Neuroplasticity: How to Learn and Adapt in a Changing Information World
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and adapt through new experiences. Even anatomically! Including restoring and forming new connections lost through damage.
How It Works
There are about a hundred billion neurons in the brain and each is connected to thousands of others. Neurons exchange information with each other.
The process is much more complicated than betting at Tonybet sportsbook or even driving. So in order not to dive into challenging structures, let’s use a simple example. There are two groups of people. One has a good relationship where there is mutual understanding and frequent communication, so people want to communicate with each other even more often. The other has an unfriendly group, so the connection between them is weak, and the company eventually drifts apart.
Connections for Remembering
In the same way, neurons form their own “company” – a neural network. If there is “friendship” and frequent exchange of information, there will be a strong connection of neurons. If not, the connection between them will disintegrate.
When a person thinks/tries something new, new connections between neurons are created, and repetition strengthens this connection. A cognitive ease emerges – a familiar “pathway” between neurons that is easy to follow.
So repeating something makes it easier to form a habit and memory of it, including muscle memory. And if the skill isn’t used, neurons rarely interact with each other, and the pathway between them is “swept away.
So, the brain can create new neural pathways and modify existing ones, and in some cases even create new neurons. This helps adapt to new things, learn, improve cognitive abilities, and recover from trauma (e.g., after a stroke).
Of the disadvantages of neuroplasticity – changes in perception and behavior if the brain is affected by psychoactive substances or pathological conditions.
For example, increased temper and aggression, due to physical enlargement of the amygdala in the brain (it’s responsible for fear and aggression) with constant and severe stress.
Does Age Matter for Neuroplasticity?
We never learn as much as we did as children. A child’s brain develops quickly as they have new experiences every day. But that doesn’t mean that the adult brain is incapable of adaptation.
First, many studies have shown that humans are not limited by the mental capacity with which they were born.
Second, this can be seen in the positive results of some patients who have had brain damage, but with exercise, their brains are able to rebuild and regain lost function. For example, in older people after a stroke. This happens with the brain’s ability to move function from the damaged area to the undamaged area.
Third, most “cognitive fading” (including Alzheimer’s disease) is not due to natural causes. It’s because many people stop learning new things and routinely use the familiar – thus reducing the complexity of the cognitive load and reducing the number of neural connections. Therefore, for an adult, change is not only possible, but vital! “Wrong” aging is closure and routine. “Right” aging is openness to new challenges and active learning.
The brain never stops changing in response to learning. It changes and adapts every day, regardless of age. Neuroplasticity is a continuous process.
It’s also important in adulthood not only to learn new things but also to be able to unlearn what is known. This is sometimes difficult, because when you do the same thing for a long time, the neural connections that control these processes become quite strong and need to be rearranged. This is facilitated by light stress, which “clears space” for the formation of new neural connections. Such stress is retraining. Therefore, retraining is a way out of the comfort zone, both for the person and for neurons.
In the Socratic method, the wise teacher creates a mild state of stress for the student and generates doubt before teaching. This disorients the student, exposes his ignorance and loosens his habitual grip, which helps him to look afresh at what he already knows.
Another example known on the Internet is engineer Destin Sandlin’s video “Is it possible to unlearn how to ride a bicycle?” In the video, he shows how altered bicycle control can instantly confuse the brain. Everyone knows that it’s impossible to lose the skill of riding a bicycle. However, if you change the steering mechanism, which turns the wheels to the left when you turn the handlebars to the right and vice versa, the brain will be forced to rethink the principles of riding. Even if you cross your arms, the physics of driving will still be the same. A person on automatic will turn the steering wheel to the side of the turn, and will end up falling over every time. And it will take a long time to learn how to ride such a bike. This example shows that breaking the pattern is possible, but it isn’t easy.
Ways to Improve Brain Plasticity
- Learning new skills.
- Learning new things in familiar skills (e.g., learning to type “blind”).
- Changing the environment (exploring new places, traveling, etc.).
- Any habitual activities that can be performed in an unusual way (e.g., using a hand that is not leading).
- Creative activities.
Every time we learn something new, we use the power of neuroplasticity. Unusual activities train the brain and keep it alert. And this generally improves learnability. Because the learning brain is more “flexible” and has high neuroplasticity, it can rewire connections more easily. That’s why the phrase “try taking a new path” isn’t just a metaphor. It’s how you help your neurons get to know others and take a new path, too.