Brain Plasticity: The Key to a Better Brain at Any Age

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Your brain has the ability to grow and change throughout your life. Read about real-life examples of brain plasticity and learn how to make it work for you.

Until recently, it was believed you were born with a set number of brain cells that could never be replaced.

And that you came into this world with a set level of intelligence that never changed. (1)

But it’s now known that your brain is a continual work in progress.

Due to a property known as brain plasticity (or neuroplasticity), your brain is constantly changing.

The discovery of this capacity of the brain to change has been heralded as the most important neuroscience breakthrough in 400 years. (2)

Let’s look at why brain plasticity is so important and what you can do to enhance it.

What Is Brain Plasticity?

Neuroplasticity is derived from two words: neuron (a nerve cell) and plastic (moldable). (3)

Dr. Michael Merzenich, a leading 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.” (4)

In plain English, this means that your brain can change — forming new brain cells and neural connections and improving its capabilities — throughout your life.

Your brain continually alters its structure, function, and chemistry in response to everything you think and do.

And because your thoughts, environment, and life experiences are unique, brain plasticity is responsible for making your brain unlike any other.

You could even say that it’s what makes you “you”!

This innate capacity to change has a profound impact on brain development when you’re young and plays a big role in how well your brain ages.

Brain Plasticity and Early Brain Development

Unsurprisingly, the human brain is most malleable in the young.

We come into this world with brains that are largely unformed.

The human brain, with its large cerebral cortex, is designed to build new neural pathways by learning from experience.

The first few years of life are a time of rapid brain development.

Then, as we approach adolescence, a lot of information deemed unimportant gets weeded out of the brain by a process known as synaptic pruning.

By the time we’re ten years old, our brains have pruned away 50% of the synapses we had when we were 2-year-olds. (5)

This may be why most of us have so few memories of our earliest years.

Brain Plasticity and the Adult Brain

Once we reach adulthood, the rapid brain development of childhood slows down.

While the rate of change decreases, lifelong learning and new experiences continue to change both brain function and structure. (6)

By developing new neural connections and allowing unimportant ones to wither, our brains continue to rewire themselves to adapt to a changing environment.

Unfortunately, as many adults grow older, the loss of brain cells and neural connections outpaces their formation, resulting in mental decline. (7)

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Brain plasticity allows you to build new brain cells and create new neural connections at any age.

But you must keep learning and having new experiences and meet your brain’s basic requirements for staying healthy.

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Real-Life Examples of Brain Plasticity

Let’s take a look at some examples of brain plasticity at work.

The idea is for you to see that brain plasticity is more than just a wishful concept.

It can actually be applied to change your brain for the better.

London Cab Drivers Increase Brain Volume

One of the most fascinating studies involving brain plasticity was carried out with London taxi drivers.

To become a cab driver in that city, applicants must pass the most difficult geography test in the world.

London cabbies have reached near legendary status with their ability to memorize “The Knowledge” which includes 320 main routes, 25,000 streets, and the location of 20,000 landmarks.

Neurologists at University College London found that the average cabbie hippocampus, a part of the brain primarily associated with memory and spatial navigation, grew significantly larger as a result of memorizing this large body of knowledge. (8)

School Children Raise IQs

Unfortunately, some children are told by parents, teachers, or their peers that they aren’t very smart.

This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy with profound effects on a child’s entire future.

Stanford University professor and world-renowned psychologist, Carol Dweck, Phd, conducted a landmark study which found that when students are taught that intelligence is not fixed but is changeable, it made a dramatic impact on both their grades and morale.

By simply being aware of neuroplasticity and understanding that they had the potential to get smarter and do better in school, they did! (9)

Riding a “Backwards” Bicycle

Engineer Destin Sandlin engaged in an unusual experiment in brain plasticity by modifying his bicycle with a pair of cogs to create a “backwards” bike.

Now, when he turned the handlebars to the left, the wheel went to the right, and vice versa.

Sandlin found that learning to ride his new bike was a lot harder than he expected.

It took 8 months of daily practice to master this new way of riding.

That’s because his brain was firmly wired to ride the “usual” way.

As we know, kids’ brains are more plastic than adults.

This is why Sandlin’s young son was riding his backwards bike in just two weeks!

Enjoy this fun, real-life example of brain plasticity in action:

Example of Negative Brain Plasticity

Not all changes to the brain are for the better.

The phrase “use it or lose it” applies to the brain as well as to muscles.

When you don’t use certain neural connections, they eventually wither and die.

Areas of the brain can actually get smaller from disuse.

And not all neural connections are positive.

Undesirable habits, destructive addictions, and negative self-talk can become firmly entrenched and hard to change due to the effects of negative brain plasticity.

Domestication Leads to Smaller Brains

A fascinating example of negative brain plasticity is the process of animal domestication.

All domesticated animals have smaller brain mass compared to their wild cousins. (10)

Wolves, for example, have larger brains relative to their body size than dogs.

People who study wolves find they are smarter than dogs in every significant way that counts in the wild. (11)

While dogs excel at reading humans, they no longer require the brain power needed to hunt for food and evade predators.

This process seems to be happening in humans as well.

About the same time humans became domesticated by trading in their hunter-gatherer ways for civilization, our brains started shrinking.

In the last 10,000 to 20,000 years, the average human brain has gotten significantly smaller. (12)

The average brain has shrunk from 1,500 cubic centimeters to 1,350 cubic centimeters.

We’ve lost a chunk of brain about the size of a tennis ball.

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Create a Better Brain With Self-Directed Brain Plasticity

The term self-directed neuroplasticity is used to describe the process of intentionally harnessing your brain’s malleability to get the results you want.

Your brain will change — that’s inevitable.

Whether it’s for better or for worse is largely up to you.

You can leave the changes to chance or actively help move your brain in the direction you want it to go.

There are steps you can take to encourage brain plasticity, to keep it regrowing and reorganizing.

Let’s look at ways to do this and then we’ll review some practical ways to use brain plasticity to improve your life.

Increase Brain Plasticity With Lifelong Learning

Research has shown that your brain never stops changing as long as you continue to learn new things.

  • Art lessons improve brain plasticity, fluid intelligence, IQ, and attention in both adults and children. (13)
  • Making music enhances neuroplasticity, memory, attention, and learning during all stages of life. (1415)
  • Dancing stimulates the release of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein that promotes the growth, maintenance, and plasticity of neurons needed for learning and memory. (16) More than 400 neuroscience studies confirm the brain benefits of dancing.
  • Studying a foreign language enlarges the areas of the brain considered the language centers as well as the hippocampus (see the London cabbie story above). (17) MRIs reveal that students develop better connectivity between different regions of their brains as they learn a new language. (18)

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Strengthen Brain Plasticity With Physical Exercise

Physical exercise increases neuroplasticity. (19)

Even as little as one 30-minute session of cycling can temporarily improve brain plasticity. (20)

And if you don’t eat as well as you should, physical exercise helps to overcome the negative effects of a poor diet on brain plasticity. (21)

Exercise raises levels of brain chemicals that promote new brain cell formation and new neural connections, while protecting against mental decline. (2223)

Walking is a particularly good brain exercise. (24)

So are exercises with a strong mind-body connection like yoga and tai chi. (25, 26)

Encourage Brain Plasticity With Meditation

Meditation is a time-honored way to enhance brain health and function.

It might not sound like “exercise,” but training your brain to be quiet is hard work!

Practiced over time, quieting the mind through meditation actually changes the structure of the brain.

People who meditate have stronger neural connections between various areas of the brain. (27)

Support Brain Plasticity With Food and Supplements

Learning and using your brain in new ways keeps your brain’s “software” updated.

But you can also increase brain plasticity by upgrading your brain’s “hardware.”

By eating a diet rich in brain-healthy foods, you give your brain the nutrients it needs to create, maintain, and protect brain cells, and to form neurotransmitters.

Some nutrients and supplements proven to boost brain health and encourage brain plasticity include: (28, 2930, 31, 32, 3334)

  • flavonols found in cocoa and dark chocolate
  • polyphenols found in berries
  • omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a major component in brain cell membranes
  • vitamins D and E
  • magnesium, especially magnesium l-threonate
  • curcumin, the active ingredient in the spice turmeric
  • gotu kola (Centella asiatica), a relaxing Asian herb
  • ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), a popular memory supplement
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Do Online Brain Training Programs Affect Plasticity?

You may have seen brain training programs that claim to increase brain plasticity. (35)

Lumosity used to say this — until they got slapped with a $2 million fine for making false claims. (36)

Independent researchers recently published the first systematic review of the science behind commercial brain training programs. (37)

Eleven out of 18 companies had no clinical trials or empirical evidence to back up their marketing claims.

Of those that did, BrainHQ came out on top with the most high-quality controlled trials.

BrainHQ frequently refers to their individual games as “brain plasticity exercises” and brain training in general as a “plasticity-based therapy.”

The takeaway here is that using a brain training program may increase brain plasticity, but there’s no guarantee that it will.

Using Brain Plasticity to Make Your Life Better

Knowing about brain plasticity and how to increase it is all well and good, but you may be wondering “What can it do for me, specifically?”

So let’s check out how to harness brain plasticity in practical ways that can make you happier and smarter and help you achieve what you want in life.

Brain Plasticity Exercises for Increased Happiness

Just as your intelligence can change, your level of emotional intelligence can also be changed. (38)

You can learn to be happier, have better self-esteem, and develop better relationships. (3940)

Shawn Achor is one of the world’s leading experts on happiness.

He’s the author of the bestselling book The Happiness Advantage and has delivered lectures on positive psychology which was part of Harvard University’s most popular class.

He teaches simple concrete steps that anyone can take to rewire their brain to be happier. (41)

Doing one of the following exercises daily for three weeks can significantly raise your levels of both optimism and life satisfaction:

  • Jot down three things you’re grateful for.
  • Write a positive message to someone.
  • Meditate for two minutes.
  • Exercise for ten minutes.
  • Write down the most meaningful experience of the past 24 hours.

Harnessing Brain Plasticity for New Healthy Habits

If you’re like most people, you’ve tried to make changes to improve your life — quit bad habits or start healthy ones — but find it really hard.

Bad habits are brain plasticity at work as well.

You can just as easily develop a neural groove for a bad habit as a good one.

Most people try to change using willpower and motivation.

But motivation naturally diminishes with time and willpower is a resource that gets used up. (42)

Here are two super-easy ways to create new healthy habits using your brain’s superpower, plasticity.

Once formed in this way, good habits are easier to keep and harder to break.

Rewire Your Brain With Baby Steps

Developing a habit means that your brain has created strong neural connections so that you can perform an activity with minimal thought or effort.

That’s great when the habit is a good one like brushing your teeth, but not so good when it’s smoking or overeating.

You can appreciate the strength of habits when you try to stop a bad one.

It’s tough!

Most people try to change by setting big goals.

This is understandable — big goals are exciting.

But if you’ve tried this without success, you may want to try something different.

Starting with “baby steps” can greatly increase your chance for success.

How? By actually rewiring your brain.

Let’s say you want to start walking regularly for exercise.

There will be many days you won’t walk at all if five miles is your goal from the start.

But if you make a 10-minute walk your goal at the beginning, you can certainly accomplish that!

You will feel good that you’ve honored your commitment to yourself.

But even more important, you’re creating a new neural pathway that turns your daily walk into a habit.

This technique can be used for any lifestyle change you want to make — diet, exercise, meditation, stress reduction, and more.

Create a New Habit: Don’t Break the Chain

When Jerry Seinfeld was an up-and-coming comedian, he created the habit of writing new material everyday using a wall calendar and a red marker.

You can do the same.

don't break the chain calendar
A “don’t break the chain” calendar. (Image courtesy of KarenKavett.com)

Put up a wall calendar (there are free online calendars you can print) in a highly visible place.

Every day you take action on your new habit, cross out that day with a BIG RED X.

By never “breaking the chain,” you reinforce your new neural connections and rewire your brain to make your new healthy lifestyle change a habit.

You may have heard that it takes 21 days to create a new habit, but this is based on outdated research.

It’s now believed to take an average of 66 days and anywhere between 18 to 254 days. (43, 44)

Use Brain Plasticity to Change Your Mindset

Carol Dweck, PhD, discovered that grades took a leap when students understood the concept of brain plasticity.

She also discovered that there are two main mindsets among both children and adults — a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

People with a fixed mindset believe that their talents and intelligence are essentially set.

These people don’t significantly change as adults.

They are more interested in appearing smart and avoiding failure than in actually becoming smarter.

But those with a growth mindset understand that they can continue to develop their abilities and increase their mental capacities throughout life.

These folks aren’t afraid of failure.

In fact, they use it as a way to get to the next level of growth and achievement.

The greatest innovators the world has ever seen — people like Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Elon Musk — have embraced a growth mindset.

If you recognize that you fall into the fixed mindset camp, understand that you don’t have to stay there.

Like Dweck’s students, simply knowing the truth about neuroplasticity can help you develop a growth mindset. (45)

You can learn more about how to foster a growth mindset in Dweck’s perennial bestseller Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

The Future Role of Brain Plasticity in Treating Disease

Lastly, neuroplasticity plays a significant role in a wide spectrum of brain diseases.

Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s diseases result from the degeneration of neurons in specific regions of the brain.

So far, medical treatments of these brain diseases have met with limited success.

Researchers envisage that new treatment strategies based on the mechanisms of neuroplasticity could eventually provide solutions. (46)

It’s thought that enhancing the processes underlying brain plasticity at the first signs of brain dysfunction may be the best way to treat or delay the onset of degenerative brain disease. (47)

Other clinical applications for harnessing neuroplasticity are under investigation.

So far it’s been noted that after stroke and traumatic brain injury, brain plasticity can kick in to start repairing brain damage as quickly as a few hours after the event, especially if rehabilitation begins as soon as possible. (4849)

Ultimately, a better understanding of the forces behind brain plasticity may provide clues for successfully treating stroke, spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia, and dementia. (50)

Brain Plasticity: Take the Next Step

Your brain’s ability to change and grow throughout your life is called brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity.

You can put your brain’s plasticity to work for you to become happier, smarter, and more productive.

You can use it to rewire your brain to create the lifestyle you want and quit the habits that sabotage your success.

Ways to encourage your brain’s ability to change include giving it the physical exercise, mental stimulation, and nutrition it needs to promote the growth of new brain cells and the formation of new neural connections.

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