WHAT IS NEUROPLASTICITY?
When Patricia had eye surgery, she had to wear blindfolds for a few days. Unsurprisingly, she found herself having a hard time getting around the house. But on the third day, something incredible happened. She realized her hearing was allowing her to be more aware of her space. She bumped into things less. She instinctively knew where things were going to be, how far the wall was from her hands, and even where in the room she was at a given moment.
Patricia attributed it to “getting used to the blindfolds,” but researchers understand that something far more amazing and powerful is at play. What’s going on in Patricia’s mind on a fundamental level is the reorganization of her brain’s pathways. See, the brain stopped using the visual cortex when Patricia began depending on her other senses. When this happened, her brain began utilizing her visual cortex to process hearing instead! Rather than simply having “better hearing,” her brain compensated for her lack of sight by devoting extra processing to her other senses, allowing her to retain spatial awareness.
The above story is a simple one, but it illustrates a vital point: our brains are capable of adapting and changing to new circumstances. Whenever people have attempted to learn a new language, break an addiction, or form a new habit, what they were attempting to do is what Patricia’s mind was forced to do: rewire itself. It’s difficult work without training—but the principle has been known to researchers for years as neuroplasticity.
At one point in time, neurological specialists taught that the brain stopped developing, or ceased to be “plastic,” after childhood. The speed with which children learned languages, absorbed information, or formed habits was believed to be inaccessible to adults—until researchers discovered that the brain continues to change and adapt throughout adulthood.
New events, skills, and experiences form new connections between neurons. Now, researchers know that the way we feel, respond, or act in certain situations, from split-second reflexes to higher-level decision-making, is based on neural connections that are established and reinforced over time. Like a person running on the same path through the woods every day, a trail begins to form—making it easier and easier to run on that route. The more we respond to experiences in a certain way, the harder it is to do anything else.
The brain’s ability to cope and adapt is demonstrated when a child learns their multiplication tables, an adult learns a foreign language, or a senior citizen finds their way around a new home. The ability to cope and adapt to changes in our life extend far beyond learning new skills. It applies to fundamental things in life, such as our ability to stand, walk, understand, and respond to our environment. Neuroplasticity, when leveraged with exercises and training, can be used to create powerful, positive connections in order to help people build better lives.
Learning new skills faster, developing a stronger memory, and even recovering from a brain stroke are all possible by using the brain’s natural ability to form new pathways to compensate for older, damaged connections. For anyone who has consistently exercised after a long period of inactivity, going to the gym or going on a run are both significantly easier over time because the brain has learned to adapt alongside your body.
Most importantly, research-based neuroplasticity exercises can create the opportunity for people with brain injuries to recover more effectively. When well-established neural connections are destroyed or damaged, patients often feel hopeless. Losing the ability to form complex thoughts quickly, recall words, or other high-function tasks can be devastating for anyone, from professional athletes to individuals in their 80s. For many people, they are haunted by the belief that their injuries are completely permanent, with no real solution. The scientific reality of neuroplasticity, applied in a clinical setting, allows injured and despairing patients to recover more fully and effectively—with hope for the future.