How brain plasticity can make you smarter
We all have the power to change our brain for the better. Neuroscientist, author and “father of brain plasticity” Dr Michael Merzenich shares his top tips
Brain plasticity – also called neuroplasticity – is an odd term for most people, with the word “plastic” causing images of Tupperware or cling wrap to pop into their head. However, brain plasticity is a common term used by neuroscientists, referring to the brain’s ability to change at any age, for better or worse.
Changes in the physical brain manifest as changes in our abilities. For example, each time we learn a new dance step, it reflects a change in our physical brain: new “wires” (neural pathways) give instructions to our body on how to move. Each time we forget someone’s name, it also reflects brain change – “wires” that once connected to the memory have been degraded or lost. As these examples show, changes in the brain can result in improved skills (a new dance step) or a weakening of skills (a forgotten name).
Scientists have found that, left to its own devices, the brain grows and changes in a positive direction until a person’s early 30s, and then begins to slowly slide back down the slope. That’s right, negative plasticity begins to change the brain for the worse in your early 30s. But there are things you can do to counteract those negative plasticity processes to rejuvenate, recover and grow your brain and your abilities at any age.
It’s important to note that positive brain plasticity only happens when the brain is in the mood for it. If I’m alert, on the ball, engaged, motivated and ready for action, then the brain releases chemicals that enable brain change. Your brain needs exercises that are inherently satisfying and rewarding. The more positive good feelings you get from your activities, the more your brain has been turning on and will be activated to change.
Also, beware of slipping onto an easy path that levels out at a mediocre performance level. You’re making the most real progress when the task difficulty always requires a challenging level of performance.
Finally, count every little indication of progress as success and reward yourself, in your mind, for those growing achievements.
10 ways to better your brain
Each of us has very different interests and learning possibilities. No-one else can design a brain-healthy lifestyle for you. However, it may be helpful to consider a few examples of how a more brain-healthy life might be organised.
- Start a brain fitness program such as BrainHQ (brainhq.com). These exercises have been clinically proven to change and improve the brain. This is the most efficient way to keep it in shape.
- Study a new language. And aim to master it at a usable conversational level. Work on accurately receiving and producing word sounds for at least 10 to 30 minutes every day. Put your learning on a schedule and take it seriously.
- Listen more carefully. Test how much you remember about every conversation in person or on the phone, both soon after and again a few hours after that conversation has ended.
- Rediscover a musical instrument. Rekindle an interest in music through careful listening or performance. Musical performance exercises your reading, listening, fine and high-speed manual control, and other aural skills.
- Talk to new people. Find a volunteer position in which you can use your language skills with other people. For example, there are great school volunteer programs in many communities that provide opportunities for you to communicate with new people of all ages.
- Pick up a jigsaw. Doing a jigsaw puzzle requires your close, focused attention, and that you make fast decisions based on shape, colour and visual textures to be successful. Finding a correct piece is rewarding for the brain.
- Create something. Arts offer many of the same multimodal virtues. In terms of vision, the sculptor, potter, painter, furniture maker, wood turner, jewellery maker, glass sculptor or etcher is continuously shifting attention between fine details and a grand perspective, both in their mind and in their actions.
- Play a ball sport. Games that require visual tracking, that drive your brain to rapidly move your eyes, and that lead to fast and flexible motor responses are beneficial for both the brain and body.
- Create a movie in your mind. When you go for a walk, have a social visit, go out shopping or have any other experience away from your home, try to develop the habit of reconstructing what you experienced into memorable scenes.
- Learn the tango. The tango is a good example of a dance (or other motor activity) that starts simply and gets more complicated, and requires more movement variations and adjustments in balance as you get better.