The principal activities of brains are making changes in themselves.”–Marvin L. Minsky (from Society of the Mind, 1986)
Can we learn plasticity? First maybe we need to know what brain plasticity is.
Plasticity, or neuroplasticity, is the lifelong ability of the brain to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences.
As we learn, we acquire new knowledge and skills through instruction or experience.
In order to learn or memorize a fact or skill, there must be persistent functional changes in the brain that represent the new knowledge.
The ability of the brain to change with learning is what is known as neuroplasticity.
Learning Plasticity is Good News for Brains, Especially Older Brains
My brain is now 61 years old, and it is in charge of a life that includes a wife, an 11 year old boy, and a 5 year old girl, and those two younger brains are counting on Dad’s brain to be a vital part of their growing up prepared to make decent decisions as they step out the door when they are ready to do that. (College, I am hoping).
Dad’s brain has been through some emotional and behavioral excesses over the years, because his parents were heavy drinkers not given to anything remotely resembling emotional intelligence, and Dad grew up during the Summer of Love, trying to make love rather than war, including the use of an occasional recreational chemical.
Later on Dad’s brain was subjected to too much processed food, and not enough sleep.
Now Dad’s brain is involved in running a business by itself, and in a down economy, there is plenty of stress hormones available to wreak havoc on an older brain.
What is a brain to do to stay healthy, I mean we have all heard about eat your fruit and vegetables, and when I do that I feel no different than when I did before. If it is good for you shouldn’t you feel some ecstasy, at least?
Vegetables and fruits should alter your mood,right?
Actually, fruit and vegetables do alter your mood. Go without them and see how you feel, then include them in your diet again and you will feel better and function more effectively rather quickly.
Research has recently given us some gifts or revealed some information about the human brain that we did not have even a decade or two ago, and has even indicated to us that we can workout our brain like I work out my body at the YMCA.
I workout because I like the feeling of efficacy and strength that I have after working out, and now I know that physical exercise is one of the pillars of brain fitness that I can now enhance.
Back to workouts in a moment. The two gifts are called neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, and we can do stuff to enhance them, hence the title of this page, learning plasticity.
By the way, neurogenesis is your brain growing new neurons daily, and you can cement those neurons into the circuits that need them, like the memory circuits of the hippocampus if you challenge them with a novel learning experience.
Not sure about you, but it is great news to this 61 year old brain that replacement parts are available. That sure contradicts what we were taught as kids.
So there are some things I can do to manage my plasticity learning and my neurogenesis growth, and you are asking just what could that be?
According to Simon Evans,Ph.D. and Paul Burghardt,Ph.D., who have written the bible on learning plasticity, called Brainfit for Life there are several pillars of brain fitness to attend to, physical activity/exercise, nutrition, including the aforementioned fruits and vegetables and omega 3 fatty acid, sleep, stress management and novel learning experiences, which includes computerized brain fitness programs.
The most important of those pillars is physical activity/exercise, and the good news for us older folks is that we do not have to start flinging around huge barbells and getting sweaty for an hour or two everyday in order to enhance learning plasticity.
If you walk in your neighborhood, an excellent physical activity, continue to do that until you are ready for something that makes you breathe a little deeper a little longer, which is the kind of breathing we need to have result from our physical activity.
You can even engage in something at home called HIIT which stands for high intensity interval training which will get the breathing deeper and increase blood flow to the brain.
The HIIT workout needs to last about 10 minutes, and includes 30 second intervals of the kinds of calisthenics you did as a kid in P.E. class.
Scott and Angie Tousignant have put together a model that couples can do together in the privacy of their own basement. As usual though, you do have to do it.
Nutrition, which we touched on above, is the next learning plasticity pillar that Evans and Burghardt speak to, and they make a compelling case for the inclusion of omega 3 fatty acid in your diet on a regular basis, along with the antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, and fiber we find in fruits and vegetables.
Turns out neurons are housed in a membrane that is mostly omega 3 fatty acid, which needs to be replenished frequently, because if that does not happen, the membrane gets brittle, and neurons cannot then communicate with each other clearly. Remember that old computer programming phrase, GIGO, which stood for “Garbage In, Garbage Out?” Same principle here. The best source of Omega 3 fatty acid is fish, and you want to make sure your fish do not include mercury pollution.
If fish for omega 3 fatty acid are not an option, then perhaps supplementation is an option for your omega 3 fatty acid. Make sure your supplements are processed to exclude mercury also.
Stress hormones kill new brain cells. So does booze and environmental toxins.
So what can we do to ensure that we minimize the impact of stress hormones?
I have used HeartMath personally and taught it to my clients since before I knew about neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, and it is a wonderful tool to open the higher perceptual centers in the brain.
Another revelation of the research folks is that our hearts have their own little brain, a very sophisticated nervous system of their own which sends a lot of data up, more so than the brain sends to the heart.
This particular heart nervous system can learn and make decisions all by itself, and will actually learn to respond to cues, which opens up the higher perceptual centers in the brain.
Novel Learning Experience
The last pillar of brain fitness is novel learning experiences, which are what really fire up the learning plasticity.
The kind of learning that is best for learning plasticity is the learning involved in learning a new language or a new instrument, and research like the IMPACT study published in April of 2009 is indicating the value of one of the commercially available brain fitness programs.
Those kinds of learning make it possible for neurons to create new synapses and circuits and connections, and the more those synapses and circuits fire together, they more they wire together and the longer Dad’s brain will fight off the Old Timers Disease.
So in the name of learning plasticity, let us stretch our dendrites and flex our axons.
Michael S. Logan is a brain fitness expert, a counselor, a student of Chi Gong, and licensed one on one HeartMath provider. I enjoy the spiritual, the mythological, and psychological, and I am a late life father to Shane, 10, and Hannah Marie, 4, whose brains are so amazing. http://www.askmikethecounselor2.com