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Explaining Neuroplasticity to Your Mom

Geoff Nixon

By Geoff Nixon

Neuroplasticity and Learning Age

“Everything having to do with human training and education has to be re-examined in light of neuroplasticity.”
Norman Doidge

The scientific consensus on how much the brain can change –  and how that impacts learning and reading skills — has been turned upside down over the last two decades.

According to neuroscientist and best-selling 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.”

orton gillingham fMRISo 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 made possible by the functional MRI, which captures brain activity in a video format.

You can see in this fMRI image how powerful it is to be able to observe a brain reading and to compare individuals at different skill levels.

Over the years, scientists have used this new window into how the brain responds to develop a whole new generation of learning interventions that tap into neuroplasticity as a way to change learning skills at their roots.

Conventional wisdom has been that the “window” for helping children develop their learning skills ends at three years of age. This is not true. The window is open throughout a person’s life. If exercised appropriately all brains are capable of higher levels of learning skill.

It is true that in the first three years of life the brain is in set up mode and learning circuitry is “always on” and so the rate of learning — discarding old connections in favor of newer better ones — is fantastic.  Beyond that window exercises aimed at boosting learning ability need to overcome a more cemented learning process.  But that’s all.  It is very possible, and a number of therapies, exercising the brain in very different ways, targeting very different aspects of brain function are having success.

Neuroplasticity: The Ability of the Brain to Change in Response to Stimuli

Brain plasticity (or neuroplasticity) refers to fact that the brain is adaptive — it self-organizes, meaning that if exercised appropriately it can adapt and change for the better.

This new understanding of the brain, discovered in a famous ferret experiment and then confirmed in the 1990’s by the invention of the fMRI, is in stark contrast to the prior theory, that each part of the brain has a fixed specialized function.  And that once these functions are learned, typically at a young age, they are fixed, pre-determined for life. As explained in great detail in Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself, this theory was called localizationism and it has been proved wrong.

In fact, not only is the brain plastic and able to change, it is changing constantly. Brain maps, the functionality by region, change constantly depending on individual needs. This is called “competitive plasticity” (or “use it or lose it”), referring to the fact that the brain is constantly dropping connections (knowledge or skills) that are seem to be no longer needed or that are not being challenged, and it will add connections if there are new demands.

For instance, the brain of a person learning the violin will steadily add more brain capacity to the playing hand, as the demands for accuracy, speed and coordination grow. A recent study by MIT showed that visual cortex brain tissue in the blind is used for language processing.

The Brain’s Ability to Communicate Can Change

The process of neuronal communication occurs very rapidly and messages are sent almost instantaneously. However, in some people, neuronal communication takes longer than in other people or does not happen at all.

The efficiency of communication in our brain depends on an abundance of proper synaptic connections between neurons. If a message cannot get across the synapse to the next neuron, or if there are not enough pathways for the message to travel down, the message can’t be communicated to different areas of the brain. If something is described as “plastic”, this simply means that it has the ability to change. It is now well known that many different elements of the brain’s communication system have the ability to change.

Synaptic plasticity (stronger connections)

The synapse (connection between the neurons) can change in strength. For example, if there is more neurotransmitter crossing the synapse, there is more activation of the receptor sites on the next neuron, which leads to a stronger connection. Like any other form of exercise, synaptic strength will increase if there is repeated and consistent activation of neurons

Neuronal plasticity (new connections)

The brain communication network as a whole can also be improved. Neuroplasticity simply refers to the ability of neurons to form new synaptic connections with one another. When something new is heard, either existing neuronal pathways are slightly altered or new connections are formed. In this way, constant and repetitive use of language will improve the ability of the brain to change itself and thus brain’s communication can improve.

The Brain Is Like A Muscle

Despite being the most complex human organ, 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.

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. When neuroplasticity and learning are connected, the potential for positive outcomes expands.

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.

Using Neuroplasticity To Transform Learning

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 individuals 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.  Understanding neuroplasticity gave us a new perspective on how to help people learn, which is why we believe everyone and his mom should know what neuroplasticity is!

Many Gemm Learning testimonials seem incredible. Stories of remarkable change in a short period.  But really, they are a testament to how willing the brain is to be led towards new growth.  And to the efficacy of the software we use, which takes full advantage of the neuroplasticity opportunity.

To find out if we can help your child, call for a free consult or take a free assessment here.

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