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Your Brain is Plastic – Is That a Good Thing?

Brain PlasticityBy Linda Gabriel

It wasn’t too long ago that medical science assured us that once we reached a certain age, our brains didn’t change. The old saying insisted, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Recent research has turned that notion upside down.  It turns out your brain is a work in progress, not only in childhood but throughout your life.  You can teach an old human new tricks and when you do, the old human’s brain changes.  This ability for the brain to change is called plasticity.

Magnetic resonance imagery (MRI) has demonstrated structural changes in the brains of adults who meditate, play music, and even taxi drivers learning their way around London.  The structures of the brain involved in learning these activities actually grow larger and more active with practice. While scientists used to believe that behavior was strictly a result of brain activity, it’s becoming clear that the things you do, especially the things you practice over and over, actually shape your brain. It’s a two way street.

It Matters What You Do

When you practice an activity your brain fires neurons in a particular sequence called a neural pathway. As Donald O. Hebb once said, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”  When Daniel Coyle titled his book The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How, he was referring to neuroscience that links myelin – a substance surrounding nerve fibers that insulates electrical activity – with skill building. According to Coyle, myelin is increased through what he calls “deep practice.” Increased myelin affects the signal strength, speed and accuracy of the electric signals traveling through nerve fibers. More practice = more myelin = more skill.

“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

However the opposite is also true.  If you don’t “exercise” a neural  pathway in your brain, that pathway’s signal will weaken. Perhaps this is one reason why multitasking may inhibit productivity. If the ability to focus attention for enough time to complete a task is a learned skill, then it’s worth considering how the constant interruptions typical in today’s digital age may be fostering an inability to concentrate.

It Matters How You Do What You Do

Brain research shows that “multitasking” is not an accurate description because you aren’t really doing things simultaneously.  In fact multitasking requires your brain to switch attention back and forth between tasks. We should recognize multitasking for what it really is: self-interruption. Multitasking is the 180 degree opposite of Coyle’s “deep practice.”

So why do we do it? Perhaps because the act of multitasking temporarily boosts the level of dopamine in your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which in small amounts gives you the feeling of accomplishment and reward.  Even though you may  feel happy about getting a lot done at once, it’s an illusion. With the exception of extremely familiar tasks like folding laundry while you talk on the phone, studies show that for tasks requiring some level of comprehension,  multitasking always takes more time than if you did each task separately.  When you divide your attention you rob yourself of the opportunity to do a good job efficiently. More importantly,  you miss the chance to strengthen desirable neural pathways.

It Matters What You Think

In the studies of musicians or taxi drivers, the brain-changing behaviors were primarily physical. However the research involving meditators showed that the brain change were solely resulted because of how the subjects focused their minds. Brain imaging technology has shown increased blood flow and electrical activity associated with different thoughts, but now there’s new evidence that thoughts actually influence brain chemistry. The connection between the neurotransmitter serotonin and mood has long been known, but the it was believed that your serotonin level influenced your sense of well-being, not the other way around. A report in the 2007 Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience states, “The study by Perreau-Linck and colleagues is the first to report that self-induced changes in mood can influence serotonin synthesis. This raises the possibility that the interaction between serotonin synthesis and mood may be 2-way, with serotonin influencing mood and mood influencing serotonin.”

Thinking happier thoughts, focusing on the positive, and cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” all increase the physical potential of your brain to experience more joy and happiness. And that’s practicing good Thought Medicine!

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{ 8 comments… add one }
  • That is encouraging and inspiring. It also makes sense and I think is borne out by our experience of improving with application.
    I think it requires a strong will and a robust ego though to continue the learning process. To honestly remain engaged in learning, particularly new skills requires a high degree of humility and self assurance.
    I started learning kite surfing at the age of forty and am still a student three years later in a discipline that is incredibly challenging and new to me.
    However I concur 100% that the rewards are there and hope to remain a student (of life in its many diverse aspects) as long as I am alive.

  • A great read.
    I have always been fascinated with the brain and the thoughts that go with it.
    Having been a dedicated pessimist for decades, it took a lot of thought changing to rewire my brain to possibility thinking.
    The more you practice the easier the skill but the old routes are still available. Just a matter of choice.
    The piece on multitasking is well put. I am guilty of that and am focusing on completing a task at a time.
    .-= Andre´s last blog ..Comment on You Control Your Destiny Part 1 by admin =-.

  • Linda,

    This is such important information for people of all ages. I work with adolescents and it’s important to help them realize that what they spend their time doing, is ultimately impacting how their brain develops. I think it also helps people believe that they can achieve greater things. The idea of IQ is now much more broad and much more fluid. Kids don’t have to feel “dumb” and unable to achieve success just because of a standardized test score. It’s a very liberating transition. Thanks!
    .-= Joe Wilner´s last blog ..Grow to Greatness- Five Principles of Successful Self-Growth =-.

  • This I strongly believe would apply to people with developmental disabilities, autism, and many others. But most teachers, administrator, and most importantly families still believe in a strictly materialistic perspective.

    One other piece of information that would make a great post even better. That is that human heart also thinks, It influences our emotions, and it emits a EM field that makes the brain’s look rather pathetic. I’ve read that this EM field is detectable up to 8 feet away. It is truly amazing the mind(not brain)/body connections.
    I found lots of research at http://www.heartmath.org/ Go check it out you should really find it quite interesting

    • Linda Gabriel

      Hi Gary,
      So glad you brought it up. Yes, I’m aware of the great work being done at Heartmath Institute. The heart is far and away the most important force in human physiology and consciousness. Stay tuned… I’ll be discussing their research in future posts. While I’m fascinated by recent brain research, personally I believe the brain is more at the effect of consciousness than the cause. More on that later too… I’m just getting started! Thanks for stopping by.

  • I always enjoy reading articles that talk about how we can develop ourselves with some scientific explanations, like what you have written. It makes the personal development advice more credible, and gives me a sense of assurance that what I am doing to improve myself will be effective.

    I included some scientific bases in a few of the articles that I wrote on my blog. I knew the principle I was talking about, but I had to research the scientific portion to support my ideas.

    Thanks, Linda, for sharing your thoughts about brain plasticity. This obviously is a well-researched article.
    .-= Percival J. Meris´s last blog ..Our Life Purpose- What Is It for All- and for Each of Us =-.

  • Brilliant , But I have always known that since you are my daughter.. I am happy to say that just learning to type and to use this computer is developing my good mood and there for developing my serotonin and lifting my mood and I feel great.. 🙂

  • Interesting stuff! Yes, old dogs learn new tricks–for sure. I’ve had three dogs over the years and it’s definitely true. On the pathways–as a lifelong student of languages, I’ve watched the pathways get well-beaten down when much used: for example while in France for several months or while taking classes and being active with a club. Right now, I have a hard time accessing that “file” as I think of it–where my French vocabulary and grammar etc is–because the path is really overgrown and hard to find from disuse. But if I pull out some tapes, take a class, go to France–voila. I can access most of it again and learn more.

    Also, when I read how brains are different between genders and so on…well how much of that is social conditioning and learned stuff that created those pathways and bright spots, etc?

    No multitasker here 🙂
    .-= Leah McClellan´s last blog ..Have You Forgiven Anyone Lately =-.

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