Written by therapist Liliia Chernytska
For many years, scientists believed that our brains are formed before birth and in early childhood and then remain in their constant form throughout the rest of life (assuming they do not suffer any injuries or damage). But with the development of technology, scientists can challenge and test many of their theories that were waiting for the right tools to look deeper, beyond theoretical dimensions. Now, scientists have found that our brain changes throughout the course of life. We have new concepts such as neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Neurogenesis is essentially “the birth” of new neurons, while neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change its structure and function in response to experiences or damage. Although neuroplasticity has traditionally been associated with children and childhood, new research indicates that more developed brains continue to show plasticity as a result of ongoing learning. This plasticity enables adults to learn new ideas and skills—and even adjust to new environments.
How does Neuroplasticity Work?
Neuroplasticity works like this: when people repeatedly practice an activity, their neural networks—groups of neurons that fire together, which makes electrochemical pathways—form themselves according to that specific activity. It also works with memory; when people access memories repeatedly, neurons form for those memories. When people stop practicing new things, their brains will eventually eliminate those connecting pathways. Just like with our muscles, the connections in the brain that go unused will get weaker and eventually disappear altogether. Connections within the brain are constantly becoming stronger or weaker, whether we sense it or not. When we use specific neurons frequently, those develop stronger connections. The neurons that are seldom used eventually die. By developing new connections and pruning weak ones, the brain adapts to the ever changing environment.
There are two main types of neuroplasticity:
Functional plasticity is the ability of the brain to move functions from a damaged area of the brain to other undamaged areas. An example of functional plasticity would be a person who is blind. In this regard, the functionality of the visual area will move the brain to another area—for example, the auditory and tactile area.
Structural plasticity is the ability of the brain to change its physical structure as a result of learning and growing.
What Does This Mean for us?
The plasticity of our brain is great news for us, because it means that everyone, including people who experience various traumatic and difficult life events—have a chance to recover. Our brains function in two directions; not only do negative events affect it and manifest themselves, but also positive events make an important contribution to the change for the better functioning of our brain.
In addition to recovery from physiological injury and disease, the neuroplasticity of the brain also has a huge impact on our daily communication and our perception of the world. Without neuroplasticity, it would be difficult to learn or otherwise improve brain function. This isn’t just about learning a new skill or increasing your intellectual capacity; neuroplasticity plays a significant role in forming healthy relationships. Just as great damage and pain can come through relationships, so can healing and growth. Neuroplasticity is a hidden agent in this story, because our negative experiences with people affect how we perceive others and ourselves. Creating new connections and having new experiences rewrites how we should view ourselves. When someone gives you consistent unconditional love and acceptance, this can help overwrite negative experiences and relationships. This is one of the ways therapy itself works.
How Can I Contribute To My Brain Neuroplasticity?
There is growing research on ways we can drive brain plasticity in good directions.
- Listen and play music. Music and the complexity of its performance require a unique multi-system involvement of the human brain. This in turn creates ideal conditions for brain neuroplasticity.
- Get some exercise. Exercise helps people to protect themselves against cognitive deterioration. Consistent exercise—especially cardio—helps improve neural pathways.
- Learn new skills or languages. By practicing mental exercises like puzzles, or learning a new language, the brain can generate new cells as well as develop plasticity. This can also help protect against future cell loss.
- Get Creative. Creativity can change neural network connections as well as increase cognitive flexibility. Because the creative process requires you to explore and invent new solutions to creative tasks, the resulting opportunities for neuroplasticity and long-term changes in the brain’s neural networks increase.
- Practice meditation. During meditation, new connections are formed in our brain, and as a result, new responses of our brain to triggers, anxiety, depression, fear, and/or panic attacks have a different response than we usually give when experiencing these states.
- Get lots of sleep. Sleep plays an important role in our brain’s health. It helps to increase the growth at the end of neurons that help transmit information to each other, which also aids plasticity.
Therapy can be one way to increase the neuroplasticity of your brain. It encourages us to think, reflect, and create new ways of solving problems, helping us find new approaches to various life situations, which creates new patterns of neural connection, which as a consequence, increases the plasticity of the brain. If you want to start working with a therapist, do not hesitate to reach out! We’re happy to answer your questions and assist you in the process.