Neuroplasticity: You can teach an old brain new tricks

Brain imaging studies show that every time we learn a new task, we're changing our brain by expanding our neural network.

What's the Big Idea?


Your brain is more flexible than we've ever thought before. It changes because it is constantly optimizing itself, reorganizing itself by transferring cognitive abilities from one lobe to the other, particularly as you age. After a stroke, for instance, your brain can reorganize itself to move functions to undamaged areas.

And yet, due to the lifestyles we lead we tend to not make full use of our brains.

Dr. Dennis Charney, dean of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, has studied how the brain responds to dramatic changes in peoples' environments. In the video below, Charney describes how prisoners of war who were placed in solitary confinement developed unusual cognitive capacities because the only activity they were allowed to do was think. The POWs were essentially exercising their brains. What can we learn from this?

Charney is using this research to conduct psychological therapies that can improve learning and memory, and solve problems with anxiety and depression.

Watch the video here:

What's the Significance?

Consider two examples of groups of people scientists have studied.

The Sea Gypsies, or Moken, are a seafaring people who spend a great deal of their time in boats off the coast of Myanmar and Thailand, have unusual underwater vision -- twice as good as Europeans. This has enabled Mokens to gather shellfish at great depths without the aid of scuba gear. How do the Moken do this? They constrict their pupils by 22 percent. How do they learn to do this? Is it genetic? Neuroscientists argue that anyone can learn this trick. Simply put, the brain orders the body to adapt to suite its needs.

Another example of neuroplasticity has been found in London taxi drivers. A cab driver's hippocampus -- the part of the brain that holds spatial representation capacity -- is measurably larger than that of a bus driver. By driving the same route every day, the bus drivers don't need to exercise this part of the brain as much. The cabbies, on the other hand, rely on it constantly for navigation.

If you were to restrict certain senses -- like vision, for instance -- your brain would make a similar adaptation. This great survival machine will rewire itself, opening neuro pathways to heighten the power of other senses to keep you from falling off a cliff or get eaten by a tiger.

In a more practical sense, we know that physical exercise is good for the brain because it helps create new neurons. Similarly, when we teach an old brain new tricks we know that it will help slow age-related mental decline. So exercise your body and exercise your mind! Now that doesn't sound like brain science.

Dr. Charney's most recent book is Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Great Challenges.

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

Plants have awareness and intelligence, argue scientists

Research in plant neurobiology shows that plants have senses, intelligence and emotions.

Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • The field of plant neurobiology studies the complex behavior of plants.
  • Plants were found to have 15-20 senses, including many like humans.
  • Some argue that plants may have awareness and intelligence, while detractors persist.
Keep reading Show less

Human extinction! Don't panic; think about it like a philosopher.

Most people think human extinction would be bad. These people aren't philosophers.

Shutterstock
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new opinion piece in The New York Times argues that humanity is so horrible to other forms of life that our extinction wouldn't be all that bad, morally speaking.
  • The author, Dr. Todd May, is a philosopher who is known for advising the writers of The Good Place.
  • The idea of human extinction is a big one, with lots of disagreement on its moral value.
Keep reading Show less

Space is dead: A challenge to the standard model of quantum mechanics

Since the idea of locality is dead, space itself may not be an aloof vacuum: Something welds things together, even at great distances.

Videos
  • Realists believe that there is an exactly understandable way the world is — one that describes processes independent of our intervention. Anti-realists, however, believe realism is too ambitious — too hard. They believe we pragmatically describe our interactions with nature — not truths that are independent of us.
  • In nature, properties of Particle B may be depend on what we choose to measure or manipulate with Particle A, even at great distances.
  • In quantum mechanics, there is no explanation for this. "It just comes out that way," says Smolin. Realists struggle with this because it would imply certain things can travel faster than light, which still seems improbable.
Keep reading Show less