“Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.” ~Santiago Ramon Y Cajal
Long story short, the human brain is amazing. When you were little, you had to learn how to walk. You fell down a bunch of times and probably bonked your head on stuff, but eventually you learned how to walk. Then you began walking without even thinking about it (and now might even chew gum at the same time!). This is because your brain fired during the learning process, and new pathways were created as you learned that skill. Once the pathways formed, your brain could process the action easily because it was familiar. This–the development of learning a new skill and its effect on the brain–is neuroplasticity. Simple enough, right?
Neuroplasticity is formed by two base words: Neuro=Nervous system (of the brain) and Plasticity= Plastos (greek root), which means moldable. Simply stated, Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to modify, change, and adapt throughout life. It is often in response to experience (like learning how to walk or ride a bike). Aspects of our brain are “plastic,” meaning they are adaptive and can be altered in response to environmental and/or structural changes. Neuroplasticity explains how the human brain is able to master new skills, store memories and information and even recover after a traumatic brain injury.
Neuroplasticity helps us more thoughtfully engage in activities that will contribute to our well-being–no matter our age. The importance of neuroplasticity cannot be overstated! It means that it is possible to change dysfunctional patterns of thinking and behaving which enables you to develop new mindsets, memories, skills, and abilities. Rewiring your brain might sound pretty complicated, but it is something you can easily do at home. Here are some simple ways to get your brain changing and growing!
- Games. Video games included! Though video games have their cons, research suggests this hobby has cognitive benefits (motor coordination, visual recognition and spatial navigation, memory and reaction time, reasoning, decision making, and problem-solving skills, resilience, cooperation and team participation to name a few). Puzzle games like Wordle or Sudoku help boost problem-solving skills, brain connectivity, and spatial prediction. Rhythm gaming, like dance or exercise video games, can help improve visuospatial memory and attention. Did you know that gaming led to neuroplasticity?!
- Learning a new language. Maybe you have been wanting to learn Spanish or brush-up on your German. Here is a push to do so! Acquiring a new language improves cognitive function! There are a plethora of apps like Anki, Duolingo, or Ewa that you can use (some are free!). Or you can go the good, old-fashioned route of employing flash cards. This is a perfect example of rewiring your brain: I have not taken Spanish classes in 20 years, and my brain still remembers basic words in Spanish.
- Music. I once had to learn all the counties in my home state. Although that was 25+ years ago, I can still remember that song in near-perfect detail today! Music improves our mood, increases our ability to learn and remember new information, and also boosts concentration and focus. Similarly, learning to play music in childhood can help protect against age-related cognitive decline and lead to improved cognitive performance in adulthood. It is never too late to learn an instrument. Online tutorials can help you get started, especially if you don’t want to splurge on lessons. If you are not super musical, even listening to music more regularly can help increase brain neuroplasticity! So go ahead and turn on your favorite playlist…it is good for your brain!
- Get out there! If you enjoy travel, here is one more reason to get out and explore somewhere new: Traveling enhances cognitive flexibility, inspires you, and enhances creativity. Experiencing new scenery and surroundings can also help you learn about different cultures and communicate more efficiently, both of which can have many cognitive benefits. Visiting new places can also help broaden your general worldview, which can help open your mind and give you a new perspective on things closer to home, like career goals, friendships, or personal values. You do not need to fly to Venice to accomplish all this, though; you can take a long walk through a new neighborhood, do your grocery shopping in another part of town, go for a hike, or even travel virtually (try National Geographic’s virtual travel on YouTube)!
- Use your body. Yep. Exercising fosters neuroplasticity! Aerobic exercise, in particular, leads to improvements in cognitive abilities like learning and memory. Exercising helps improve fine motor coordination and brain connectivity, and may protect against cognitive decline. It also helps promote increased blood flow and cell growth in the brain, which research links to reduced depression symptoms.
- Create. Research has found that art–such as drawing and painting–directly benefit your brain by enhancing creativity and improving cognitive abilities. Not to mention the many benefits that come in the form of self-care and relaxation!
Need some more ideas of how you can strengthen your brain? You can try using your non-dominant hand for everyday activities (brushing your teeth or using a mouse) which forces the brain to form new neural connections. Also, reading or reviewing flashcards can introduce or reinforce concepts and new vocabulary which enhances brain connectivity. You may also be surprised to learn that sleeping helps with learning and memory retention by transferring information across cells and growing connections between neurons. Fasting promotes neuron growth and adaptive responses in synapses. Are you convinced yet? Your brain is amazing and the process of neuroplasticity means you really can learn to do any new skill with enough time and repetition!
Every time we learn something new we are harnessing the power of neuroplasticity. So whether you up your game playing, learn a new language, turn music on more regularly in your life, travel, exercise, or create, I encourage you to push yourself (and your brain) by learning new skills. It only requires repetition and intensity, but your old brain can learn new tricks!
Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.
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