December 12, 2023/Brain & Nervous System

Brainwork: The Power of Neuroplasticity

You can build mental muscle by challenging your mind and giving it new experiences

Person holding giant magnifying glass studying giant brain, with machinery

Keeping muscles fit and powerful requires hard work. The same concept holds true for your brain, an amazing organ with the ability to change, adapt and get stronger through mental exercise.


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”Neuroplasticity“ is the fancy medical term used to describe your brain’s ability to learn and adapt. Think of it as an internal rewiring process that allows your mind to grow and meet new and increased demands.

So, how can you build your brain to flex more mental muscle? Let’s get some cognitive workout tips from psychologist Grace Tworek, PsyD.

What is neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity refers to your brain’s ability to absorb information and evolve to manage new challenges. It’s a natural gift that allows you to develop as a person and take on the ever-changing tasks of daily life.

“Neuroplasticity speaks to the flexibility and adaptability of our brain throughout our life,” explains Dr. Tworek. “It’s how we grow as people.”

So, when you memorize the alphabet as a kiddo, that’s an example of neuroplasticity in action at a young age. Ditto for when you learn how to drive and navigate the streets in your neighborhood.

Even something as simple as remembering the name of a new coworker involves brainwork that falls under the umbrella of neuroplasticity.

Now here’s where things get really nifty: Neuroplasticity actually brings physical changes inside your cranium. In essence, your brain undergoes a sort of rewiring while learning from your experiences.

“Morphological alterations and structural changes occur within our brains,” says Dr. Tworek. “New synaptic connections form between the billions of neurons in your brain as you take in information. It’s a constant process.”


Benefits of neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity explains how we learn by absorbing and analyzing information as we go through life. “It allows us to adapt to new environments and new situations,” says Dr. Tworek.

But neuroplasticity isn’t just about learning new stuff. Your brain’s ability to constantly update and reprogram can also power relearning — a critical need after a stroke or traumatic head injury.

Remember those physical changes behind neuroplasticity? That building process in your head makes it possible for your brain to bypass damaged areas. Those synaptic connections essentially create new pathways to work around injuries.

In many ways, physical therapy and rehabilitation activities after a stroke or head injury look to use the regenerative force of neuroplasticity.

“Your brain begins to adapt and find a way,” notes Dr. Tworek. “How cool is that?”

Types of neuroplasticity

The functions of learning and relearning serve as the foundation for two different types of neuroplasticity:

  • Structural plasticity. Experiences that create pathways to solidify learned information.
  • Functional plasticity. The construction of pathways around damaged brain areas to work around an injury or weakness.

10 principles of neuroplasticity

A paper published in 2008 laid out 10 principles of neuroplasticity when it comes to optimizing brain function, particularly after sustaining an injury or damage. (Credit for the oft-cited list goes to researchers Jeffrey A. Kleim and Theresa A. Jones.)

The principles are as follows:

  1. Use it or lose it. Learning something once doesn’t mean you’ll know it forever. If you don’t use a skill, odds are it will deteriorate and weaken over time.
  2. Use it and improve it. To use an old phrase, ”practice makes perfect.”
  3. Specificity. Be tactical in your approach. Focus on the exact skill you want to learn.
  4. Repetition. Doing a task repeatedly can eventually make it feel second nature. “Repetition is extra practice for your brain,” says Dr. Tworek.
  5. Intensity matters. Go all-in. A half-hearted effort often brings halfway results.
  6. Timing matters. If you have a brain injury, don’t delay on trying to rebuild pathways. Early action typically brings better results.
  7. Salience matters. You’ll do better at something if it’s truly meaningful to you. Commit yourself to the effort.
  8. Age matters. Anybody at any age can benefit from neuroplasticity, but the process goes a bit easier when you’re younger. “If you’re older, it may take a bit more time and patience,” says Dr. Tworek.
  9. Transference. Everyone likes a 2-for-1 deal, right? Well practicing one skill can bring side benefits when you do related tasks. (Example: Researchers found that retraining people on using a spoon after a stroke improved other motor skills.)
  10. Interference. Something you learn may interfere with the next thing you have to learn. This is especially true if you take shortcuts and must undo bad habits.

Ways to improve neuroplasticity

Want to make your brain stronger? Then challenge it regularly with new activities and experiences ­— an endeavor that isn’t nearly as difficult as it might sound.

“You don’t need to travel across the world to find new experiences,” clarifies Dr. Tworek. “Instead, look to build the concept of ‘new experiences’ into your day-to-day life with some simple acts.”

The idea is to break from your routine, even if it’s just slightly. You can do that by:

  • Taking a new route to work or the grocery store. Better yet, turn off your GPS for a bit and use your head to find your way.
  • Listening to a new song instead of spinning out the same old playlist.
  • Finding a new recipe to make for dinner.
  • Adding something different to your exercise routine. If you’re a runner, for instance, try some cycling or weightlifting.
  • Using your “other” hand for tasks. So, if you’re right-handed, brush your teeth using your left hand.
  • Getting enough quality ZZZs. “Sleep is when the information from the day is being consolidated in your brain,” says Dr. Tworek. “It helps your brain more than you can imagine.”

If you’re feeling really energized, do something completely new and out of the norm to escape your comfort zone. That could involve:

  • Signing up for a class.
  • Learning a new language.
  • Taking up juggling.
  • Starting to play a musical instrument.
  • Traveling.

Have fun with the brain-building process of neuroplasticity, too, and don’t worry about how successful you are at your new venture. “It’s the experience that counts,” encourages Dr. Tworek. “Your brain will benefit from that no matter how great you are at this new thing you try.”

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