How Experience Changes Brain Plasticity

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Brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, is a term that refers to the brain's ability to change and adapt as a result of experience. When people say that the brain possesses plasticity, they are not suggesting that the brain is similar to plastic. Neuro refers to neurons, the nerve cells that are the building blocks of the brain and nervous system, and plasticity refers to the brain's malleability.

Brain Plasticity
Verywell / JR Bee

What Is Brain Plasticity?

The human brain is composed of approximately 86 billion neurons. Early researchers believed that neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons, stopped shortly after birth. Today, it's understood that the brain possesses the remarkable capacity to reorganize pathways, create new connections, and, in some cases, even create new neurons—a concept called neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity.

There are two main types of neuroplasticity:

  • Functional plasticity: The brain's ability to move functions from a damaged area of the brain to other undamaged areas
  • Structural plasticity: The brain's ability to actually change its physical structure as a result of learning

Benefits of Brain Plasticity

There are many benefits of brain neuroplasticity. It allows your brain to adapt and change, which helps promote:

  • The ability to learn new things
  • The ability to enhance your existing cognitive capabilities
  • Recovery from strokes and traumatic brain injuries
  • Strengthening areas if some functions are lost or decline
  • Improvements that can promote brain fitness 

How Brain Plasticity Works

The first few years of a child's life are a time of rapid brain growth. At birth, every neuron in the cerebral cortex has an estimated 2,500 synapses; by the age of three, this number has grown to a whopping 15,000 synapses per neuron.

The average adult, however, has about half that number of synapses. Why? Because as we gain new experiences, some connections are strengthened while others are eliminated. This process is known as synaptic pruning.

Neurons that are used frequently develop stronger connections and those that are rarely or never used eventually die.

By developing new connections and pruning away weak ones, the brain is able to adapt to the changing environment.

Key Characteristics of Brain Plasticity

There are a few defining characteristics of neuroplasticity.

Age and Environment Play a Role

While plasticity occurs throughout the lifetime, certain types of changes are more predominant at specific ages. The brain tends to change a great deal during the early years of life, for example, as the immature brain grows and organizes itself.

Generally, young brains tend to be more sensitive and responsive to experiences than much older brains. But this does not mean that adult brains are not capable of adaptation.

Genetics can also have an influence. The interaction between the environment and genetics also plays a role in shaping the brain's plasticity.

Neuroplasticity Is an Ongoing Process

Plasticity is ongoing throughout life and involves brain cells other than neurons, including glial and vascular cells. It can occur as a result of learning, experience, and memory formation, or as a result of damage to the brain.

While people used to believe that the brain became fixed after a certain age, newer research has revealed that the brain never stops changing in response to learning.

In instances of damage to the brain, such as during a stroke, the areas of the brain associated with certain functions may be damaged. Eventually, healthy parts of the brain may take over those functions and the abilities can be restored.

Brain Plasticity Also Has Limitations

It is important to note, however, that the brain is not infinitely malleable. Certain areas of the brain are largely responsible for certain actions. For example, there are areas of the brain that play critical roles in things such as movement, language, speech, and cognition.

Damage to key areas of the brain can result in deficits in those areas because, while some recovery may be possible, other areas of the brain simply cannot fully take over those functions that were affected by the damage.

How to Improve Brain Plasticity

There are things you can do to help encourage your brain to adapt and change. Some of the ways that you can utilize neuroplasticity in beneficial ways include:

Enriching Your Environment

Learning environments that offer plenty of opportunities for focused attention, novelty, and challenge have been shown to stimulate positive changes in the brain. This is particularly important during childhood and adolescence, but enriching your environment can continue to provide brain rewards well into adulthood. 

Things you can try include:

  • Learning a new language
  • Learning how to play an instrument
  • Traveling and exploring new places
  • Creating art and other creative pursuits
  • Reading

Getting Plenty of Rest

Research has shown that sleep plays an important role in dendritic growth in the brain. Dendrites are the growths at the end of neurons that help transmit information from one neuron to the next. By strengthening these connections, you may be able to encourage greater brain plasticity.

Sleep has been shown to have important effects on both physical and mental health. You can find ways to improve your sleep by practicing good sleep hygiene.

Exercise

Regular physical activity has been shown to have a number of brain benefits. Some research suggests that exercise might help prevent neuron losses in key areas of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory and other functions. 

One 2018 review published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience suggested that exercise could also play a role in neurogenesis in the hippocampal region.

History and Research

Beliefs and theories about how the brain works have evolved substantially through the years. Early researchers believed that the brain was "fixed" while modern advances have indicated that the brain is more flexible.

Early Theories

Up until the 1960s, researchers believed that changes in the brain could only take place during infancy and childhood. By early adulthood, it was believed that the brain's physical structure was mostly permanent.

In his 2007 book, "The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science," which took a historical look at early theories, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge suggested that this belief that the brain was incapable of change primarily stemmed from three major sources, including:

  • An ancient belief that the brain was much like an extraordinary machine, capable of astonishing things yet incapable of growth and change
  • The inability to actually observe the microscopic activities of the brain
  • The observation that people who had suffered serious brain damage were often unable to recover

Early on, the psychologist William James had suggested that the brain was perhaps not as unchanging as previously believed. Way back in 1890, in his book "The Principles of Psychology," he wrote, "Organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity." However, this idea went largely ignored for many years.

Modern Theories

In the 1920s, researcher Karl Lashley found evidence of changes in neural pathways of rhesus monkeys. By the 1960s, researchers began to explore cases in which older adults who had suffered massive strokes were able to regain functioning, demonstrating that the brain was more malleable than previously believed. Modern researchers have also found evidence that the brain is able to rewire itself following damage.

Modern research has demonstrated that the brain continues to create new neural pathways and alter existing ones in order to adapt to new experiences, learn new information, and create new memories.

Thanks to modern advances in technology, researchers are able to get a never-before-possible look at the brain's inner workings. As the study of modern neuroscience flourished, a body of research has demonstrated that people are not limited to the mental abilities they are born with and that damaged brains are often quite capable of remarkable change.

Plasticity Can Cause Problems

Brain changes are often seen as improvements, but this is not always the case. In some instances, the brain might be influenced by psychoactive substances or pathological conditions that can lead to detrimental effects on the brain and behavior.

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Additional Reading
  • Doidge N. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Viking; 2007.

  • Hockenbury SE, Nolan SA, Hockenbury D. Discovering Psychology. 7th ed. New York, NY: Worth Publishers; 2016.

  • Hoiland E. Brain plasticity: What is it? Chudler EH, ed. Neuroscience for Kids. University of Washington.

  • James W. The Principles of Psychology. Classics in the History of Psychology. Green CD, ed. 1890.

  • Kolb B, Gibb R. Brain plasticity and behaviour in the developing brain. Clarke M, Ghali L, eds. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 2011;20(4):265-276.