Our brains can shape-shift!

I’d like to start by asking you a question – have you ever thought it’s too late for an adult to learn an instrument? Fortunately, it may never be too late for anyone to learn an instrument, or many things for that matter! It’s because of this amazing shape-shifting ability our brain has called neuroplasticity, which is one of our greatest discoveries of the human brain in modern science.


The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge by brewbooks (CC BY-SA 2.0)


So what is Neuroplasticity?

As a child I often heard people say that you need to start learning an instrument while you’re young, otherwise it’ll be much harder and take much longer to learn if you start when you’re older. This often stemmed from a traditional belief that our brain became fixed and unchangeable once we reached adulthood. Incredible recent advances in brain imaging, mapping and stimulation technology have allowed us to check out our brain and investigate whether this theory holds true. Fortunately, this technology has shown that all brains, young and old, appear to dynamically change their structure over time. In fact, our brain may never become fixed, but may continuously remodel itself throughout our entire lifetime. Neuroplasticity describes just this – this ability of millions of nerve cells in our brain to rewire and remap their pathways. This is thought to allow signals to travel more efficiently and effectively in response to how we think, activities we do and brain injuries we might occur. It’s essentially the optimisation of brain signalling to improve our functions!


Cool Findings

Have you ever heard of blind people being able to echo-locate? If not, it’s an ability used in animals like dolphins and bats, that some blind people learn, in order to visualise their environments in detail from sounds that echo off objects. Some blind people even make a clicking noise with their mouth to create echoes around them. Several studies have recently looked into the brains of blind people with these abilities and they’ve discovered that the echoes they hear appear to be processed by regions of their brain that are responsible for vision, not sound! Their brain seems to have adapted and restructured itself to create some sort of visual image from these sounds in place of their lost eyesight. People born blind might be better at echo-locating, but people who’ve become blind during their lifetime have still been able to develop this ability, suggesting that our brain could still adapt to such a significant change during life!


Neuroplasticity (updated) by gever (CC BY-NC 2.0)


Exercise is something we all love doing don’t we! Or do we? Many studies of the brain of patients who complete a consistent aerobic exercise regime over several months have shown signs of physical changes in their brain, coupled with improvements in their cognitive control. Covering many different types of exercises, these studies seem to commonly show increases in the volume of their grey matter, albeit in both similar and different parts of the brain depending on the exercises. One example is in the hippocampus. Hippo what? Basically it appears to be a very important part of the brain that converts short-term memory into long-term memory. If you remember this tomorrow, you can thank that part of your brain! These cognitive improvements I mentioned before refer to signs of better emotional control, attention, problem solving and processing information faster, like when you overclock a computer’s processor to run faster!


Unanswered questions

Although we’ve come a long way in such a short period of time, we still have so many questions about the potential of our brain’s plasticity! For activities that already appear to change our brain, could these changes also benefit us beyond those activities? Imagine if learning an instrument or a second language improves your memory and attention when doing completely unrelated activities! On that note, we still don’t know how long any benefits last if you stop doing a ‘brain-changing’ activity. If you stop exercising, how long would it take before you start to lose those possible benefits? Speaking of benefits – is neuroplasticity always beneficial? If the spiral into something like depression or addiction goes hand in hand with changes in the structure of our brain, could these changes make it harder to overcome something like depression or an addiction?


What the future might hold

We still know so little about the hidden powers that cause our brain to change in certain ways. But when we discover a lot more, maybe we could somehow control and adjust our brain, for example with specific activities, to accelerate improvements in our physical movements, learning, attention and memory etc. This could hopefully help patients recover from brain injuries, improve the quality of life of people born with disabilities, and help prevent or reduce the symptoms of age-related brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia! Fortunately, science is already on it! Anyway, one thing’s already quite clear – you can teach an old dog new tricks! The fact that the people at the forefront of studying our brains are ‘adults’ is already proof that you’re never too old to learn something new!

6 Responses to “Our brains can shape-shift!”

  1. Joshua Munro says:

    Hey Mei, thanks so much! That’s something i definitely wonder too and hope research will keep learning more about our brains ability to plasticise as we grow older. Haha a full brain! Great that you mentioned Taxi drivers because i recall reading a study about that! Thanks for your input and thoughts, can’t wait to ‘learn’ more!

  2. Mei says:

    Super interesting; sooo many questions!
    I first heard about neuroplasticity from lumosity, the online brain game program. I’ve always wondered if there’s a limit to how much knowledge we can retain in our brains and whether or not it can expand (not necessarily in a physical sense) as we grow older. Could we perhaps train specific parts of our brains, and even our children’s brains as they develop? I even worried once about not being able to learn more due to a “full” brain haha! I’ve heard that the parts of the brain that process direction and memory are especially well-developed in taxi drivers.

    I guess there will always be challenges, like what you said about depression and addiction but I’m excited about the potential of treatment based on neuroplasticity for people with brain disorders.

  3. Joshua Munro says:

    Thanks Will! It really is incredible, and I was also extremely fascinated when i read that their brain appears to visually interpret auditory information. Haha don’t stop learning 😀

  4. William Coates says:

    Really interesting stuff Josh. The fact that some people can echo-locate blows me away. It’s good to know there is still hope for me to learn new stuff, even when I’m much older. Cheers

  5. Joshua Munro says:

    Hey Charles! Very interesting comment! ‘Maintaining’ neuroplasticity is something i’m not sure about, because very little is still known about how our brains ability to plasticise decreases with age, but its very possible that playing games trains certain cognitive functions in which we’d see a neuro-plastic response in certain parts of our brain. This could very much be related to improved hand-eye coordination, problem solving, memory and attention, accompanied by associated structural changes in the brain.

    I’ve also seen some videos of cognitive and functional training games – e.g. improving the physical functions of people with cerebral palsey. That’s an incredible area of science, and definitely connects to my previous blog on Virtual Reality. I’m excited to see where these studies take us all!

    Haha that’s a totally awesome idea thanks 😀

  6. Suan Tan says:

    I wonder if playing games help in maintaining the brain’s neuroplasticity too?
    If we’re constantly being asked to learn and re-learn skills through games, it’s something that we do while having fun too so we’d naturally be engaged.
    I believe doctors have used games to help the disabled regain certain core skills too! With VR coming in, a study into Neuroplasticity and effects of engaging in a virtual environment could be useful. You could then study how visual material vs engagement in activities (playing the game) sparks activity in people suffering from brain issues.

    You should totally do this talk on your youtube channel too!