Up until the 1970s the brain was believed to be a static organ, one that develops and shapes its’ structure in childhood and then ceases to grow after adulthood.
Then, in an attempt to disprove what was once thought about how the brain shapes itself, Michael Merzenich of the University of California-San Francisco, along with Jon Kaas and Doug Rasmusson, made a leap in our understanding of neuroplasticity: the ability for the brain to not only grow, but to change, well after adulthood.
In order to understand what Merzenich discovered, you have to understand that connections in the brain function through maps, or series of neural connections that are related to topics or themes (like feelings, basic instincts, etc.). Scientists have learned that, when one piece of the map gets broken through physical injury (or when an entire map goes missing), the brain adapts remarkably well.
When an athlete is injured or when an accident occurs that damages nerves in the brain, neural connections physically change to resolve the issue. That is: the brain changes itself in order to adapt. That’s something that a static organ could not do.
For a long while this type of activity wasn’t thought possible. Now we know – based on a number of studies – that the brain is in a continuous state of change. Psychologist Edward Taub, from The University of Alabama at Birmingham, explains by explaining that the very act of learning is reflective of neuralplasticity. Taub says: “Learning is neuroplasticity. And there are real changes taking place in the nervous system during learning.”
When you learn something new – a new language, a different route to the store, the meaning of a new word, how to properly throw a frisbee – your brain is making a physical change. Even in adults these changes are possible, since adults are still able to learn nearly as well as children when it comes to certain things. We know this because we can monitor the physical structure of connections and mapping in the brain. Scans of a brain before and after a specific activity (or injury) show physical changes between the neurons. These changes aren’t just observably physical either. Neuroplasticity is represented with cellular changes as well as the way neural maps fire, one after the other. MRI scans can show us how various parts of the brain “light up” differently when new connections are made.
Apart from injury, the greatest affect on brain plasticity is caused by experiences.
You aren’t only learning something new when you have a new experience (no matter how small the experience is), you’re actually changing the neural mapping of your brain. Which is powerful for people who want to have new ideas. Those new structures and maps in the brain result in more connections between concepts. The more connections you’re able to have between ideas means the more likely you are to find relationships between concepts, resulting in new, creative results.
Additionally, we know from various studies that experiences like exercise and meditation greatly affect the brain’s ability to change and learn. So not only is it worthwhile to try new experiences, but powering your brain to adapt and grow by staying physically active and by meditating (as well as getting enough sleep each night) is vital to creative growth.
For more on neuroplasticity and the latest findings around it, consider reading How the ‘Plastic’ Brain Rewires Itself by Scientific America.
Photo by Cea.