What Is A Neuron?
Without turning this into a science class, let me give you some key information about neurons.
Neurons are the building blocks of our nervous system. Most of them (100 billion) can be found in the brain but they are in our spine and nerves too.
Neurons communicate information back and forth between the brain and the rest of the body through electric and chemical signals. Neurons form an intricate communication system. Each neuron communicates to 1000s of other neurons.
Neurons mostly cease to reproduce at adulthood. However, they keep the faculty to evolve, grow and build more connections with surrounding neurons all our life. This phenomenon is called Neuroplasticity and it offers fantastic possibilities.
Have You Heard Of Neuroplasticity?
That’s the ability the brain has to shape and reshape itself all the time, even when we’re older. As we experience and adapt to the world around us, physical changes take place in our brain.
Neurons that are close to one another and regularly spark at the same time can create connections and increase in size: ‘Neurons that fire together wire together‘. And the opposite is true too: ‘Neurons that fire apart, wire apart‘.
Our neuron map is forever changing.
And that’s good news!
It means that we can influence our brain design and our very own abilities. So, even if we lose some neurons along the years, as long as the living ones grow, develop new branches and new connections, we don’t lose any intelligence and we may even gain new abilities.
I won’t discuss here the potential of neuroplasticity in rehabilitative medicine because it’s a large subject and relatively new. Suffice to say it’s got fantastic potential. In short, the idea is to teach surrounded un-harmed neurons to take over the lost body functions previously supported by the damaged ones. It’s got great potential for stroke patients, autism, learning disorders, OCD, chronic pain, fighting aging cognitive deterioration such as dementia.
But let’s focus on how neuroplasticity can help in everyday life and why it’s important to keep exercising our brain.
Why You Should Exercise Your Brain
The more you exercise your brain, the more your neurons develop. With that comes:
- faster processing speed
- better attention and focus
- better memory
- sharper senses of vision and hearing
- increased self-confidence
- positive mood
But there’s another side that benefits directly from brain exercising. That’s where we get back to the potential behind neuroplasticity. The more you practice at something new, the more you can develop new pathways in your brain to help you:
- learn new skills
- improve existing ones
- respond differently to events (fears, phobias, obsessions, addictions, personality traits and emotional responses)
Whenever someone learns something new, the brain changes and adapts to this new skill or knowledge and may actually alter its structure. The effects of brain plasticity in learning seem to continue throughout life. Because you can directly influence the way your brain is wired, there’s no stopping how much you can change (your behaviour, your thoughts, your skills,…).
That might remind you of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming).
And you’d be completely right in thinking so.
Neuroplasticity might just be the hard scientific evidence that NLP was waiting for to prove that it really does work. The excuses ‘I’m too old to learn this’ or ‘I’m just not good at that’ just don’t hold. Because, our brain can always change and therefore so can we.
How Can You Use Neuroplasticity In Everyday Life?
Knowledge of neuroplasticity can help on 2 levels:
- keeping your mind sharp and active
- creating new responses to replace unwanted ones
Keeping your mind sharp and active
The problem is that, like we said earlier, neurons which are not fired tend to shrink and the ones that are constantly used will grow. If you always stick to well-worn paths, you aren’t giving your brain the stimulation it needs to keep growing and developing.
You have to shake things up from time to time.
No matter how intellectually demanding the activity, if it’s something you’re already good at, it’s not a good brain exercise. The activity needs to be something that’s unfamiliar and out of your comfort zone. Anything that takes some mental effort and expands your knowledge will work. The best brain exercising activities break your routine and challenge you to use and develop new brain pathways.
Examples of everyday brain stretching exercises include:
- learning something new (language, instrument, sport, skill)
- using your brain rather than relying on electronic gadgets (avoid calculators and do mental maths instead; forget your GPS and read a good old map,…)
- remembering lists (shopping list is a good start)
- focusing your attention (when you put something away so you remember where it is, when someboody talks to you as you’re doing something else,…)
- solving brain teasers/puzzles (but remember, if you’re getting used to them, they’re not a good exercise any longer; it’s time to try something new)
Choose activities you enjoy. The more interested and engaged you are in the activity, the more likely you’ll be to continue doing it and the greater the benefits you’ll experience.
Creating new responses to replace unwanted ones
Experience, learning and behaviour can cause changes in the brain, but so can thought and imagination. The implications of this are powerful: through thought and imagination, you can use your mind to rewire it for positive change. Your mind can remodel your brain.
How to do this in practice?
It’s actually very difficult for neurons to unlearn something. The more a pathway is used, the more it is strengthened and the more it becomes difficult to change it.
Difficult, but not impossible.
The way to do it is not to strive to unwire a pathway but simply to replace it by a new one. Stop using the old response and create a new pathway (new response, habit, learning) and repeat it again and again until it’s sufficiently strengthened to replace the old one.
Repetition is key.
Say you want to stop eating treats when you get stressed, you want to be less angry when you drive, you want to stop being scared of spiders,…
- identify the trigger (time of day, stressful event,…)
- decide a new response you want instead of the old one
- visualize yourself responding in the new way
- repeat this visualization regularly
- then put it in practice whenever the trigger occurs
Take a look at our Habit Forming article that talks more specifically about that subject but outlines a very similar approach: cue (trigger) / routine (response) / reward (which should form part of your visualization if you’re doing it properly – e.g. how will you feel).
Notice how both methods are based on repetition and re-programming/re-wiring your associations around that particular behavior.
Non-Brainy Activities That Help The Brain Too
Keeping a healthy, responsive mind is not all down to exercising your brain. There are many things you can do that will help too and it’s mainly related to good health habits:
Recent studies have discovered that walking 40 minutes in a moderate pace, three times a week – enhances the connectivity between neural networks in the brain, increases the performance of cognitive tasks, and slows the aging of the brain.
If exercising is not your thing, take a look at our articles about Walking and Having Fun While Exercising.
- Healthy eating
Feed your brain the right fuel.
Your brain needs carbohydrates to function. However, avoid simple carbs (sugar, white bread, refined grains) which give a quick boost followed by an equally rapid crash. Some research suggest that diets high in simple carbs can greatly increase the risk for cognitive impairment in older adults. For healthy energy, choose complex carbohydrates such as whole-wheat bread, brown rice, oatmeal, high-fiber cereal, lentils, and whole beans. Avoid processed foods.
Make sure you get your omega 3 (fatty fish, walnuts, ground flaxseed, flaxseed oil, pumpkin seeds,…).
Mindfulness involves the release of bodily and sensory attachment by focusing on the present. Practitioners of this meditation shift their attention to their breath, their heartbeat, their inner thoughts, or an object. After a while, meditators have physical increases in the number of neurons and neuronal connections in sections of their cortex. Those sections are: the right frontal cortex, related to concentration; the right insula, related to emotions; and the right parietal and temporal lobes related to touch and sound. A recent study also showed that after eight weeks brain imaging showed reduction in the volume of the amygdala, related to anxiety and stress, and an increase in the number of neurons in the hippocampus, related to learning and memory.
We’ve written quite a few articles on Mindfulness because we love it. They contain instructions to get you started.
A very recent study of a variety of meditation techniques showed increased connectivity in the brain areas related to memory, learning and emotion. Meditation seems to not only increase focus and decrease daydreaming, but also increase self monitoring. In other words, advanced meditators had a new type of brain “default mode” with more ability to control thought and emotion, and greater ability to stay focused on the present.
- Keep Stress in check
Unfortunately, neuroplasticity does not always play in our favour. In the case of a stressed brain, the brain tends to reprogram itself (even quicker than in non stressful conditions) and reinforces the very behaviors responsible for the stress. This, unfortunately, creates a vicious downward spiral from which it becomes difficult to switch back to more helpful behaviors.
More on how to manage your stress levels here: It’s Not The Stress That Kills Us, It’s Our Reaction To It.
If you take one thing away from all this, it’s got to be that you can always change.
And if you still need convincing, read the inspiring real-life stories Norman Doidge describes in his book: The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science