This series is adapted from a speech delivered on December 29, 2018, in Loma Linda, CA.
What is Neuroplasticity
Over the years, the study of the human brain has been on a consistent rise, and this is being done in a bid to have more understanding about brain science. Fueled by this goal of increased knowledge of brain functionality, different resources have been expended to see to the successful achievement of this goal. A leading individual who ventured deep into brain research was Paul Bach-Y-Rita. Ground breaking research on the subject of neuroplasticity was done by this American neuroscientist. For instance, the use of sensory substitution to treat people suffering from neurological disorders was instituted by him.
The plethora of research done on the brain has helped us understand the fact that the human brain is not fixed, but rather is in constant change. This feature of the brain to constantly change is what is known as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the physiological transformation that the brain experiences throughout the life of an individual as a result of the formation or reorganization of synaptic connections after learning or experiencing something new. It’s like when you try to perform an activity. As you persist in that activity, neuroplasticity begins to take place because the brain creates a path for that repeated behavioral pattern, such that the next time you carry out that activity, you would have actually gotten better, and it will become an easier task for you to accomplish. For instance, imagine a little baby who is trying to throw a ball for the very first time. He’s going to pick up the ball, attempt to throw it, and the ball will likely fall from his hand as he attempts to throw it. This is because his brain has not processed this sort of activity before, so there is no programmed pathway in his brain for the execution of this sort of action. But as he repeats that action, the brain will start to create little pathways such that the next time that he tries to throw the ball, there is already an existent pathway in his brain which makes the throwing of the ball a much easier task for the child.
It is important to note that neuroplasticity doesn’t just mean the creation of new connections between our brain cells, it also refers to the change in strength or the reinforcement of the synaptic connection created between neurons in the brain. Imagine having to pass through a particular route, and you create a path on that route by consistently walking in the same direction to and fro on that route.
You will discover that your actions will leave an imprint on that route, and in the end you will have created a pathway that is glaringly easy to navigate on that particular route.
This explains the process of learning and mastering a new idea, be it a new skill, a new language, or playing a musical instrument. Your brain experiences a change in order to absorb or strengthen any knowledge. In fact, neuroplasticity does not only imply the formation of neural pathways, it also means that there will be a change in the thickness of your brain. For instance, a right-handed person subconsciously controls his right hand by making use of the left side of his brain. As a result, the left side of his brain will literally change and become thicker because he uses the left side of his brain more frequently than he uses the right side.
From the day we are born, our brain starts to develop through the creation of new connections between the cells in our brain, and this persists till the day we die. Our brain changes with respect to our ever changing need to learn and experience new things. There are different factors that trigger neuroplasticity including behavioral changes, environmental stimuli, thought patterns, and emotions. The implications of neuroplasticity in our private lives are numerous including healthy development, learning and mastering new ideas, the ability to remember things, and helping in recovery from brain damage.
Every individual has the potential for neuroplasticity. In fact we only get to scratch the surface when we talk about the fulfillment of our potential for neuroplasticity.
There are so many potential connections in our brain, much more than the number of stars in the Milky Way.
The ability of the brain to change is amazing.
Types of Neuroplasticity
An American neuroscientist who goes by the name Jordan Grafman has identified four major forms of neuroplasticity that can be studied in humans. They are:
- Homologous area adaptation: This usually occurs during the young but critical developmental period of existence. If for instance a specific module of the brain is damaged, there is the tendency that the operations of the damaged module is shifted to a portion of the brain that is not attached to the affected module. The cognitive function is usually assumed by a module in the homologous area in the opposite hemisphere of the brain. The only negative implication of this type of neuroplasticity is the fact that the functions that were stored in the module will have to make way for the new functions replacing it.
- Cross-modal reassignment: This occurs when new sensory inputs are introduced to a particular area of the brain that is deprived of its devoted inputs. In this way, the visual senses of a person born blind are still able to execute cognitive functions and simulate the physical world on the basis of the impulses received from his sense of touch. There is an alteration in the exact functional responsibility of that region of the brain.
- Map expansion: This refers to the enlargement of a functional region of the brain that has been designed to perform a particular function or store a particular type of information. Once that particular function has been consistently repeated for a sufficient amount of time, the brain region that is dedicated to that activity grows and shrinks depending on the frequency of performance of the task. This is what happens whenever we learn and practice a new skill such as playing a musical instrument. The more conversant you are with the new skill, the more that region of the brain responsible for that learning grows. However, the region of the brain shrinks when you cease learning the skill. If you keep practicing the newly acquired skill, that portion of your brain that has been enlarged to accommodate the new skill retains its initial enlargement.
- Compensatory masquerade: This is the ability of the brain to discover a different method of executing a task if the original methodology cannot be used as a result of a disability. An alternative cognitive process is appointed to facilitate the performance of a task. Say for instance, there’s a person suffering from a type of brain trauma trying to memorize a route accurately. He might not be able to successfully memorize the route correctly, however he could boost his chances by memorizing landmarks, signposts, etc.
Positive and Negative Neuroplasticity
An important fact that should not be overlooked is the impact your environment and relationships have on your neuroplasticity. It can cause you to have what is called a positive neuroplasticity in which you learn a new skill, learn a new language or experience brain repair whenever you suffer an injury to your brain. This type of neuroplasticity positively affects your existence. Negative neuroplasticity on the other hand will cause you pains, maladaptive behavior, and misperception. This sort of neuroplasticity has a destructive influence on your existence and is what has led to addictions, depression, suicides, etc.
An understanding of positive and negative neuroplasticity is integral to us as it will enable us to develop the neuroplasticity when it is useful, or cut it short when it will be of negative effect on our wellbeing.
Dr. Eddie Ramirez, MD is a physician, author, and researcher. He has 27 years experience working in lifestyle centers and has been in 39 countries the last two years presenting his research. He has 80 published studies showing the impact of lifestyle interventions. Follow him on twitter @EddieRDMD