Build yourself the brain you want

This is the advice of Lara Boyd in her amazing TEDxTalk: build the brain you want. But how? Through neuroplasticity, neurogenesis and a little bit of growth-mindset.

When I was growing up and studying, it was believed that the adult brain could not reorganise itself or create new brain cells. That basically the adult brain, if anything, just slowly deteriorated. You were good at math or not good at it, good in languages or not. Talent was what counted and talent was something you were born with or not born with. But scientific discoveries have completely changed this view and now we know that nothing could be further from the truth.

Let’s start with neurogenesis. This basically means generating new neurons, which are:

“an electrically excitable cell that processes and transmits information through electrical and chemical signals. These signals between neurons occur via synapses, specialized connections with other cells. Neurons can connect to each other to form neural networks” – Wikipedia

We now know that we create new brain cells our whole lives although their production is decreased as we age. This is a new research area and I expect we will learn much more about this in years to come, but here is some of what we know now. We know that adults can create new brain cells. They create them mostly in hippocampus, which is a brain region important in learning, memory, mood and emotions. We produce on average 700 new neurons each day in that area. This does not sound like much, but by the time we are 50, we will have replaced the neurons we were born with in that area. We also know that lower levels of neurogenesis are connected with depression and memory problems. This means that if you are not generating new brain cells you are likely to experience depression. What is more, research has shown that our actions can affect this process. We can decrease neurogenesis by sleep deprivation, stress, and diet high in fat, sugars, ethanol and also soft foods. We can increase neurogenesis by sleeping well, learning new things, sex, running and other activities which increase blood flow to the brain and eating a diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids, blueberries, folic acid, zinc, caffeine and also intermittent fasting and caloric restriction. (Sandrine Thuret)

So we can, by what we do and don’t do, directly alter the process by which our brain regenerates itself, at least in the hippocampus. If we want a brain that generates plenty of new neurons on a daily basis leading to a more positive mood, better memory etc., we can sleep well, eat in a brain-healthy manner, learn new things, have sex and exercise. For more about neurogenesis, Sandrine Thuret has a wonderful TEDxTalk about it.

Neuroplasticity is the other process in which we can alter our brain and it is a big thing. A wonderful intro on that topic is the previously mentioned talk by Lara Boyd. We now know that the brain is changing at a fast rate and it continues to change throughout our lives. This is one of the things our brains do. They continually adapt to our surroundings, our habits and lives. They continually alter themselves to give us the best hope of survival and success. They adapt, they learn, they forget, and they alter. Even when we are resting and doing nothing, our brains are highly active. And every time we learn something, our brains change and this change is called neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity supports learning in three different processes, which are chemical, structural and functional. The chemical: Our brain cells, neurons, exchange chemicals, which trigger actions and reactions. Our brains can increase the amount or concentration of these chemical signals creating short-term memories and short-term improvement of skills. This is what happens when we cram for a test. We remember them in that moment, but the content or skill is soon forgotten. So the chemical way brings about short-term changes.

For long term changes and learning that lasts with us for weeks, months, and years our brains need to change their structure through growing and changing connections between neurons. This long-term change takes time and it takes practice. The chemical exchanges birth a need for a new connection. That connection is weak at first, but the more we practice and use that connection, the stronger that connection is. We can strengthen this process by practicing a little every day, as this creates a need for a new connection. Also, as the structure of the brain alters in our sleep, practicing before bedtime increases the likelihood of long-term learning.

These structural changes brought about by new connections between neurons can bring about structural changes by connecting new brain regions or by enlarging regions. This is the third way of changing your brain, through altering functions. For instance, if your dominant hand is right, the brain region controlling that hand is larger than the region in control of your left hand. You use it more, so it gets larger. This is due to the fact that as we use a brain region it gets excited. The more that brain region gets excited, the more excitable it gets and the easier it is to use again. So the more often we practice any given skill, the easier it is to practice and use.

So basically, through neuroplasticity, we are what we do and don’t do. The connections we use get stronger. The connections we don’t use weaken over time until they are severed as unneeded. Our actions and habits, as well as the things we don’t do, change the way our brains are connected and wired. We can alter our brain through creating new neurons (neurogenesis), through chemical communications between the neurons, new connections, structural and functional changes (neuroplasticity).

This is the biological base for the idea that it is not about talent, but deliberate practice. We become experts and masters through practice. We need to do the work if we want to learn and master something. If in the middle of this practice you find yourself struggling, it is worth remembering that this struggle can lead to greater structural changes in the brain, as stated by Lara Boyd in her talk.

With this knowledge shouldn’t it be very easy to create a learning model that works for all of us? Unfortunately not so, as we are quite individual in how our brains are wired. This is easy to understand, when you think that the base we start with, our genes, are slightly different and the difference is only enlarged by our experiences in life, which all change the connections in our brains. So there is no one solution for learning that suits us all, which is a strong point in favour of personalised learning. The best learning strategies differ between individuals and can also differ within an individual based on what we are learning.

So why do we need to understand this? It can empower us. Once we truly understand that we can build the brain we want to have through practice, we are more inclined to do that practice. Once we understand we can learn anything we want to learn, we are more inclined to get past the difficulties of practicing and training with the firm belief that we will get the results if we persevere. This is beautifully explained by Carol Dweck in her TEDxTalk The power of believing you can improve. This, neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, is the physical base for the growth mind-set, although the theory of it was discovered through different means. This is why the growth mind-set describes reality much more closely than the fixed mind-set, where our talents and intelligence are fixed from birth. In the growth mind-set it is seen that we can build our skills, competencies and talents and that they are not something we are born with, but they actually are things we can build, if we so choose. Also, we need to understand this, because it is seriously fabulous.

If you are a teacher: teach this to your kids. It can show them that even though “no one in their family was never any good at maths” or languages or science, it does not mean they cannot be if they choose to practice and put in the effort. This is, in my opinion, the basic core belief about learning we need to have and need to instil in our students if we want them to learn how to learn.

If you are a learner: it is both thrilling and terrifying to realise that it really is all up to you. If you want to learn something and are willing to put in the necessary work and find the learning methods and techniques that work for you to learn that type of content or skill, and you use them, and you persevere, you can learn what ever you want to learn.

So with the closing words by Lara Boyd:

“Study how and what you learn best. Repeat those behaviours that are healthy for your brain and brake those behaviours that are not. Practice. Learning is about doing the work that your brain requires.”- Lara Boyd, TEDxVancouver

Go build the brain you want.

Links to more on topic:

 

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