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Understanding Your Brain: A Guide to Neuroplasticity

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Have you ever wondered what allows your brain to adapt to new things? How can you learn and take in new information without experiencing an information overload? The answer is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity (sometimes known as brain plasticity) is your brain’s ability to adjust and adapt to change. It’s essential when it comes to maintaining your cognitive health as you get older. We’re here to talk all about what neuroplasticity is, how to improve neuroplasticity, and more. Read on to learn more.

What Is Neuroplasticity? 

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to continue adapting to new stimuli, information, and environments. It allows us to continue learning and growing and maintain our cognitive abilities well into old age.

Think of your brain as a computer. When you give your computer routine software updates, it’s able to perform new tasks, prevent new problems, and hold new information. Your brain isn’t that different.

Many people think that they stop having the ability (or need) to continue learning once they’re beyond their young adult years. This isn’t true. Even if you’ve had a thorough education, continuing to learn and grow will improve your neuroplasticity. In other words, continuing to learn will allow you to continue learning. It’s cyclical. 

Neural pathways within the human brain

Our brains form new neural pathways (and get rid of others) all the time. A neural pathway is a path of neurons that send signals around the brain. As we pick up new information, we form important adaptive neural pathways that will help us in the future. Not all neural pathways are helpful, but having neuroplasticity allows us to modify the maladaptive ones and form new ones. 

For example, if you have a bad habit of over-eating when you’re stressed, that’s because of a neural pathway that associates food with happiness. You’ll continue to reach for food instead of finding a healthier solution. If you, instead, start seeking out yoga when you’re stressed, your brain will form a new neural pathway and associate yoga with happiness instead. 

Neuroplasticity allows this formation of new habits to happen. 

What Is the Importance of Neuroplasticity?

As we mentioned before, neuroplasticity allows us to continue learning and growing throughout our lives. It allows us to form healthy associations, form good habits, and keep our brains active. 

Remember that neuroplasticity allows people to adapt to their environments. If you’re not malleable enough, you’ll struggle to overcome new hardships or challenges. You may experience stress when you’re faced with a change in routine when this is something that most people should be able to tolerate. 

If someone experiences a stroke or a traumatic brain injury, neuroplasticity can help with their recovery. This isn’t to say that all people with good neuroplasticity will fully recover, but it’s helpful.

Neuroplasticity is also what allows people to adapt after losing a sense or even a limb. You’ll be better at letting other body parts and senses “pick up the slack” if you have good neuroplasticity because your brain and body will adapt to the new situation.

Maintaining good neuroplasticity may help prevent or slow down cognitive decline and perhaps even Alzheimer’s.

Why Does Neuroplasticity Decline? 

It’s common knowledge that children have more malleable minds than adults. But why is this? When a child is growing, their brain is constantly forming new connections. Children are “blank slates,” so to speak, so it’s easy for them to retain new information. There are several ways that you can see this in action.

First, let’s talk about adaptation. Children are constantly adapting to new things and environments because everything is new. While children with certain conditions (such as Autism Spectrum Disorder) struggle with change, most children can tolerate it well. 

If a child gets injured, even to the point of disability, they will be able to adapt to the change more easily than an adult. They’re still learning how to navigate the world, so it’s easy for them to make adjustments. 

Children are also better learners than adults. Consider how easy it is for a child to pick up a language. They learn English in a matter of years, and they struggle far less to learn second or even third languages. While adults are still able to form new connections and repair old ones, their brains are fully-formed. They don’t need to take in and retain new information constantly.

Neuroplasticity and Mental Health

Having good neuroplasticity is crucial for improving mental health. Neuroplasticity can help victims of trauma overcome it. Trauma can cause the depletion of certain neural pathways. Those neural pathways may be replaced with harmful ones that result in maladaptive behavior (for example, someone who experienced narcissistic abuse may form an anxious attachment problem as a result).

Those responsive neural pathways are difficult to deconstruct and replace, even with intensive therapy. Having good brain plasticity will help form helpful behaviors and responses instead of maladaptive ones. 

The same is true for people with anxiety and depression. While neuroplasticity allows those negative associations to form in the first place, it’s also what allows people to heal from them. Therapists can help their patients form healthy associations with medication management and a treatment plan that includes brain exercises and a healthy lifestyle. 

Improving neuroplasticity through games and activities can even help children (and some adults) with autism, ADHD, and other forms of neurodivergence. If training is started early, these children may have better outcomes for adulthood. Overall, neuroplasticity will help you maintain a healthy mind, even if you struggle with a mental health disorder. 

Activities and Exercises for Neuroplasticity

Everyone is capable of improving their neuroplasticity in adulthood, even if it’s more difficult than it would have been in childhood. You have to make an active effort, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be difficult. As a matter of fact, improving your neuroplasticity can be fun. Here are a few ways to improve your neuroplasticity (either on your own or with professional help). 

Various Types of Therapy

Occupational therapist helping someone with their mental healthDid you know that therapy can actually be helpful when it comes to building and maintaining neuroplasticity? Therapists aim to rewire maladaptive behaviors and thoughts so their patients can create new and helpful ones in their place. 

Common types of mental health therapy, like cognitive-behavioral therapy and EMDR, challenge problematic thoughts, behaviors, and even memories. As a result, patients are able to adapt and overcome. 

There’s also occupational therapy. Occupational therapy isn’t usually used for mental health conditions (though it’s a common option for neurodivergent people). Instead, it helps people adapt to various impairments. 

Let’s say that someone has a brain injury and loses the ability to perform certain daily functions, like writing. An occupational therapist will work together with the patient to rebuild their ability to write, even if they need to use adaptive tools to do so. They’re helping the patient create new neural pathways and habits to help them progress beyond their limitations. 

Continued Learning and Education

Continuing to learn and educate yourself is a great way to build and maintain neuroplasticity. It’s true that getting older makes it more difficult to learn new things, but it will get easier as you continue learning. 

“Learning” doesn’t have to be academic, but it certainly can be. If you have the means, consider taking a class at a community college about something that you’ve always wanted to learn. You’ll have to stay committed if you want to pass the class and get your money’s worth, which is great motivation. 

You can also take free online classes about almost anything. You won’t receive college credit, but you’ll be educating yourself. Have you always wanted to learn about coding? What about investing in the stock market? These are useful skills, and learning about them will boost your neuroplasticity. 

If you’re up for it, try learning a new language. There are plenty of free language learning resources online. You’ll get to communicate with new people, and you can even improve your job prospects. 

Trying New Things

Trying new things and learning new things go hand-in-hand. If you struggle with a standard “learning” environment, you can still train your brain by doing new activities. You’re technically still learning but in a more engaging way. Any new activity is going to improve your neuroplasticity. You’re exposing yourself to new experiences and forcing your brain to adapt to them. 

Have you ever been in a completely new environment as an adult? For example, visiting the ocean for the first time? Did you get that overwhelming sense of wonder or awe? This is your brain learning something new. Traveling is fantastic for your neuroplasticity (especially if you’re going to a brand new environment or somewhere with people who speak a different language). 

You can try new experiences without ever leaving your town. Go for a walk in a new place. Try something fun, like a dance class. You have plenty of options. 

Physical Activity

Improving your physical health with plenty of exercise will improve your neuroplasticity. Research suggests that exercise can improve cognitive health even in late adulthood. Exercise is fantastic for your mental health because it causes your body to release endorphins, but it also forces adaptation. You get stronger, improve your balance, and build more stamina as you exercise more. 

Physical activity also improves blood flow to the brain. Exercise promotes cell growth, neurotrophic factors, and more. You’ll improve your brain while you improve your body. Even if you aren’t capable of intense exercise, even taking routine walks around your neighborhood can be helpful. Never forget the connection between your body and your mind.

Playing Musical Instruments

Music is fantastic for your brain. It’s a strong memory trigger, even for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Playing musical instruments (or even listening to music) is great for your neuroplasticity. Routine musical training and listening exercises may slow down cognitive decline.

When you play musical instruments, you’re (again) learning something new. Even if you already know how to play the instrument, you’re always learning new songs. Learning to play music is a multi-sensory experience. You use your senses of touch and sight to understand where to place your hands on the instrument. You use your sense of hearing to determine whether or not you’re doing the right thing).

Any activity that activates several senses at once will be great for forming new neural pathways in your brain. 

Getting More Sleep

Healthy brain sleeping in a bedIf you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re doing no favors for your neuroplasticity. There’s some dispute over how much sleep can help, but it’s evident that a lack of sleep results in poorer cognitive abilities (even if they’re short-term). 

Sleep helps you replenish chemicals in your brain that are depleted during the day. Those chemicals are essential for building new neural pathways. Sleep may also be responsible for turning short-term memories into long-term memories. They help to remove unimportant or maladaptive information so that you can take in new and helpful information. There’s never a downside to getting at least 7 hours of good sleep. 

Creating an Enriching Environment

Many people only think of enrichment as it applies to children or animals. Animals at the zoo and pets in your home need enrichment in order to thrive, and you do too! If someone spends all of their time in an empty room (for example, if they work from home), they may not develop greater brain plasticity. There’s nothing new or interesting for their brain to take in.

Try to create a sensory environment for yourself. Play sounds while you’re working and burn scented candles. If possible, put yourself in new environments from time to time, even when you’re working. 

Maintaining Good Neuroplasticity Is Essential

Neuroplasticity is what allows your brain to continue forming new neural pathways. You’ll have an easier time learning new things, potentially slowing down cognitive decline and improving your mental health. Exercises for neuroplasticity can be fun and engaging. You can rewire your brain with a bit of effort.

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