The recent discovery that your brain can renew itself throughout life means that you can boost your mental abilities. Learn five key steps you can take.
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 could never be changed. (1)
But it’s now known that our brains are constantly changing — creating new brain cells, making new neural connections — due to a property known as brain plasticity.
The discovery of this capacity of the brain to change, also referred to as neuroplasticity, has been called the most important neuroscience breakthrough in 400 years.
Why is this so important?
Because brain plasticity allows you to actually make your brain work better, even as you get older.
Discover how you can take advantage of this innate ability of the brain to improve your memory, concentration, mood, and more.
Brain Development and Neuroplasticity
Our brains are most plastic, or changeable, when we’re 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, we’ve pruned away 50% of the synapses we had when we were 2-year-olds. (2)
That’s why most of us have so few memories of our earliest years.
By developing new neural connections and allowing unimportant ones to die, our brains reprogram themselves and adapt to a changing environment.
The human brain is capable of growing new brain cells and creating new synaptic connections throughout life.
However, as we approach adulthood, the rapid physical brain growth of our childhood slows down.
While the overall rate of change decreases, new brain cell formation continues to take place when we learn or experience something new. (3)
New experiences change both brain function and structure. (4)
Unfortunately, as many adults grow older, the loss of brain cells and neural connections outpaces their formation, resulting in mental decline. (5)
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The Link Between Brain Plasticity and Increased Intelligence
Until very recently it was believed that one’s level of intelligence was decided at birth.
In a 2008 study, researchers found that overall intelligence could be improved.
This was a groundbreaking discovery that changed the way science regards intelligence. (6)
Several important findings resulted from this study:
- Intelligence is fluid and can be increased with the right stimulus.
- The more you train, the greater your intelligence gains.
- Anyone can increase their cognitive abilities, no matter their starting point.
- Cognitive enhancement made in one area can sometimes improve totally unrelated skills.
Let’s take a look at a couple of landmark studies that show how this plays out in real life.
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London Cab Drivers Increase Hippocampus Size
One of the most fascinating studies involving brain plasticity was done on London taxi drivers. (7)
To become a cabbie, an applicant must first 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.
As a result, the average cabbie hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory and spatial navigation, is significantly larger than in the rest of the population.
School Children Raise IQs
Another interesting study was done on school children.
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 their entire future.
When students were told that intelligence is not fixed but is changeable, it made a dramatic impact on not just their grades, but also on their morale.
These kids actually raised their IQs. (8)
By simply understanding that they had the potential to get smarter and do better in school, they did. (9)
Brain plasticity is clearly a concept everyone should know about!
Brain Plasticity Allows You to Become Happier
Just as we are not stuck with a set level of cognitive intelligence, we are not stuck with any set level of emotional intelligence either. (10)
Shawn Achor is one of the world’s leading experts on happiness.
He has taught happiness at Harvard University. (seriously!)
He teaches simple concrete steps anyone can take to train their brain to be happier. (13)
He found that doing one of the following activities daily for three weeks significantly increased 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.
For more easy ways to train your brain to be happier, I recommend Achor’s bestselling book The Happiness Advantage.
Use Brain Plasticity to Boost Brain Fitness
Brain plasticity is the innate capacity of the brain to renew and reprogram itself.
To maintain or improve your brain fitness, you just need to encourage this ability.
Here are five proven ways to do that.
1. Provide the nutritional building blocks for new brain cells with a brain-healthy diet.
By eating a diet rich in brain foods, you give your brain the nutrients it needs to create healthy new brain cells.
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- the flavonols found in cocoa, dark chocolate, and ginkgo
- the polyphenols found in berries
- omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a major component in brain cell membranes
- vitamin D
- vitamin E
- magnesium, especially magnesium threonate
- curcumin, the active ingredient in the spice turmeric
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2. Boost new brain cell formation with physical exercise.
Getting physical exercise enhances neuroplasticity. (18)
Even as little as one 30-minute session of cycling can temporarily improve brain plasticity. (19)
I don’t recommend eating an unhealthy diet, but physical exercise can help overcome the negative effects of a bad diet on brain plasticity. (20)
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Walking is a particularly good brain exercise. (23)
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3. Grow new brain cells with brain exercises.
Brain training software like Lumosity, NeuroNation, and Brain HQ is said to be based on the concept of neuroplasticity.
The makers of this software imply that you can increase your brain’s ability to work better by playing their brain games.
They claim that the benefits of using their products include faster thinking, improved memory and mood, better vision and hearing, quicker reaction time, and a feeling of increased focus, motivation and productivity. (26)
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The usefulness of this kind of brain training for improving brain performance is still not certain.
Recently, a large group of scientists came out against the claims that brain training games can reduce or reverse cognitive decline.
They believe there’s no compelling scientific evidence that they do. (29)
In any case, structured brain training software is definitely not the only way to enhance brain fitness.
Any activity that’s novel and complex can do that.
A wide range of activities can provide your brain with the stimulation needed to spur new neural connections.
Learning a new language, reading, playing chess or a musical instrument, gardening, arts and crafts, and doing home repairs specifically stimulate the brain to enhance brain health and mental well-being. (30)
Dr. Lawrence Katz is an internationally recognized neurobiologist and pioneer in neuron regeneration research.
In his book Keep Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss and Increase Mental Fitness, he states that any activity can be turned into a brain exercise provided it’s new, fun, and challenging.
You can even make up your own brain exercises.
Bill Gates is said to have driven a different route on the way home from work each day to stimulate his brain.
And look where it got him. 😉
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4. Build a better brain with meditation.
Meditation is a time-honored way to enhance your brain function.
It offers literally dozens of known cognitive, emotional, and brain health benefits.
There are over 1,000 published studies on its health benefits. (31)
Practiced over time, quieting the mind through meditation actually changes the structure of the brain.
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People who meditate have stronger neural connections between different parts of the brain. (32)
One of the most exciting new discoveries is that meditation can affect how your genes are expressed. (35)
Specifically, meditation can turn down pro-inflammatory genes to reduce brain inflammation.
Brain inflammation is linked to a wide variety of brain-related disorders including ADHD, anxiety, depression, and Alzheimer’s. (36)
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5. Rewire your brain by adopting a growth mindset.
We saw that just accepting the concept of brain plasticity significantly improved kids’ grades in school.
The same thing can happen in adults according to Dr. Carol Dweck, Stanford University professor and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
She found that those with a fixed mindset believe that their talents and intelligence are essentially set.
These people don’t significantly change as adults.
Their motto is “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
But those with a growth mindset understand that they can continue to develop abilities and increase mental capacities throughout their life. (37)
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Even if you currently fall into the fixed mindset camp, there’s no reason to stay there.
It’s never too late to change your mind.
Now that you know the truth about neuroplasticity, you can choose to have a growth mindset going forward.
Harnessing Neuroplasticity to Treat Brain Diseases
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. (38)
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. (39)
Other clinical applications for harnessing neuroplasticity are under investigation.
Ultimately, a better understanding of the forces behind brain plasticity may provide the clues for successfully treating stroke, spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia, and dementia. (40)
Brain Plasticity: The Bottom Line
Your brain is changing all the time.
Even reading this article has changed your brain.
Your brain’s ability to change and grow throughout your life is called brain plasticity or neuroplasticity.
Now that you know about brain plasticity, you can encourage it and reap the benefits of better brain health and fitness.
Giving your brain the food, exercise, and mental stimulation it needs promotes the growth of new brain cells and the formation of new neural connections.
Adopt a growth mindset. This alone can increase your intelligence.
Meditate. Even two minutes a day can increase your mental sharpness and happiness.
The study of neuroplasticity is still a brand-new science.
We can expect to hear a lot more about it in the future especially as it relates to treating brain diseases and disorders.