Not long ago, it was believed that your brain stopped growing when you reached adulthood. Research has proven this to be untrue. The theory developed is referred to as neuroplasticity. Fundamentally (and fortunately) this means that our brains continue to grow throughout our lives. The brain’s incredible capability to constantly organize and reorganize information by forming new and strong connections among neurons is nothing short of a series of miracles happening in your very own cranium.
1. The change in gray matter
As these neural connections develop and strengthen, the gray matter in our brains physically changes as well. When new connections form by the learning of new skills and concepts, the gray matter actually thickens. This manifests itself in our aptitudes. Learning a new language or even a new dance step creates a new neural connection so that when we recall the information, our brains give instructions to our bodies to perform what we have learned.
2. People of any age can learn and develop
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is an age-old cliché. But, as it turns out, one can not only teach new tricks to people (and perhaps dogs) of any age, but anyone, at any age has the capacity to develop new habits as well. This is a refreshing concept in a number of ways. First, consider the implication that the belief that our brains become stagnant at a certain age has had on the older population. Perhaps there’s been an unwillingness to learn new things because it was inherently believed that it wasn’t possible. Second, think of those in lifestyle “ruts” who claim that getting out is impossible. We know now that we have the power to change our lives by changing our minds.
The old way of thinking about cognition would have us believe that there is no way to train our brains to be better, stronger, or faster. Thankfully, we now know that we can work out our brains like we work out our bodies. The more effort we expend, the better our results will be. We have the ability to not only change, adapt, and learn, but for our brain to actually rewire itself. It’s becoming easier to find challenging brain activities online and in our communities. These activities not only present ways to learn and grow, but to increase mental power, build new neural connections, and strengthen the connections we’ve already built.
4. Our “cognitive reserve” can aid in neuroplasticity
The concept of a cognitive reserve is based on research that individuals who lead cerebrally stimulating daily lives – whether it’s through jobs that require a great deal of mental fortitude, a conscious desire to learn and grow through regular mental exercise, or even engagement in formal education – build up a sort of cache of brain power which comes in handy later on. Thus, when the lives of these individuals slow down, their mental capacity does not as the brain now has the ability to draw on these reserves. This is just another reason to take care of your brain and maintain your cognitive abilities. Create a reserve for your mind to draw upon later on.
5. Stress affects neuroplasticity
We can see on an EKG or ECG readout how the heart is impacted by long-term stress. We know that our cognitive abilities are affected as well. Stress has been proven to not only kill neurons and neural connections, but actually prevents the formation of new neurons and neural connections – the very definition of neuroplasticity. It’s nearly impossible to live a life with no stress. However, dealing with it in an effective and healthful manner can literally mean the difference between life and death for our bodies, as well as growth or depletion of our brains. Consider ways to manage stress not as a luxury, but as a necessity. Whether it’s through meditation, counseling, daily walks or exercise, or another method that suits you, it’s imperative to get your stress in check and let your mind and body flourish.