Scientists continuously study the most complicated organ in the human body: the brain. The brain has been linked with intelligence and creativity since before humans knew how it works. One recent development in psychology has been the discovery of "neuroplasticity," —also called brain plasticity, neural plasticity, and neuronal plasticity. Neuroplasticity is the nervous system’s ability to change and alter itself after new experiences or even trauma, resulting in structural and functional changes in the brain.
What Is Brain Plasticity?
The human brain is made up of roughly 86 billion neurons (nerve cells) that communicate with each other using special chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters allow neurons of other areas of the brain to communicate with each other, forming neural pathways.
The cells of the brain don't only communicate via neurotransmitters; they can also communicate with adjacent cells via electrical impulses. This area is where brain plasticity, also called "neuroplasticity" or "neuronal plasticity," and the science of plasticity psychology is involved. The geographical layout of the brain isn't set in stone; it can change, develop, and rearrange— the very definition of plasticity. Simply put, the brain, can change its structure and function through neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is different from neurogenesis, the process in which new neurons are created in the brain.
The Story Of Einstein's Brain
For years it was thought that the size of one's brain determined their intelligence. Consider Samuel L. Jackson's line in Pulp Fiction, "Look at the big brain on Brett!" However, scientists know that the average human brain weighs roughly three pounds. Brain size only varies by species. If intelligence were based on brain weight, large animals would be more intelligent than humans.
This theory was up to the test in 1955. In 1955, Albert Einstein died in New Jersey. Einstein was one of the 20th century's greatest minds, changing how many people thought about time, energy, and other areas of interest. Researchers thought his brain would be enormous. After Einstein's last breath, his brain was taken and studied. It was found to weigh around 2.7 pounds. Despite Einstein's advanced age, it seemed shocking that his brain would be smaller than average.
The brain wasn't only weighed. It was also photographed, painted, dissected, made into slides, mailed around the country, and eventually stored in mason jars inside a beer cooler in a residence in Wichita, Kansas. However, these results showcased how the size of a brain doesn't determine one's intelligence.
How Was Plasticity Psychology Formed?
All brains structure includes "folds" on the outside surface. The shallower ones are called gyri, and the deeper ones are called fissures. The brain's geography has helped scientists map it and learn which parts of the brain control different functions. The dentate gyrus plays a critical role in learning and memory, the prefrontal cortex helps people set goals, and the cerebral cortex is responsible for many high-order brain functions.
Einstein's brain lacked one of the primary fissures. Scientists believe this lack of fissure granted more significant logical reasoning in the identified area, making him more efficient in mathematics. It also had a greater neuron density than the average brain.
In 1955, scientists may have had Einstein's brain, but they didn't have an effective way to look at a living person's brain. Forty years later, researchers had more effective imaging capabilities that let them look at the brains of living people. In 1998, Dr. Bruce McEwen discovered that the shapes of our brains could change in response to how we use them.
The science of neuroplasticity has played a vital role in how psychologists approach mood disorders. However, like Einstein, you don't need a mood disorder to benefit from neuroplasticity. Anyone can practice it.
Neuroplasticity means that new experiences can result in a restructuring of communication pathways between brain cells. Several computer games and applications have been developed to help users practice complex tasks. This process can influence how a brain takes shape, regardless of age. These games are related to the theory that word puzzles and other cognitive exercises keep you sharp in old age.
There are debates among experts as to the validity of these theories. However, there has never been a study that showed that they can cause harm to humans. So, while you may not want to pay for a fancy brain training game or app subscription, word puzzles in the newspaper might benefit your brain. Additionally, learning a language, practicing math, reading a book, learning to read music, or looking up history might increase your capacity for information processing.
Plasticity Psychology Today
Psychology experts may be skeptical about how much you can accomplish with your resources but tend to be more confident of what you can do with professional help and more advanced tools. One crucial area where plasticity psychology comes in is the treatment of mood disorders like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
At times, mental illnesses are caused by events in a person's life, like chronic stress, a death in the family, or a traumatic event. Some people believe PTSD is a condition that develops in soldiers who have served in combat zones. However, scientists have confirmed that PTSD can follow violent crimes, abuse, accidents, and other traumatic events, which are more common than military trauma.
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In other cases, mental illnesses may be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Mood disorders sometimes arise during brain development because the body releases neurotransmitters incorrectly. In addition, the brain might not have the correct number of active receivers for them.
Still, others might face both obstacles. Perhaps they had a genetic predisposition for a mood disorder, and trauma created an opportunity for a mental health condition to emerge. In these cases, mood disorders or PTSD may occur.
Many individuals with mood disorders have decreased neuroplasticity. In addition to limiting them in other ways, this factor can prevent them from overcoming their condition without professional help. As a result, some people cope with their mood disorders through therapy. Others rely on prescription medication. Some people use a combination of talk therapy and medication to get treatment.
Prescriptions for mood disorders can help fix the neurotransmitter imbalance that may have contributed to the condition. Still, they can also increase neuroplasticity, making it easier for a client to recover through therapy. Therapy can also help those living with a biological mental illness.
Professional Support Options
While anyone can benefit from neuroplasticity, some people may not find success activating it by themselves. In these cases, it can be beneficial to work with a counselor as you learn how to use your brain's adaptability to your advantage. If you face barriers to counseling, like cost, distance, or availability, you can also try online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp.
Internet-based therapy can connect you with a licensed, qualified mental health professional. Whether you're struggling with a mood disorder, traumatic event, or brain injury, a therapist can work with you to find ways to move forward. Different challenges can make it more difficult to make time for counseling. Online therapy allows you to schedule sessions with a therapist according to your busy schedule. You won't have to worry about the commute time, and you can connect through video chats, phone calls, or in-app messaging, depending on your comfort level.
When the brain changes, such as after experiencing a traumatic event, therapy can be a helpful resource to move forward. One study assessed the efficacy of a web-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) intervention for addressing post-traumatic stress disorder. Researchers concluded that the online intervention successfully treated PTSD as efficiently as face-to-face CBT and "should be considered a first-line treatment for people with this condition."
Working with a therapist, you can learn new coping mechanisms and overcome the obstacles in your life. Consider reaching out to a provider online or in your area for more information on how they might be able to support you.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Below are several frequently asked questions about neuroplasticity.
How Does Brain Plasticity Relate To Psychology?
Science shows that when you use your brain, it changes. This discovery of neuroplasticity has played a significant role in how psychologists approach a wide range of mood disorders and behaviors. Actions and experiences are thought to change the brain's structure, which can help psychologists treat different mental health conditions.
What Does The Plasticity Of The Brain Mean?
When discussing brain plasticity, scientists refer to the brain's flexibility or ability to change. When you learn new skills, your brain reorganizes neural pathways. As experts at MIT put it, "Plasticity in our brain allows us to learn, adjust and thrive in our environments."
What Gives The Brain Its Neuroplasticity?
There are many forms of brain plasticity. Dendritic spines of neurons can grow or disappear, the number of synapses can change, and behaviors can adjust over time.
How Does Brain Plasticity Change With Age?
Research demonstrates that there are specific periods in which brain regions in the cerebral cortex experience a heightened capacity for plasticity throughout brain development. A study from McGill University suggests that although the brain's ability to adapt its functional properties and number of synapses is age-related, this ability does not disappear as individuals age. Instead, research shows that the adult brain is more "plastic" than the young adult brain.
Can I Rewire My Brain?
Evidence shows that the brain can "rewire" itself after brain injury. Therapy and cognitive exercises like playing a game, learning a language, and being creative can help repair or create new pathways.
How Does Behavior Change The Brain?
"Plasticity" was first applied to behavior in "The Principles of Psychology" by William James in 1980. In modern times, there is still some debate in the scientific community as to whether gene expression or environment is primarily responsible for changes in the brain. In either case, plasticity and behavior are related. When someone performs a specific behavior more frequently, the number of dendrites in the brain increases. This process creates deep pathways in the brain, strengthening the behavior and making it more automatic.
What Factors Influence Brain Plasticity?
Beyond genetics and age, several environmental factors can influence brain plasticity. These factors can be the same as those that can change behavior, such as substances, stress, and adverse childhood experiences.
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Can A Damaged Brain Reorganize Itself?
Yes. The brain can reorganize itself by forming new neural connections as you age, and its plasticity helps neurons compensate for brain injury or disease.
What Increases Brain Plasticity?
Brain plasticity can be influenced by age, but there are several ways to take advantage of your brain's ability to change. Learning molds brains, so any activity that asks you to take on new information can help harness the power of brain plasticity. Exercise and getting enough sleep each night can also benefit your brain, maintain low levels of stress, and reduce inflammation.
How Does Learning New Skills Affect The Brain?
When you learn new skills, neurons in the brain are stimulated, and more neural pathways are formed. This action can help your brain grow stronger and act more effectively.
How Does Exercise Support Brain Plasticity?
Physical activities can improve cognitive fitness and promote brain plasticity by stimulating the growth of new neural connections in the brain's cerebral cortex and prefrontal cortex. The Cleveland Clinic cites recent studies that found people who exercise were more likely to score well on learning and memory tests and experience motor activity benefits.
Which Exercise Is Best For The Brain?
Any physical exercise can improve blood flow to the brain, reduce inflammation, and lower stress hormones. According to Harvard University, some research indicates that low-intensity mind-body exercises or motor activities like yoga and tai chi are particularly beneficial to brain health, as is resistance training.
How Can I Continue Improving My Brain?
An activity-dependent plasticity is a form of neuroplasticity that helps people learn and form new memories. If you'd like to take advantage of this biological process, cognitive exercises can be an effective way to practice skills that improve your brain.
Computer games and apps often offer fun and engaging ways to practice complex tasks, and word puzzles or other mentally stimulating puzzles can help keep you keen in old age. Even reading a book can give your mind a beneficial workout. Other ideas include learning a new language, creating art, traveling, and playing an instrument.
Is Walking Healthy For The Brain?
A healthy lifestyle that includes physical activity can positively affect the brain. A study by University of Pittsburgh psychologist Kirk Erickson found that walking at least one mile a day "significantly enhanced the volume of several brain areas, including the frontal lobe, which is involved with problem solving and reasoning."
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