As the scientific community’s understanding of the brain increases, the knowledge reaching outside the research community does too. One concept that has strong scientific consensus and is starting to be embraced more broadly in the classroom is “Neuroplasticity.” Neuroplasticity is almost household word today, and it should be. The concept is both simple and profound. Our brains continue to change throughout our lives, constantly creating and strengthening connections among neurons – the cells in our brains that communicate – while pruning away unused connections.
While there has been strong scientific consensus for some time about neuroplasticity, the extent to which our brains can change, at any stage of life, is only starting to become clear.
It makes sense that our brains would be malleable when we are young. That’s when we typically have to do the most learning. Learning to process visual information, grasp, walk, hear the sounds of the languages we are exposed to, and talk requires the brain to use the experiences it encounters to wire our brains to do those things. We acquire knowledge by connecting neurons to each other into neural networks of vocabulary, facts, processes, and memories. The enormous plasticity of our brains enables an incredible amount of learning to happen in a relatively short period of time.
Interestingly, it turns out that same kind of wiring process connects different parts of the brain to enable higher-order thinking, self-regulation, and creativity. Some fascinating research by Dr. Silvia Bunge at the University of California at Berkeley was recently described in Psychology Today. The ability to reason involves “long-distance” connections between two parts of the brain – one at the very front of the brain in the prefrontal cortex, and the other farther back in the parietal lobe (top of the head). Bunge found that the strength of these physical connections at the age of 6 predicted reasoning ability later in life.
So, should we give up hope if children haven’t developed that strong structural connectivity by 6 or 7? Absolutely not! Bunge also found that even adults can improve their reasoning skills and that there is evidence of changes in the brain when they work at learning to reason.
The plasticity of the adult brain, and the structural changes associated with new learning, were demonstrated in a study on London Taxi Drivers, through funding from a biomedical research group, Wellcome Trust. Taxi drivers’ brains were studied before and after 3-4 years of training on navigating the streets of London. Knowing the streets of London is no trivial undertaking, as anyone who has driven those streets can attest. It can take years for a driver to master this uniquely challenging spatial memory task and qualify as a taxi driver—to the extent that London Taxi Drivers refer to it simply as “The Knowledge”. The findings of this study showed that acquiring “The Knowledge” and the associated neural connections, actually changed the physical structure of the hippocampi of the taxi drivers. The hippocampus is known to be responsible for converting short-term memories into long- term, called consolidation, and in spatial memory and navigation. The evidence from the study establishes clear evidence of the physical brain changes enabled by adult neuroplasticity.
Nonetheless, the neuroplasticity of the aging brain does differ from the brain’s earlier neuroplasticity. Scientists at McGill University studied the effects of aging in a 2018 study and discovered that plasticity in older adults is actually greater, concluding that you can, in fact, “teach an old dog new tricks. However, the changes were not sustained the same way they would be in a younger brain. This suggests that adult learning, including cognitive training, may need to be continued and reinforced over time to be maintained.
In an article in Neuroscience Stuff, New York University psychologist Gary Marcus says, “The idea that there’s a critical period for learning in childhood is overrated.” So, if the windows for learning new things stay open, how do we take advantage of that?
As the article goes on to explain, the secret is to continue to learn like a child. What does that entail? Loosening our grip on perfectionism, for one thing, focusing on the outcomes rather than how we do something, and lots of flexible practice. The idea here is that if we practice the same thing over and over again in the same way, we will be limited in how we can apply that skill. If we integrate that skill with others and create smart variations of the way we practice, our capacity to learn that skill will be enhanced.
An example might be helpful here. In this scenario, you are a basketball player. At practice, you shoot free throws from the free throw line. You get really good at shooting free throws. Perhaps it is counterintuitive to suggest that you should be training at different distances, but studies have shown that shooting free throws from different distances actually improves performance. When we practice skills under a variety of conditions, we can gradually increase the level of difficulty, and continue to build on and refine our skills.
To build on the notion that the “critical window for learning” in childhood is overrated, a Boston College study on cognitive capabilities for language learning found that this language learning window extends into young adulthood. In the past, it was believed that this window ended at approximately ages 7-8. Evidence from this study shows that this window for language learning extends a decade further, 17.4 years of age being the average. The implications of these findings are far-reaching. This impacts not only neuroscience, linguistics and developmental psychology, but extends as far as impacting public policy.
Our expanding understanding of neuroplasticity has been driven by the ability to see changes in the brain more clearly and more minutely. As imaging techniques continue to improve, scientists are able to track and analyze structural changes in the brain. Scientists are beginning to be able to see neuroplasticity even at the cellular level now, in ways that suggest that the ability of the brain to change at any age is even greater than anyone has imagined. Researchers at Harvard Medical School have found that the neurons responsible for creating new memories are more flexible than previously understood. In other words, once a group of neurons is not needed for a given memory, some of the neurons that were part of the network can be recruited into other networks with great efficiency.
Of course, neuroplasticity is also vital at the junctions between neurons, called synapses. Another study at Harvard Medical School pinpointed the molecules responsible for the formation of new synapses. Synapses must be plastic in order to establish connections to new neurons after old, unused ones are pruned away. This process leads to changes that underlie learning, as this plasticity makes networks in the brain highly modifiable.
The power of neuroplasticity is so great that the brain can even establish new pathways for various cognitive functions after injuries to the pathway that is usually used by the brain for that function. A study at Georgetown University Medical Center revealed that newborns who have had a “perinatal stroke” – one that occurs between the 140th day of the gestation period and the 28th postpartum day – on the left “language side” of the brain were able to use the right side of their brains for language. The brains affected teenagers and young adults all were found to be using the right hemisphere for language production and comprehension and were functioning at normal developmental levels for their age in those areas.
As our knowledge of neuroplasticity increases, scientists are able to better understand not only the actual processes of neuroplasticity, but how it relates to and impacts other neurological processes. Scientists today are starting to be able to use our understanding of neuroplasticity to fight neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. A new study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that individuals who are experiencing cognitive decline may retain sufficient neuroplasticity for their brain to seemingly ‘bounce back’ from decline. This amazing plastic quality of the brain can mean that we will be able to extend quality life for individuals in cognitive decline, giving them and their loved ones more time with one another.
Neurological decline isn’t the only area that our increasing knowledge can help. Individuals with other neurological differences can benefit from therapies that specifically target the property of neuroplasticity in the brain. There is now research being conducted on using neuroplasticity to help develop therapies for disorders from Autism to Restless Leg Syndrome. Neuroplasticity is the also the reason that it is possible to strengthen cognitive skills such as attention, working memory, visual and auditory processing.
The power of neuroplasticity means, in short, that our brains are constantly changing. Our brains become what our brains do, and we can therefore have far more impact on what our brains become than any of us may think.
About the authors
Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management where she received a Contribution to Learning Excellence Award. She received a Nepris Trailblazer Award for sharing her knowledge, skills and passion for the neuroscience of learning in classrooms around the country. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University.
Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of the BrainWare Learning Company. Over the past decade, he championed efforts to bring comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment within reach of every person, and it all started with one very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, Roger Stark pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool, based on over 50 years of trial and error through clinical collaboration. He also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online anywhere in the world. For more, follow BrainWare Learning on Twitter @BrainWareSafari