Brain Plasticity

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How to Create Neuroplastic Change
1. Neuroplasticity: The ability of the brain to rewire itself as a result of experience. Neuroplastic change can occur at small scales, such as physical changes to individual neurons, or at whole-brain scales, such as cortical remapping in response to injury.

2. Brain structure and function, and experience are interactive - they influence each other - and begin in the womb. This is why every one of our brains is different, and that’s why we all have different psychological and cognitive make ups and behaviours.

STRUCTURAL PLASTICITY - BRAIN STRUCTURE CHANGES
3. London taxi drivers need to know ~25,000 streets and thousands of places of interest. As a result of this training, they have larger gray matter volume in the hippocampus than
others. The hippocampus acts as a storage site for spatial information or as a processing hub for detailed navigation information.

4. If a skill is no longer practiced, there may be a decrease in grey matter volume. London taxi drivers who had been retired for about 3 years showed worsened London navigation skills and less hippocampal gray matter than currently employed taxi drivers.

5. These findings have been replicated many times using many different skills, including juggling and music training.

FUNCTIONAL PLASTICITY - THE WAY THE BRAIN FUNCTIONS CHANGES
6. Functional plasticity may occur through changes in brain activity or connections. A study on music improvisation found that skilled improvisers used their brains more efficiently - less activation in some brain regions and greater connectivity in others.

TRANSFER OF SKILLS
7. Skills learned in one context do not necessarily transfer over to other contexts. In a famous example, SF increased his digit span from ~7 to 80 digits. But when he was asked to
remember a series of letters, his span fell to 6: His strategy of chunking digits into running times did not work with consonants. He didn’t increase his memory span at all; he only increased the size of his chunks.

8. But, in aging, playing a complex video game significantly improved older adults’ cognitive abilities and short-term memory, and altered their brain waves (functional plasticity). These effects were evident even 6 months after training. 

CONSTRAINTS ON NEUROPLASTICITY AND SKILL TRANSFER
9. The brain is not infinitely plastic. We are constrained by our morphology (physical traits), our cognitive abilities, our personality, and our genes.

THE TAKEAWAYS
1. Practice can lead to both structural and functional brain changes in both children and adults, even into old age.

2. There needs to be a goal, the learning needs to be effortful, it needs to be repeated over a period of time (the amount of time depends on the difficulty of the domain), and the brain changes may be reversed if the practice is stopped.

3. The transfer of skills to other domains is not a given. Where it does transfer, it may depend on things such as interest, perseverance, amount of practice, and success and also on shared cognitive abilities such as sustained attention.

4. The corollary to this is that we need to be careful about how we think habitually and the activities we engage in. Habitual thoughts will create structural and functional brain changes in the same way that learning a new skill does. And the activities we engage in on a regular basis will do the same. If we constantly allow ourselves to be distracted, our brain will organize itself to allow distractions, potentially making it difficult to focus for very long.

5. There are physical, cognitive, personality, and genetic constraints on the acquisition of skill and neuroplasticity. Our brain is not infinitely plastic.

6. The research linking lifestyle to cognitive and psychological health today, and to healthy aging is overwhelming.

7. To maintain a flexible brain, engage in a wide variety of activities.

8. How we can measure if the brain has reorganized itself is to look at whether the behaviour has changed. If a specific behaviour was acquired or changed, then we can assume that brain changes have occurred.