up and running, you can open up those circuits in the brain to make it all easier.
In terms of learning approaches and teaching styles, the ‘rote learning’ that used to be the standard teaching method still has its place. If you think about how many of us memorised our times tables this way, that information is still readily available to us as and when it’s needed. But in other areas, discovery-based learning works better and helps grow our brains in different ways. So, there’s definitely an argument for incorporating various types of teaching to get the best out of our students’ brains and maximise their learning.
And how can understanding neuroplasticity help in parenting?
NATHAN: I think that, as with teachers, it can be helpful for parents to be aware of not placing limitations on their kids. You might otherwise decide, “Oh, we Smiths have always been useless at numbers!” But understanding neuroplasticity can help you challenge those ideas and grow beyond the limitations we sometimes place on ourselves or our kids. It helps us to not be limited by family history or our family story, and it helps kids to follow their dreams because they know that anything’s possible – that we’re not as ‘set’ as we thought we were.
We now know that intelligence is fluid – you can actually increase your intelligence. Understanding neuroplasticity gives us a greater sense of control over things … to know that we’re capable of amazing growth and change.
How does our knowledge of neuroplasticity help in how we approach brain damage or stroke recovery?
NATHAN: Previously, when someone had a stroke and lost language, the approach was to ‘wait and see’ if they’d speak again. But we now have a much more proactive approach – we encourage stroke survivors to speak; we talk to them and give them speech therapy. There’s an expectation these days that they will relearn to speak – and that’s because we now understand neuroplasticity better.
It used to be that if you lost the use of your right arm after a stroke, they’d put that arm in a sling for the rest of your life because it was expected that it’d always be wonky. Whereas now, they put your left arm (the unaffected side) in a sling for two hours a day so that you’re forced to use the side that’s gone ‘offline’.
After a stroke, you have to go through the process of relearning the co-ordination you originally learned in infancy. It can be clumsy and frustrating, but brain connections are being made as you try to use the affected limbs; you’re sparking up those parts of the brain each time, and – just like with a baby – your attempts will become more and more effective, and eventually it comes back online. It’s incredible what the brain can do – there are some amazing recovery stories out there.
What are some things we can do to retain or maximise our neuroplasticity?
NATHAN: Doing things that maximise the endorphins – or pleasure chemicals – help to increase neuroplasticity. Things like exercise … laughing … singing … but the most important thing, I think, is self-language – how we speak to and about ourselves. Things like developing a growth mindset (which we also spoke about recently) can make a huge difference, because we limit our neuroplasticity when we have a fixed mindset about things.
What other factors might limit how ‘plastic’ our brains are?
NATHAN: Caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, and sugar (we use the acronym CATS to refer to these things) are all substances that lower the neuroplasticity of your brain. If you’ve had a stroke, you’d do well to avoid those four things.
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