When I first heard of the science of neuroplasticity, the word struck me as a rather odd way to describe the brain. How could the brain be plastic? But as I delved into the sea of astonishing research, I realized that scientists refer to plastic as a malleable substance that can be stretched, flexed, shaped, reshaped, molded, and transformed easily. The more I researched the subject, the more proof I found that we’ve been living under the influence of false scientific beliefs — beliefs about our mental capacity to change, shape, and transform the structure, function, and ultimate potential of our brains.
Most of us were raised with faulty ideas about the human brain. Ideas like: IQ is fixed at age five, brain cells diminish yearly, memory deteriorates as we get older, and learning ability inevitably declines with age. These self-limiting beliefs, based on the scientific understanding that was prevalent in the 1950s, are now known to be myths — dangerous myths that impact the health and fitness of our brains as we age.
Just as Copernicus overturned the myth that Earth was at the center of the universe, the new science of neuroplasticity has overturned and revolutionized our understanding of the mind, the brain, and its power to change. We now know that the brain is not a compartmentalized, hardwired static machine whose parts eventually wear out, as was once thought. Instead, it is a highly adaptable, malleable, and dynamic organ, capable of generating new neurons, with the potential of changing and improving throughout life.
Lifelong personality traits can be changed. Learning disorders can be cured. Aging brains can be rejuvenated. Damaged brains can recruit other regions to regain full functioning. Sounds like science fiction, right? Wrong. It’s the leading edge of neuroscience.
Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, MD, PhD, of Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at UCLA states, “The brain has an almost boundless capacity for reshaping itself over the years, for adapting, for expanding its power, while accumulating knowledge and recording experiences. Modern neuroscience tells us that the aging brain is no longer the declining brain, but rather a learning organ whose limits are still unexplored.”
We now know that:
• our mental abilities, including memory, are designed to improve throughout life.
• thoughts can change the function and structure of the brain.
• people of average intelligence can raise IQ, improve memory, and sharpen intelligence.
• we can generate new brain cells in a process call neurogenesis. (Thus far, we know that oxygen and novelty seem to contribute to the creation of new brain cells; research is ongoing.)
In researching neuroplasticity for my book, Brain Power: Improve Your Mind as You Age (coauthored with Michael J. Gelb), I came across the following seven tenets of neuroplasticity in an excellent PBS documentary called The Brain Fitness Program, featuring neuroplasticity pioneer Michael M. Merzinich, PhD, of the University of California. I’ve added my own elaborations. When applied, these seven tenets can help you harness the power of brain plasticity.
• Change can occur only when the brain is in the mood. This means that while you learn, you need to be fully engaged, interested, and focused. According to Merzinich, “training must be incremental, and just a little bit taxing. The brain will build itself best on a sense of consistent accomplishment.”
• Change strengthens the connections between neurons engaged at the same time. Newness and novelty excite the brain and create a stronger connection between neurons.
• Neurons that fire together, wire together. This is also known as the Hebbian Rule, coined by Dr. Donald Hebb. You’ve heard the phrases “Use it or lose it,” “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” “practice makes perfect,” and “repetition is the mother of all learning.” These are no longer just expressions; they are neurological facts. Every time you have a new experience, a new synaptic connection forms. The more you use that connection, the stronger it gets. If you stop using the connection, the neurons are pruned away.
• Strong emotions strengthen the connections. Emotions help imprint patterns and fortify neural networks. This can work for us or against us depending on the emotion, memory, and experience. Emotionally charged experiences can be indelibly etched within our consciousness, creating a wider neuronal network. Presbyterian minister Carl W. Buechner, famous for his quips, said, “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
• Brain plasticity is a two-way street. The brain can change in both positive and negative directions. We can unwittingly program ourselves for failure through our attitudes, our expectations, and even the language we use regularly. In 1975, Becca Levy, PhD, surveyed 650 people about their expectations regarding the aging process. Subjects responded to statements such as “Things keep getting worse as I get older” and “I am as happy now as I was when I was younger.” Based on their responses, Dr. Levy categorized test subjects as either negative or positive in their attitude toward aging. Twenty years later, she discovered that the group with optimistic expectations about aging had outlived the negative, pessimistic group by an average of more than seven years.
Tip: Delete these expressions permanently:
“I’m having a senior moment.”
“I can’t remember anything anymore.”
• Memory is crucial for learning. This is obvious, but it’s important to keep in mind that when we are learning, the brain is creating new synaptic connections (new memories) and calling upon old synaptic connections (old memories) as we make associations. Unused connections die off, while connections that get used repeatedly become more efficient.
• Motivation is a key factor. The desired goal must be interesting. If you have a goal of living in France for six months, studying French becomes a fun affair to savor. Your ability to learn is far more robust than if you were only taking French lessons as a credit requirement.
And so the brain is no longer the declining brain but rather a learning organ whose limits are still unexplored. It’s never too late to change your brain and improve your mind.
# # #
Kelly Howell is the founder and creator of Brain Sync® audio technology. With almost three million CDs in print, she is renowned for her pioneering work in healing and mind expansion. Over the years, Kelly has worked in cooperation with eminent medical professionals to develop meditation and brain optimization programs used in hospitals and biofeedback clinics and by hundreds of thousands of individuals worldwide. She is the coauthor, with Michael J. Gelb, of Brain Power: Improve Your Mind as You Age.
Author of the bestselling How to Think Like Leonard da Vinci, Michael J. Gelb is the world’s leading authority on the application of genius thinking to personal and organizational development. A pioneer in the fields of creative thinking, accelerated learning, and innovative leadership, Michael leads seminars for organizations such as DuPont, Merck, Microsoft, Nike, Raytheon, and YPO. His website is www.michaelgelb.com.
Based on the book Brain Power. Copyright © 2012 by Michael J. Gelb and Kelly Howell. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.