How to Explain Neuroplasticity to Your Mom
November 3, 2015 by Geoff Nixon
Plain Speaking On The Link Between Neuroplasticity and Learning
Neuroplasticity is all the rage these days. The scientific consensus on what exactly the human brain is capable of — based on growing evidence linking neuroplasticity and learning growth — has been turned upside down over the last couple decades.
According to psychiatrist and bestselling author Norman Doidge, “Everything having to do with human training and education has to be re-examined in light of neuroplasticity.”
Entrepreneur Naveen Jain says that “neuroplasticity research showed that the brain changes its very structure with each different activity it performs.”
Even the Dalai Lama has gotten in on the neuroplasticity craze, giving a talk in 2014 called “Neuroplasticity and Healing”!
So what exactly is neuroplasticity? Going by the quotes above, you might be forgiven for thinking it’s some kind of magic. In fact, neuroplasticity is a radical new understanding of how the brain works that has emerged from years of research, and it’s one that has powerful implications for how we treat our brains, and how we help learning by tapping into neuroplasticity.
The Brain Is Like a Muscle
The basic idea behind neuroplasticity is that despite being by far the most complex organ in the human body, the brain isn’t actually so different than a physical muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it gets and the less you use it, the weaker it gets.
Every time you use your brain for a certain task, your brain in a sense “remembers” that it’s done that task before, and it becomes a little easier to do the task next time. Think about tying your shoes, for example: maybe you had to work at it when you first learned how to do it, but now you can do it without even paying attention.
Until recently, scientists thought learning in this way was mainly something that happened to people when they were young and that the human brain “solidified” and became fixed in its habits in adulthood. In the late 20th and early 21st century, however, research started to pick apart this theory by showing that the human brain in fact remains malleable through adulthood and even into old age.
Like the human body, the human brain is designed to adjust itself based on what it’s being used for. If you do push ups every day, your body adapts, you put on more muscle and it gets easier to do push ups. Similarly, if you do a few addition problems in your head every day, your brain adapts, you put on more “mental muscle” and you’ll find that doing calculations in your head soon takes less time than it used to.
The fact that the brain is extremely plastic isn’t just an interesting bit of scientific knowledge – it’s also very good news for all of us, because it means that if we give our brains a workout, they’ll become stronger, faster and more powerful. And for struggling learners, the link between neuroplasticity is even more important as it offers a way forward, a possible path to improved learning and reading. This is a path open to all ages.
Practice Really Does Make Perfect
The research on neuroplasticity tells us that when you exercise your brain, things that were once difficult become easier and things that were impossible become possible.
This ability of the brain to change based on how it’s being used is what makes practice so important for developing and refining new skills.
For instance, researchers can tell through brain scans that as musicians learn to play a new instrument, the parts of their brain associated with fine motor control grow and develop new connections to other parts of the brain.
Likewise, when dyslexic children learn to read, a part of their brains called the “left parietal lobe” starts lighting up more brightly than before and becomes more like the corresponding part of the brain in non-dyslexics.
Neuroplasticity researchers often say that “neurons that fire together wire together,” which essentially means that when your brain is activated in a certain pattern, it becomes easier for your brain to fall into that pattern again in the future. The more you practice a given skill, the better you get at that skill.
Therefore, the scientific discoveries underlying neuroplasticity carry a profound lesson that is relevant to all our lives: our minds are not static. Instead, what we use our brains for has a far-reaching impact on who we become and what capabilities we develop.
The Importance of a Growth-Oriented Mindset
The science behind neuroplasticity shows that our talents aren’t innate and immutable but rather that by challenging ourselves and pushing ourselves to tackle things that are hard for us head on we can coax our brains into working in new ways, unlocking abilities we didn’t previously have. Students who apply this insight in the classroom realize that obstacles aren’t “things I can’t do” but are “opportunities for me to grow.”
Parents, take note: one of the most empowering things you can teach your children is that academic success isn’t a result of having fixed talents or “being smart” but of putting in effort, not giving up and taking challenges as chances for growth.
Studies following children’s academic paths over the long-term have found that children who think of academic success as simply the result of having high intelligence tend to get worse grades as they get older. These children who see doing well in school as a fixed ability never develop the persistence required later on in their studies, and they are more likely to avoid activities that challenge them.
On the other hand, students who see academic success as the result of effort instead of intelligence (usually because they were lucky enough to have parents or teachers who encouraged this attitude) do better and better as they get older. They have the grit and tenacity to take on things that challenge them, and they just redouble their efforts when they run into especially difficult tasks.
Learning from an early age that growth is more important than innate talent can have a profound effect on people’s lives – those who approach life and learning with a growth-oriented mindset are in a position to take full advantage of neuroplasticity.
Use It or Lose It
Neuroplasticity research demonstrates that through hard work we can improve at skills that don’t come naturally to us. It tells us that we should practice the things we wish we were better at.
But there’s another side to neuroplasticity research: it also tells us that we should practice the things we are good at.
Just as the brain adapts and reshapes itself to more efficiently perform the tasks it’s being used for, it also adjusts by forgetting the tasks it’s not being used for. The old adage “use it or lose it” turns out to be spot-on as far as the neuroscience is concerned.
The takeaway, then, is that when you develop a new skill, you shouldn’t just assume your work is done and move on. Instead, keep using it – don’t let it get rusty! Once you get your brain fine-tuned to perform a certain task, stay at the top of your game by practicing that task.
So don’t forget to work on the things that do come easy to you – that way you’ll not only keep your natural strengths but also continue building on them.
Neuroplasticity Is A Discovery That Benefits Everyone
Many scientific discoveries, even if they’re interesting, don’t have much effect on our daily lives. For instance, NASA recently announced that they’d found evidence of liquid water on Mars – fascinating, but will it change your life in any practical way? Probably not.
On the other hand, neuroplasticity is a scientific discovery that can have an enormous impact on everyone’s lives. Neuroplasticity research provides evidence that by putting in effort to help our brains grow we can get better both at the things we’re naturally good at and the things that are more challenging.
We haven’t heard the last from neuroplasticity either. Already, neuroplasticity research has opened up new doors for advances in treatments for learning disabilities like dyslexia and has pointed towards new ways of helping people whose learning styles put them at a disadvantage in traditional classroom settings.
In the meantime, it’s not too early to take advantage of the insights from neuroplasticity research by applying them to your own life. As a result of studies on neuroplasticity, we now know the deeply empowering truth that the brain restructures itself depending on how it’s being used.
In other words, it’s up to you to shape the brain you want to have.
This idea is deceptively simple. After all, it’s easy enough to explain to your mom – just tell her that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use. But it’s also a profound idea that can quite literally change people’s lives.
The potential for neuroplasticity to transform lives is part of what inspired us to provide neuroscience-based learning and reading software to families at home. Neuroplasticity has deep implications for people with learning disabilities, and we wanted to provide tools to help children and adults to take advantage of the brain’s ability to reshape itself.
The idea of neuroplasticity gave us a new perspective on how to help people learn. Understanding neuroplasticity can make the difference in persevering to meet your goals, which is why we believe everyone and his mom should know what neuroplasticity is!