Your Fantastic Malleable Brain – What Is Brain Plasticity?

Human potential is something that we should never underestimate and that should never be downplayed. We are versatile and adaptable beings with an incredible capacity for growth and learning and a range of amazing skills that set us apart from the other creatures that inhabit our planet.

But what may surprise you is just how incredible our brains in particular really are. In fact the human brain is surprising scientists and researchers all the time as we learn more and more about the way it works and the things it can do. And one of the most incredible of these features is no doubt the discovery of brain plasticity. Read on to find out what brain plasticity is and what it tells us about our incredible potential.

A Malleable Brain

Essentially, brain plasticity refers to the ‘plastic’ nature of the brain – in other words its malleability and ability to change. In many ways it seems that the brain will respond like a muscle – if you use a particular part of the brain repeatedly then it will grow over time and become more adept at performing that task.

One study for instance taught a group of participants to play the cello and analysed changes in their brain over time. What was found was that the part of the brain that was responsible for sending and receiving signals at the finger tips (a point in the motor cortex), actually grew physically in size in response to this training and thus gave the participants better control over their fingers and more sensitivity in them as well.

The mechanism for this is partly the result of neuronal connections strengthening as they fire repeatedly. As you use one part of the brain over and over, you strengthen and build connections thus improving the speed and efficiency of your ‘processing’ while at the same time causing your brain to ‘swell’ in that area. Did you know that taxi drivers have bigger brains than those in most other professions? The reason is simply that they are forced to learn so many different routes that their brains actually end up weighing more as a result. More recently though, studies have also shown that it’s actually possible for adults to create entirely new brain cells through a process called ‘neurogenesis’ – something that was previously thought impossible.

Implications

While it might make logical sense that the brain would be able to grow and shrink in response to the way it is used, this is something that hasn’t been fully understood by science until relatively recently and it explains a lot of other phenomena too. For instance, when someone is blind they will often have better hearing to compensate for their lack of vision, and of course this can be explained by the brain’s ability to change shape: as the visual areas of the brain shrink, so do the areas used more often for hearing start to grow. It also explains why patients who have had a hemispherectomy – had one whole hemisphere of their brain removed – are able to continue functioning relatively normally: the remaining half of the brain simply adapts to take on more functions.

This phenomenon also has implications for learning of course, for health and for a number of philosophical questions. Our brains have adapted and grown to suit the environment we are raised in, so how might our very perception and capabilities be affected if we were raised differently? And perhaps more importantly, what else might we be capable of adapting too? Medical studies that have provided amputees with robotic limbs for instance have found that the patients are quickly able to adapt to the use of their new limb as their brains grow new connections.

Of course it also sends a very positive message suggesting that you really can train your brain and grow it to accomplish whatever you want. You are limitless, so what do you want to do with that?

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