THE SCIENCE OF NEUROPLASTICITY
Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, is an umbrella term that encompasses both synaptic plasticity and non-synaptic plasticity—it refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses which are due to changes in behavior, environment and neural processes, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury. Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held position that the brain is a physiologically static organ, and explores how – and in which ways – the brain changes throughout life (Definition taken from Wikipedia).
What does that mean for us? Simply put neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain and central nervous system to change form and function specifically when stimulated by various physical activities.
The brain is not fixed and unchanging as once was thought. Instead, the brain is able to adapt as you are learning by creating new neural pathways. If your brain were unable to change to meet your needs, you would be unable to learn new things.
An Example of Neuroplasticity in Action…
… Creating New Neural Pathways
A child wants to learn to ride a bike without training wheels. The child repeatedly falls off and gets back on the bike again. Over time, he begins to find his balance easier. He instinctively knows when to turn the handlebars and when to pedal. In weeks, or perhaps even days, he no longer has to think and concentrate on balancing and riding – and in fact, he may even try harder athletic feats like popping a wheelie!
… Reopening Old Neural Pathways
Fast forward 20, 30+ years – the same child is now a grown-up who hasn’t ridden a bike in years. He gets on a bike for the first time since he was a child and is surprised at how quickly it all comes back again. He is reopening these long dormant neural pathways and soon he is zooming around feeling like a kid again!
And the great news is that you don’t have to be a child to develop new neural pathways. Children, adults, and the elderly all can develop new neural pathways, strengthen or restore older, sluggish pathways, prevent the loss of neural pathways they are now using, and be active in their own brain plasticity and health.
Are you learning a new physical skill – like drawing a circle in the air with one hand and a triangle in the air with the opposite foot? Remembering and practicing how to throw a ball or play tennis? Going to a new fitness class for the first time? You are forming new pathways in your brain and the more you repeat the new activity, the easier it will become for you. Practice makes perfect for your brain! By practicing, new neural connections are created in the brain that help you to sharpen your new skill.
Maybe you learnt a language like Italian when you were younger, now you go on holiday to Italy and are amazed at the words that flood your brain that have laid dormant for many years, unused but not forgotten.