Beware: everything you do, changes your brain. Everything. Your brain learns all the time. You’re programming it with everything you do and experience. In fact, after reading this, your brain will not be the same, because it will have learned something new.
That’s exciting, but it comes with a caveat.
Dr. Lara Boyd, a brain researcher at the University of British Columbia gave a TEDx talk that puts in plain words what scientists are learning about the brain. They are discovering that what experts used to think about the brain is very limiting and downright wrong.
In fact, what we know about the brain is changing at a breathtaking pace, and much of what we thought we knew and understood about the brain turns out to be false, or incomplete, says Boyd. One of these misconceptions was that after childhood the brain did not change.
This and other misconceptions have been disproved by technologies like MRI. It is through this technology that scientists discovered that every time you learn a new fact or skill, you change your brain. This is called neuroplasticity.
Research has shown that all of our behaviors change our brain and take note, these changes are not limited by age nor necessarily by an episode that resulted in brain damage. These changes can facilitate recovery after brain damage occurred.
Neuroplasticity, and therefore learning, is made possible by three basic ways the brain is able to change.
“So neuroplasticity is supported by chemical, by structural and by functional changes. And these are happening across the whole brain. They can occur in isolation from one another, but most often they take place in concert. Together they support learning. And they’re taking place all the time.”
Chemical changes support short term learning and structural changes support long term learning.
Research in neuroplasticity aim to answer many of life’s perplexing questions: Why can’t you learn anything you choose to with ease? Why do our kids sometimes fail in school? Why as we age do we tend to forget things? And why don’t people fully recover from brain damage?
Boyd’s work focuses on how neuroplasticity can facilitate recovery after a stroke. Stroke is a huge societal problem for which scientists have not yet developed effective rehabilitation interventions.
Boyd’s research asks: What is it that limits and facilitates neuroplasticity?
And what she has learned about neuroplasticity after a stroke applies to everyone. I advise you to watch her TEDx talk to get the whole picture, but here is the gist: neuroplasticity can work both ways. It can be positive and it also can be negative. Your brain is tremendously plastic and it’s being shaped both structurally and functionally by everything you do, but also by everything that you don’t do.