Simply put, Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form new neural pathways or synapses. These neural pathways allow us to recall and store information. When we learn something new, our brain changes. New neural pathways (synapses) are created to store and retrieve this information. The more we use a certain piece of information or skill set, the greater the neural pathway becomes.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true, if pathways are not used they will dwindle away, and in fact, the brain can clear away unused pathways in a process called synaptic pruning.
This is a great example of the use it or lose it principle. Synaptic pruning is how the brain takes resources from old, unused neural connections and diverts them to other areas to help strengthen neural pathways that are in high demand.
It has been said that a new born baby has approximately 2,500 synapses for each neuron in the cerebral cortex. By 3 years of age, through neuroplasticity, the number of synapses per neuron has increased to approximately 15,000 (You can see how much growing they do in these first few years). However by adulthood, the number has decreased to around 7000-8000 due to this synaptic pruning.
Exercising the Brain
The good news is that you can still create new synapses at any time in your life. Lots of activities promote neuroplasticity, especially activities that are more intense, require you to learn new things, or experience positive and life enriching experiences. Dr Giroux, a neurologist, said that some general principles or activities that enhance nerve function are:
- Activities that are new, engaging and challenging requiring us to learn new techniques and ideas
- Activities that are rewarding, meaningful and challenging and complex rather than simple and mundane. For example dancing instead of walking as a form of exercise.
- Activities that use our mind-body and spirit. For example combining exercise with music, mindfulness, cognitive tasks
Change it up
Your brain gets used to doing things it’s usual way. So change it up by using your non-dominant hand to do things like; using the mouse, brushing your teeth or throwing. You could also practice kicking with your non-dominant foot. Switching up these things forces the brain to adapt by creating new neural pathways. It may feel weird at first but you will get used to it quickly.
Increase your senses
Performing everyday tasks with fewer senses could promote activating underused neural pathways. For example, try getting dressed or having a shower with your eyes closed. Try feeling your way around your bedroom with your eyes closed (it goes without saying to be careful doing this, we don’t want any accidents). If you make a sense work harder, you could strengthen the pathways.
Double up the senses
Try performing two different sensory activities at the same time to help stimulate your brain to create new pathways. For example. Combine actively listening to music with exercise or doing a difficult task.
Mix up routines
Mix up your regular routines to help stimulate new neural pathways with new experiences. For example, go to work a different way than usual, walk a different path than usual. Change your usual morning routine.
Challenge your brain
If exercising, try new challenging exercises (with proper instruction of course). Exercises like the Turkish Get Up challenge the body and brain in many areas. Simple crawling exercises are also great for the brain. Stability exercises like the Bird Dog exercise also helps challenge the brain. There are lots of options here.
What to make of this
These are simple ways to help improve your brain function. If you are interested, there are other online based brain training sites such as brainhq.com and luminosity.com.
We often get stuck in the same old routines, doing the same things day in day out. This occurs at home at work and when exercising. Try to change things up a bit and get your brain working hard, who knows what changes you may notice. Your body will definitely thank you for it.