In simple terms, brain plasticity is the capability of the brain to adjust throughout your life. A fair amount of believe that as we grow older, this becomes harder to achieve.
Some people believe the Earth is flat. Some people even believe that pineapple is a pizza topping. Others believe that younger people learn better than adults.
Whilst the first two beliefs are debatable (to put it mildly), the latter group may have a point.
However, we believe in the magic of brain plasticity! In this article, we’ll be breaking down why there’s no age limit on learning. Let’s get going!
What is Brain Plasticity?
Brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity or neural plasticity, is a key feature of the brain. It means the ‘biological, chemical, and physical capacity for the brain to reorganise its structure and function.’
As you and your brain grow, so do the number of neurons you have. When a child is born, they have around 2,500 synapses per neuron in the cerebral cortex. Within two to three years, that number grows to about 15,000 synapses per neuron.
However, by the time we’re adults, that number has more than halved. This is known as synaptic pruning.
Brain plasticity takes place in two places. The hippocampus is the first. This area of the brain focuses on operating your long term and spatial memory. The second place is the cerebellum. This area is responsible for operating your short term and muscle memory.
There are also two types of brain plasticity. Functional plasticity is your brain’s ability to shift functions to other parts of the brain if the original area becomes impaired. And structural plasticity is when your brain changes its structure due to learning.
So the question we have to ask is…
…Is Childhood The Golden Age Of Learning?
While the phrase; ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,’ isn’t set in concrete, it does seem to hold some truth.
In its formative years, the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain which deals with memory and complex cognitive behaviour) is astonishingly adaptable and moldable. Subsequently, children are able to absorb new information at a faster rate.
Most neurologists agree that the prefrontal cortex is fully developed by the age of 25. As the brain becomes more rigid it becomes harder to develop new skills.
For example, a lot of educational systems believe it’s easier to learn a new language from a young age. This study on language learning suggests that if you learn a foreign vocabulary after 18, you won’t ever achieve the same proficiency as native speakers.
However new research has revealed information that disputes this. While a younger brain is more malleable and plastic, humans are still capable of learning when they’re past that age. The brain can still form new neural connections!
So don’t fear if you are over 18 or 25 (oh, the memories!). At Growth Engineering, we believe you should never lose your thirst for knowledge, regardless of your age.
That’s why learning is at the core of all we do and why we created our Impact Suite.
Why is Brain Plasticity Important?
Brain plasticity is important for the overall health of a human’s brain. As mentioned, it’s responsible for adapting the structure and functions of the brain. If we didn’t have this ability, we wouldn’t be able to develop into adults or heal from injuries.
For example, when a person has a stroke, your brain plasticity is essential to the brain’s recovery.
The more sensory and motor stimulation a person receives, the more likely brain plasticity can help the brain rewire itself to recover from damage. However, the extent of this varies depending on your age (younger = a stronger chance) and the treatments undergone during recovery.
Additionally, brain plasticity ensures our ability to keep learning. It’s responsible for forming new neural connections which help us to remember new information.
Brain plasticity is also key for protecting the brain from degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, dementia and Huntington’s disease!
What Is Your Brain Age?
There is a simple test you can perform to measure the age of your brain. Whilst this shouldn’t be regarded as 100% scientifically accurate, it does indicate the agility of your reflexes.
Ask a person to drop a vertically positioned 30 cm ruler into your hand. Ensure they don’t warn you of when they will let go.
Clutch the ruler as soon as you see/feel it drop. The lower the measurement, the quicker (or younger) your brain is. Check your answers here:
- Less than 10 cm = age 20
- 15 cm = age 25
- 20 cm = age 30
- 25 cm = age 35
- 30 cm or a complete miss = age 40+
Even if your brain is younger than you thought, it’s always good to keep on top of your brain health. Which brings us to our next point: is it possible to claw back time and increase your brain’s plasticity?
How Can You Improve Your Brain Plasticity?
We’ve concluded that children learn at a faster rate due to the moldable nature of their brains. The good news is that it’s never too late to alter your brain to promote better learning!
We’ve collected some great techniques you can use to help rejuvenate your brain plasticity.
1. Stimulate Your Brain
Brainy activities inspire new relations between nerve cells. This helps cultivate the magic of plasticity. Studies show that stimulating your brain with cognitively challenging tasks promotes neural plasticity. Consequently, this betters your cognitive reserve and cognitive functioning.
There’s a whole assortment of mental gymnastics you can practice to stimulate your brain.
You can test your recall by trying to memorise a list of items. Additionally, you can run through some mental arithmetic in your head. How about doubling a number (i.e. 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 etc.)?
Another great example is ‘gnicitcarp drawkcab gnilleps’, (or ‘practicing backward spelling’). Making an otherwise boring activity fun is important for consistency. We’re pretty good at that!
Research has shown that ‘brainy’ tasks like card games spark new connections between nerve cells and develop brain plasticity. At Growth Engineering, we infuse our training solutions with game mechanics. This promotes more learner engagement and motivation.
With Growth Engineering Authoring Tool, you can use our game templates to create fun training that will actually improve your memory! For one of our Fortune 500 clients, their learning retention score is at a whopping 90%.
The adult brain can actually grow new brain cells each day. This process is called neurogenesis. Physical activity helps to trigger neurogenesis, thus creating brain plasticity.
Aerobic exercise can fix damaged brain cells. In addition, it can double the amount of brain cells in the hippocampus. Aerobic exercises include:
- Circuit training
- Inline skating
Studies have shown that when you work out it increases blood flow to the brain. As a result, there’s a higher number of oxygen-rich blood vessels that reach the part of the brain in charge of thought.
In a study of 16 women aged 60 and older, simply walking for 30-50 minutes a few times a week improved blood flow to the brain by as much as 15%.
Furthermore, exercise also encourages the growth of new nerve cells and increases the connections between brain cells (synapses). Studies show that this is incredibly helpful for enhancing brain plasticity and reducing the likelihood of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
3. Learn To Play An Instrument
If you’ve always wanted to take up an instrument but never have, now might be the time.
Practising the piano (as well as other instruments) increases myelination. Myelin is a fatty substance which protects neurons and helps them move with ease. The more fluent your neurons move, the quicker your brain signals are conducted. This leads to better learning experiences.
Whether you practice violin, guitar or the didgeridoo, performing music helps to keep your brain active.
For example, studies show that it increases blood flow to the left hemisphere of the brain. This is great for giving you an extra boost of energy. It’s also been proven that musicians have better motor control skills.
Playing an instrument requires both sides of the brain to be active at the same time, giving it a great workout. In this sense, performing music can be an excellent warm-up for academic learning.
4. Ensure You Have a Healthy Diet
A healthy diet makes for a healthy brain. The foods that you include in your diet have a clear effect on your brain’s plasticity.
Foods full of antioxidants and Omega-3 fatty acids are great for your brain health. Conversely, over consumption of foods rich in fat and sugar causes a negative effect in the brain.
Research recommends consumption of things like fish, blueberries, avocado and even coffee to support brain plasticity. Better still, dark chocolate (in moderation) is also a big help.
Harvard Medical School conducted a study which involved the observation of people who drink hot cocoa twice-daily. It caused a 30% increase in memory and cognitive abilities within people who previously had impaired blood flow to their brains!
5. Practice Meditation
There are several reasons why meditation helps plasticity and the brain in general. Just some of the benefits include:
- Boosting creativity
- Boosting memory
- Greater mental health
- Stress reduction
- Better sleep
According to meditation specialists Equisync, ‘meditation is the neuroscientific community’s most proven way to upgrade the human brain’.
Meditation changes the brain’s structure and function. People who practice meditation have stronger neural connections between the different areas of the brain.
Multiple studies have shown that meditation can improve neuroplasticity and cognitive function. Neuroimaging studies have also found that meditation alters your brain connectivity for the better.
6. Take Daily Supplements
We’re all aware that nutrients such as vitamins and minerals are essential for your body to function properly. We get most of these from the food and drink that we consume. However, it can be difficult sometimes to get the amount we require for supercharged brain plasticity.
This is where supplements come in. Luckily, they’re widely available and don’t cost a fortune. Studies show that supplements such as B vitamins, D vitamins, magnesium and extra Omega-3 are great for promoting brain plasticity in our central nervous systems.
Dr. David Sinclair is a Harvard professor who specialises in what causes ageing. He really knows his stuff! He regularly talks about all the supplements he takes to encourage a youthful brain and body.
7. Strengthen Your Social Connections
Maintaining relationships with other people is often cited as a way to prevent diseases like dementia. Learning with others is also great for boosting our memories. That’s why we’re so big on social learning here.
A study followed 268 Harvard sophomores for nearly 80 years. They found that those with close relationships with others were happiest and healthiest. Those with strong social connections also experienced less mental deterioration as they grew older.
Undergoing severe stress without having proper support can cause shrinking in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, negatively affecting your learning abilities.
The co-founder of Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB), Dr. Daniel Siegel, talks about how we should seek healthy relationships. This is because our brains respond and mirror positive traits with mirror neurons. In turn, this wouldn’t be possible without brain plasticity.
Learning may be a slightly more complex process for those over the age of 25. However, it’s definitely not impossible.
The magic of plasticity reshapes your brain pathways and eases the learning process. Follow our tips and you’ll be a plasticity paladin in no time!
Did you enjoy learning about how your brain works? Use this information to inform your corporate learning initiatives by downloading ‘100 Brain Science Tips to Boost Your Training Strategy’ today!