Learning about learning has led to learning about the brain. It seems that learning in later life – as in earlier parts of life – involves neural pathways. Growing new neural pathways is possible well into adult life. We know this because of the plasticity of the brain. It’s plastic? No! It has the quality of “plasticity”.
What is brain plasticity?
Brain plasticity is not new. Dr Pasquale Michelon’s (2008) article on How Learning Changes the Brain explains this and related principles of neuroscience. He suggests that learning changes the brain by generating new neurons. Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change and reorganise itself throughout life.
1– At the beginning of life: when the immature brain organizes itself.
2– In case of brain injury: to compensate for lost functions or maximize remaining functions.
3– Through adulthood: whenever something new is learned and memorized
~ Michelon (2008)
In a previous post Are we ever or never too old to learn? I talked about mindset being pivotal to learning. Let’s take a closer look at what happens in learning when the old dogs learn new tricks. No news there. What happens when anyone learns, be they older or younger, is the same process. There WAS a general perception that you could not learn new things in later life and that development only happened when the brain was developing in the early years. However, what you are working with varies according to your life stage.
When learning occurs, new connections are created within the brain. The brain “tunes in” to what you/your body needs. It builds on existing structures by making new connections. The more you focus and practice something the better you become at the new skill that you are learning or obstacle you are trying to overcome. That’s because the same connections are used and reused and a pathway is forged. And, like physical skill development where overall fitness contributes to performance so does brain fitness contribute to your learning performance.
“Learning is physical. Learning means the modification, growth, and pruning of our neurons, connections – called synapses – and neuronal networks, through experience … When we do so, we are cultivating our own neuronal networks. We become our own gardeners”
~Dr James Zull, Professor of Biology and Biochemistry at Case Western University
Are you brain fit?
According to the SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness (Alvaro Fernandez & Goldberg, 2014), brain fitness is a “general state of feeling alert, in control, productive”. This “fitness” enables us to participate in society and to engage with others. We engage by giving our attention to things, processing information, remembering things, regulating our emotions, planning etc. It is not IQ.
They suggest there are three main things that contribute to brain fitness – invasive tools, non-invasive tools and lifestyle (Alvaro Fernandez, 2009, SharpBrains.com). The invasive tools are things like drugs, stem cells implants, nutrition. Non-invasive interventions include software, exercise, mindfulness and cognitive therapy. Lifestyle considerations cover sleep, music, stress, cognitive reserve and interacting with nature. The latter two are of interest to me and I see them both as relevant to lifestyle.
Our brain’s maintenance is important to ensure good neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity being “the brain’s lifelong capacity to reorganise itself according to one’s experience” (Fernandez & Goldberg, 2014). They suggest four things to promote good neuroplasticity:
- balanced diet
- physical exercise
- stress management
- mental stimulation
There is nothing too radical about that list. Most people would agree that maintaining a lifestyle with those components would be a good idea. There are other considerations we can look at too – which are a bit more learning oriented.
Are you growing new neurons?
In his article on New neurons: Good news, bad news by Dr Bill Klemm (Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University), you can find out what it takes to create a fertile brain for new neurons to grow and survive. The term used is neurogenesis or growing new neurons. He also tells us why neurons might die. Taking the gardener metaphor from before – it’s a bit of a guide on how to get the most out of your brain. Interested?
Fertilise – to enrich your environment
- engage in varied stimulating activities
- engage in intellectual, creative and physical learning modes
- try puzzles, a musical instrument, another language, new software applications
Use it or lose it
- apply your new skills
- include them in your routine
- exercise regularly – aerobic, strength, flexibility and coordination
Manage your stress
- know and manage your stressors
- do things to relieve stress and anxiety
Well, you choose or you lose. Make the choice to keep on learning and growing the grey matter. You will probably live longer than your forbears, so make it a quality life. Choose a lifestyle that includes opportunities to foster and develop those neurons. I intend to. Perhaps you already have? Let me know how YOU manage it!
Want to know more?