The Changeable Brain: Brain Plasticity

Sarah Buttle

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So how do we learn? And why do some of us learn things more easily than others?

This is the question Dr. Lara Boyd, brain researcher from University of British Columbia, asked her audience at the opening of her TEDx Talk in Rogers Arena on November 14, 2015. This is the question that fascinated her, and it has also fascinated me and has resulted in my discovery of brain plasticity,  also known as neuroplasticity.

We are witnessing a revolutionary discovery that the human brain can in fact change itself, but what does this mean? Although the brain is an organ and our most important at that, there are several theories that show the brain as a muscle, as the brain can be trained like your biceps, and triceps. Your brain can be trained and learn new skills by improving cognitive functions such as strengthening memory.

“Postmortem examinations have shown that education increase the number of branches among neurons. An increased number of branches drives the neurons further apart, leading to an increase in the volume of thickness of the brain. The idea that the brain is like a muscle that grows with exercise is not just a metaphor”, Norman Doidge from ‘The Brain that Changes Itself’.

This discovery formed the bases of the direction and structure for many popular and successful psychotherapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT aims to help you manage your problems by changing how you think and act.  We must remember that the brain relies on our senses for input, and it is that information we allow into our brain that will structure it and wire it, ready for the same recurring reactions.

To challenge the structure of our brain we must challenge our perception. CBT encourages you to reflect and understand yourself both physically, emotionally and psychologically and how you think about yourself, the world and other people. The HSE advises talking about these things, and that CBT can help you to change how you think ‘cognitive’ and what you do ‘behaviour’, which can help you make significant improvements in your life.

For four hundred years the notion that the brain could alter its structure and primary functioning would not have been discussed amongst academics, doctors and scientists in the field of medicine. This was as a result of mainstream medicine and science believing that brain autonomy was fixed. People who previously had been told there was very little chance of improving or rehabilitating from their conditions and illnesses. People can now pursue recoveries and have the positive mentality that they can retrain or, reprogramme their brain. This can have significant results.

The common misunderstanding was that after childhood the brain changed only when it began the long process of decline; that when brain cells failed to develop properly, or were injured or dead, they could not be replaced. Nor could the brain ever alter its structure and find a new way to function if part of it was damaged. This theory of the unchangeable brain decreed that people who were born with brain or mental limitations or who sustained brain damage, would be limited or damaged for life. Norman Doidge ‘The Brain that Changes Itself’.

So, What is Brain Plasticity?

“Neuro is for ‘neuron’, the nerve cells in the brain and nervous systems. Plastic is for “changeable, malleable, modified.” Scientists began to realise that when brain cells died, that they can actually be replaced leading to new circuits being made, with new opportunity of learning and development. This can be said also about our basic reflexes which we previously thought to be hardwired, are not. This has been crucial in the progression for individual rehabilitation treatments for patients who have had strokes”, Norman Doidge. 

Scientists in the 1970s proved that the brain changed its very structure with each different activity it performed. So, if certain parts failed, then other part could sometimes take over.  “You and your plastic brain are constantly being shaped by the world around you. Understand that everything you do, everything you encounter, and everything you experience is changing your brain. And that can be for better, but it can also be for worse,” Dr. Boyd.

“The problem here is, is that neuroplasticity can work both ways. It can be positive, you learn something new and you refine the motor skill. And it also can be negative though, you forgot something you once knew, you become addicted to drugs, maybe you have chronic pain. So your brain is tremendously plastic and it’s being shaped both structurally and functionally by everything you do, but also by everything that you don’t do,” Dr. Boyd.

Barbara Young is a Canadian educator and author who has presented how much could potentially be accomplished within society, that if in a perfect world every child would have a brain-based assessment and, if problems were found, a tailor made program would then be created to strengthen essential areas in the early years, when neuroplasticity is greatest.

“It is far better to nip the brain problems in the bud than to allow the child to wire into his brain the idea that he is “stupid”, begin to hate school and learning and stop work in the weakened areas, losing whatever strength he may have,” Barbara Young.

This is a powerful picture portrayed by Ms. Young, and one that should provide great reassurance for many. The discovery of brain plasticity allows us to overcome barriers that we once thought of as impossible. Defects in our personality and brain structure that we have been defeated by and helplessly accepted can now be challenged and improved. Areas of your brain that are weaker than others can now be exercised and strengthened.

For more on what was discussed here I would urge you all to read ‘The Brain that Changes Itself’, written superbly by Norman Doidge, a Canadian-born psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. After reading his book I now share his enthusiasm and fascination at this revolutionary discovery surrounding the brains ability to rewire itself, grow and change beyond our previous expectations.

If you enjoyed reading this post please do read my other articles on mental health and well-being: ‘Understanding Emotional Intelligence’, ‘An Insight into Psychotherapy’ and ‘Mindfulness: A Key Tool to Less Stress’. 

(source: feature image: https://pixabay.com/en/question-quiz-think-thinking-2004314/)

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Sarah Buttle

Mental Health Youth Advisers for the Milestone Study