Only a few years ago scientists believed that we were born with a certain number of brain cells, and that we couldn’t grow any new ones – an assumption that has since been proven to be incorrect. What’s more, we can teach our brains to be more flexible – a term called neuroplastic – so that as we grow new brain cells, we can use them for an incredible array of beneficial capacities.
Dr. Michael Merzenich, a pioneer in the science of neuroplasticity, defines brain plasticity as “the brain’s ability to change its anatomical, neurochemical, and functional performance status across the lifespan.”
With increased neuroplasticity, we can not only improve cognitive function, but possibly also restore damaged memories, as in the case of patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s or other neurodegenerative diseases, but also realize heightened states of consciousness. Since consciousness provokes structural changes in the brain, and structural changes in the brain promote higher levels of consciousness we can approach the development of more neuroplasticity in several ways.
We have a naturally plastic and fluid brain when we are young. Some argue that the cerebral cortex was designed to make billions of connections as we learn, but that as we grow older, we become more rigid in our thinking. In studies, this does seem to be the case. As we approach our teen years, the brain practices something called synaptic pruning, where it pairs down neural connections that we don’t seem to need or use very often. By the time we are ten, our brain shave pruned away 50% of the neural synapses we worked so diligently to create when we were younger!
There are ways to prevent the brain from pruning so many of our well-earned synaptic connections though, so that our brains stay alert, our minds stay open, and we don’t limit ourselves to rote experience.
The key is in utilizing our brains in new and novel ways, first and foremost. In a neurological study involving London Cab drivers, it was determined that they had memorized, on average, 320 main routes through the city, 25,000 different streets, and 20,000 landmarks.
If we were to compare our brain synapses to the memory capacity of London cabbies, you can start to understand our true capacity to retain more of our brain’s power.
Utilizing self-directed neuroplasticity, we can intentionally harness our brain’s malleability to get the results we want.
Here’s how we can increase our neuroplasticity, and increase our brains’ power:
- Make Music – Music develops a whole array of brain connections not found in people who are not musically trained.
- Create Art – This pastime is not only incredibly stress-relieving, but it also brain building. Doing something creative builds brain cells that can last a lifetime.
- Dance – This single activity releases BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein that promotes the growth, maintenance, and plasticity of neurons needed for learning and memory.
- Travel — Paul Nussbaum, a neuropsychologist from the University of Pittsburgh explains, that travel offers new and challenging situations that cause the brain to sprout dendrites.
- Use Your Non-Dominant Hand to Write – Though this one can take some practice, forcing yourself to use a different hand than the one you are accustomed to writing with can create a whole bunch of new neural pathways.
- Eat More Flavanoids and Antioxidants – Foods like green tea, dark chocolate, and turmeric can reduce inflammation in the brain and encourage new brain cell growth.
- Intermittently Fast – Restricting our calories even for a day can promote neuronal growth, improve cognitive function, and increase neuroplasticity.
- Practice Yoga and Tai Chi – These practices build a strong mind-body connection, and improve cognitive functioning.
- Exercise – If you don’t dance or do yoga, ride a bike, go swimming or simply take a 30 minute walk every day. These forms of exercise all improve neuroplasticity and cognition.
- Study Another Language – Not only does learning another language increase your ability to empathize with other cultures, but MRIs show that this task builds brain connectivity between different areas of the brain resulting in more “whole brain” thinking. Learning a second language creates long-term, anatomic changes to the brain.
- Meditate – Meditation has profound long-term effects on the brain, among them making the brain more pliant. Nine key brain regions are rewired when you meditate even for a half hour a day.