For hundreds of years, it was widely accepted that the human brain was fixed in adulthood. It was widely accepted that any damage to the brain was permanent and irreversible. If a person suffered brain trauma or had a mental illness, little would be done for him/her since the damage was considered permanent. For hundreds of years, it was considered common knowledge that some possessed a math brain while others possessed an artistic brain. Some people would give up all hope in their math studies, for they believed that their brain didn’t possess the ability to learn and understand math.
Anyone who dared to think that the brain could change past adulthood was subject to scrutiny and shunned by the scientific community. However, groundbreaking research has shed light into a revolutionary concept known as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity, broadly speaking, is any change in the nervous system. Neuroplasticity defies the hundred-year-old belief that adult brains are fixed and are resistant to any change.
It has the potential to offer solutions to chronic conditions, such as chronic pain, that plague millions of people around the world.
However, it also has the potential to give people conditions such as chronic pain. This is why it is important to have a thorough understanding of neuroplasticity. The more we learn about it, the more we are able to use it to our advantage. The human brain is capable of “rewiring” itself, weakening old neural pathways and strengthening new ones, contrary to the outdated belief that the adult brain is unable to change in any way.
While the topic of neuroplasticity is a broad one, we will cover the history of neuroplasticity, how neuroplasticity works, healing with neuroplasticity, learning with neuroplasticity, and using neuroplasticity to be happier. This breakthrough in neuroscience will forever change how we use the human brain to our advantage. Although the discovery of neuroplasticity by the scientific community is considered a recent one, the concept has existed for centuries (Costandi 4). Nervous systems were meant to change; nervous systems evolved to change.
Furthermore, neuroplasticity is a concept that pervades all others in neuroscience (Costandi 2). During the 1780s, researchers discussed the possibility that mental training lead to brain growth. One of the researchers, Michele Vincenzo Malacarne, tested the ideas in his experiments (Costandi 4-5). He gathered two pairs of animals, one pair being dogs and the other pair being birds. He trained one animal from each pair for several years, ending his experiment with a brain dissection. That experiment, according to his claims, revealed that the trained animals had noticeably larger brains than the untrained animals (Costandi 5). Charles Darwin mentioned neuroplasticity in The Descent of Man. He noticed that the brains of domestic rabbits were much smaller compared to wild rabbits, possibly due to the lack of use of their instincts, intellect, and senses (Costandi 6-8). Nobel Prize winner Ramon y Cajal dedicated a significant part of his career searching for evidence that the brain and spinal cord were plastic; however, he failed to do so (Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself 249). During his search, he “suggested that plasticity occurs between nerve cells and that mental exercise leads to growth of new nerve fiber branches” (Costandi 8).
Later down the road, Cajal decided to change his mind. In his textbook, Degeneration and Regeneration of the Nervous System, Cajal stated that nerve paths were fixed and that anything that dies in the brain can never be regenerated (Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself 249). From then on, the accepted theory was that the brain was fixed past adulthood. The dogma that the brain was only plastic during childhood development persisted. Once the brain entered adulthood, it was resistant to any change and any brain damage it sustained was considered permanent (Costandi 2). Later down the road, some researchers reported seeing new cells being born in the brain, only to be ridiculed and shunned; nevertheless, fearless researchers were persistent in their search for evidence of neuroplasticity. Torsten Wiesel discovered that sensory experiences had an effect on the brain, and Paul Bach-y-Rita used a sensory device that allowed blind people to “‘see’ with their sense of touch” (Costandi 10). The turning point for neuroplasticity came during the 90s. The discovery of neural stem cells was more than enough to convince the scientific community, revolutionizing neuroscience and overthrowing the old belief that the brain was fixed past adulthood (Costandi 11).
This discovery of neuroplasticity came during a time when advances in medical technology were being made, enabling researchers to precisely visualize and manipulate neural activity, which allowed them to see just how neuroplasticity works (Costandi 11). Neuroplasticity can be seen from every level of the nervous system; it can be seen in the molecular level, in the cellular level, in small groups of neurons, in systems of neurons, and in behavior (Costandi 11). Since then, neuroplasticity has been divided into two main categories: functional plasticity and structural plasticity. Functional plasticity is change in the function of neurons, such as nerve impulses or chemical functions. This comes into play when a part of the brain gets damaged, allowing neurons from other areas to change their functions. The other type of neuroplasticity, structural plasticity, involves physical change to the brain and formation of new neural pathways (Costandi 13). This type of plasticity is observed mostly in learning. Nevertheless, both abide by the golden rule of neuroplasticity: “cells that fire together wire together” (Arden 9). The opposite is also true: cells that do not fire together wire apart (Arden 9). For example, when someone is learning how to play guitar, he/she often has a difficult time doing so, because the neural pathways required are not there yet. This is why it is difficult to learn how to strum with one hand and hold down frets with the other. Consistent practice will cause certain neurons to form connections, and over time, those connections will begin to work together at a faster rate (Arden 9).
Neuroplasticity is actually the reason humans are able to learn; and unless a mental disability gets in the way, anyone can learn anything. If we can learn how to first speak, how to ride a bike, or how to drive, we can learn how to play an instrument or learn difficult concepts in mathematics. The idea of a musical brain or mathematical brain is a myth. As mentioned earlier, when learning how to play guitar, certain neurons will begin firing together, and the more this is practiced, the stronger those neural pathways get. In addition to strengthening neural connections, learning produces other changes in the brain, and long-term brain training results in lasting changes in brain structure and function (Costandi 88). For example, successfully learning a second language causes various anatomical changes in the brain, due to the rigor and effort required. A study in 2004 examined the brains of bilingual Europeans and monolinguals. The results showed that bilinguals had more gray matter in an area of the brain known as the left inferior parietal lobule, which is associated with various functions vital to language learning such as memory of language-based sounds and lexical learning (Costandi 88-89). However, these anatomical changes are not permanent. In a scanning study of Japanese individuals who were taking an intensive six-week English course, one group continued their English studies and the second group stopped completely. The group that continued showed even bigger increases in grey matter while the group that stopped showed that their grey matter returned to normal levels (Costandi 90).
Researchers and medical professionals have adapted this knowledge to treat patients with medical conditions such as chronic pain. When a person receives a consistent input of pain in a specific area, it becomes hypersensitive due to the group of neurons constantly firing together; and even when the mechanism of pain is gone, the pain remains (Doidge, The Brain’s Way of Healing 8). Chronic pain is learned pain; and chronic pain is the dark side of neuroplasticity. Over time, the neurological connections strengthen and the area in the brain for the pain grows, resulting in more pain over a larger area.
Psychiatrist Dr. Michael Moskowitz was a victim of chronic pain. The mechanism of the injury was a skiing accident where he hurt his neck (Doidge, The Brain’s Way of Healing 6). The pain left Moskowitz in agony for thirteen years. Using his knowledge of neuroplasticity and its golden rule, he set out to relieve his chronic pain. Moskowitz used visual processing to his aide, in order to visualize the area of the brain that was projecting his pain. He would consistently imagine that area shrinking in order to have neurons fire together more frequently, forcing them to become stronger and faster. After more than a year, his pain disappeared (Doidge, The Brain’s Way of Healing 15). Moskowitz used the concept that the mind can result in changes to the brain. This is similar to cognitive-behavioral therapy, where teaching patients how to think differently can change the brain (Begley). Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been known to have similar effects on patients as antidepressants (Begley). However, cognitive-behavioral therapy offers an advantage, because while antidepressants lower activity in the limbic system, the brain’s emotion center, cognitive-behavioral therapy raises it. For this reason, it is important to continue to research neuroplasticity, because it offers noninvasive remedies to common and devastating medical conditions. Because of the discoveries being made in the healing powers of neuroplasticity, the Department of Defense has invested money in software that could possibly treat traumatic brain injuries in people with PTSD, a common neurological disorder that plagues service men and women who went to combat (Slack). The goal of the software is to manipulate the brain’s plasticity in order to provide an effective and noninvasive treatment. In order to do this, the software will aim to strengthen language skills, memory, attention, and visual-spatial abilities (Slack). If the software proves to be successful, it could additionally be used to treat other neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s, autism, and schizophrenia. The corporation responsible for the software, Posit Science, was co-founded by its chief scientist, Michael Merzenich, who is one of the pioneers in neuroplasticity (Slack).
While there are possible limitations to neuroplasticity, its benefits far outweigh the drawbacks, as long as we learn how to control it at will. Practicing mindfulness has been known to rewire the brain to be happier. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, has been known to have an interest in science, for he believes Buddhism can contribute to it (Begley). He has also stated that if science conflicts with Buddhism, then Buddhist doctrine must change with scientific discoveries. The Dalai Lama has been assisting researchers since the 90s by lending monks in order to see if meditation alters the brain (Begley). The research he has been assisting has been highly successful in showing that mindfulness affects the brain positively (Arden 201). During one of the experiments where they had monks meditate, they detected gamma waves, which wasn’t very surprising; however, in the experienced monks, the gamma rays never died down in between meditations (Begley). It was also observed that experienced monks “had much greater activation in brain regions called the right insula and caudate, a network that underlies empathy and maternal love” (Begley). Using neuroplasticity, Buddhist monks were able to rewire their brain to be more compassionate, empathetic, and happy. Furthermore, Buddhist monks were able to achieve this using a technique known as mindfulness.
Mindfulness, derived from Buddhism, is a technique in which neuroplasticity is used to train the brain to be conscious and aware. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin have identified the parts of the brain that fire together. The cingulate cortex and the somatosensory cortex were both activated together while the left prefrontal cortex eclipsed the activity of the right. Additionally, mindfulness has been used to treat psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety (Arden 199). The goal of achieving mindfulness is to increase resistance to reacting to stressors. Mindfulness involves labeling emotions, which activates the prefrontal cortex, which reduces anxiety. The focus of mindfulness is on the following: breathing, observation, acceptance, and freedom from judgment (Arden 199). When practicing mindfulness, it is necessary to accept and observe thoughts, physical sensations, and emotions; on top of that, it is also necessary to maintain a nonjudgmental attitude. In order to successfully achieve mindfulness, one must engage in parasympathetic meditation and follow the seven principles: rhythmic breathing, focused attention, being in a quiet environment, accepting and nonjudgmental attitude, relaxed posture, observation, and labeling (Arden 198). With consistent practice and determination, the brain can be rewired to be mindful, resulting in increased happiness, empathy, and love.
While for hundreds of years it was believed that the brain was resistant to any change, the revolution in neuroscience has since changed our understanding of the human brain. The revolution, known as neuroplasticity, has given hope to people with brain damage, chronic pain, and stress. Scientists that were once shunned are now being revered, and a once ridiculed concept has now come to be accepted by the scientific community. Neuroplasticity, defined as changes to the nervous system through experiences and interactions, defies the outdated belief that the brain cannot change past adulthood, and is here to stay. By learning about its history, its drawbacks, and how it works, we can learn to take advantage of neuroplasticity in order to cure neurological disorders using noninvasive procedures, to learn whatever we set our mind to, and to be more empathetic and happier. The brain and nervous system evolved to change, and with the knowledge at our disposal, we can change our brain.