Twenty years ago scientists believed that once we reach our adulthood, the development of our brain is over. What we gathered and made by then is pretty much what we’ll have for the rest of our lives. We can learn new things, but the paths are set and certain behaviors cannot be changed. Different parts of the brain are responsible for different functions. If you get shot in the head and the bullet hits Broca’s area in the frontal lobe, you will probably never speak or understand language properly ever again. That part of the brain is responsible for speech production and language processing and its destruction means end of your career as a translator. Or so the scientists thought. Advances in technology, like functional brain imaging, allowed us to see how our brains actually work and the situation is not as grim as we thought. We are not stuck with disabilities or post-adolescent brains for the rest of our lives. Brain constantly changes.
The process of learning for example alters the structure of the brain at the cellular level, and the brain never stops changing to make room for new information. When you are learning a new skill, new neural pathways are being made. Repeating that skill, namely practicing, strengthens those pathways.
Take this as an example. First few times when you were trying to tie your shoelaces as a kid it was hard, taking every grain of your focus to remember where to put which lace. After tying your shoes numerous times, you’ve learnt to do it quickly, without thinking. Now that action doesn’t take the capacity of your brain as it did at first, allowing you to put an effort into something else. This is a classic example of neural plasticity.
When someone says plastic, something stiff and cheap comes into mind, but in biology plasticity refers to capacity of living organisms to adapt themselves to new conditions. Humans are great at adapting, thanks to their ever-changing neural network.
When we are born, each of our neurons has 2500 synapses, namely 2500 connections to other neurons. By the time we are 3 years old, that number grows six times. It’s true that the number of synapses declines as we get older, being cut by a half when we hit adulthood compared to when we were 3 years old. This doesn’t happen because the brain starts deteriorating, it’s just being economic. Synapses shrink when they are not used – an act of synaptic pruning which allows the efficiency of other neuronal transmissions to increase. You probably have only a tenth of the knowledge about dinosaurs you had as a kid – you didn’t repeat or use that knowledge much, so most of it is lost, making way for new pathways to occur and other, more important pathways to become stronger. Paleontologists are obviously excluded from this example.
Classic example of how adaptable is our brain can be seen in people who lost sight. The part of their brain that was processing sight is not gone, just the apparatus for receiving light is not working. That part of the brain won’t be idle for the rest of their lives, instead adjacent networks use those neurons. That’s why a lot of blind people have heightened senses, as they have more neurons and synapses for them. Brain won’t waste precious resources for nothing. Neuroplasticity enables the brain to rewire and engineers are using this attribute, making devices to help people with different types of disabilities. But this is a subject for itself.
Brain is aware of its limitations, so it tends to be as effective and economic as possible. While this allows us to adapt fast and be efficient, it also makes us lazy. Things we do everyday are optimized and take as little capacity as possible. Most of jobs come to that point too. Our everyday life becomes full of these habits and already well beaten paths and we start to feel comfortable walking them. They become our second nature. This isn’t that good when it comes to bad habits. Same thing that makes us so adaptable can make us addicts. Bad behavioral habits bring mental problems and with repetition it gets worse.
Examples of this are numerous. If we are used to seeing certain bad behaviors often, without anyone telling us they are bad, we will start to think they are normal and it will become a part of our brain, and thus our behavior. It’s not rocket science, we hear this often. But what we don’t hear often is how we can change ourselves and become better people.
How much can our brains change, even when we are adults, tells a story of a man, Mr. L., in his late fifties that came into therapy for his mental problems. He had recurring depressions for over forty years and had difficulties in his relationship with women. When Mr. L. was very young his mother died and he had to move to live with his uncle in another state. Nobody talked to him about the death of his mother and there wasn’t much emotional support given by his uncle’s family. Mr. L. grew up to be an empty man, hiding his emotions so deeply that he stopped being aware he had them. When he married, he cheated on his wife feeling that there is a woman somewhere out there that is perfect for him, better than his wife. As a result their marriage failed, an outcome that he regretted very much. He didn’t feel the love for his kids as a father should. He was aware of all that and felt guilty. At some point, some might say too late, he realized that he needs help and went to a psychiatrist. In his late fifties Mr. L. came to Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who knew about effects of neuroplasticity and implemented it in his work. Therapy for Mr. L. included invoking old memories and bringing subconscious to light. With right questions Doidge helped Mr. L. to realize the source of his problems and how it affects his behavior.
For something bad to become our habit, it had to be repeated numerous times in the past. The problem is, sometimes we don’t see how certain behaviors affect us and we realize the negative effects when the bad neural pathways are already strengthened. By getting to know what caused those effects we can track the behavior responsible for them and change it. If we make new, better ways, the old ones will be forgotten, just as we forgot the names of all those dinosaurs.
Through therapy Mr. L. realized his problems stemmed from the death of his mother and the way he dealt with it. Never meeting her and never saying goodbye left him in constant search of a better woman – because he was subconsciously always searching for his mother. After few years of therapy and with hard work, Mr. L. managed to say goodbye, leave the past behind and change his life for the better. Being aware of the problem and not walking the same old tracks in his mind, he changed himself by changing his brain. As a result he became the man he always wanted to be. It’s never too late to be a better person.
Old dog can learn old tricks, he is just lazy. Not only does he can, but he should. You can always be better than yesterday. New experiences, learning new skills, gaining knowledge and working on your emotional life can change your brain instantaneously and you will reap the goodies in the future. Studies have shown that physically and mentally active old people have significantly slower decrease of brain power and are less prone to Alzheimer’s, dementia and similar. As the body, brain needs exercise to be fit too.
So go out today, try a sport you’ve never tried before, or go to your local library to find a proper reading to tickle your neurons. Even taking alternative paths instead of your everyday walking route can have an uplifting effect. Brain strives for something new, just waiting to develop and enhance. So don’t forget to do something new every day and ensure that the old paths you are strengthening today are the ones you want to walk tomorrow. Future you will be thankful.