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Neuroplasticity: 10 ways to rewire your brain

By CLAUDIA BERMUDEZ-HYUN, The Philippine STAR Published Dec 06, 2022 5:00 am

"You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Most of us are familiar with that old saying, often used to suggest that aging limits the brain from learning new things. 

Whoever created this proverb in the early 18th century had no clue about the concept of neuroplasticity. 

This term became popular in the mid-1960s after Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Kornorski observed changes in neuronal structure, discovering that neurons could “reorganize” themselves after a traumatic event and that “stress and trauma could change not only the functions, but also the structure of the brain itself.” 

To fully understand its definition, it helps to break down the actual term. The word “neuro” refers to the brain, nerve, or nervous system, and “plasticity” is the ability to bend or be molded into any shape; in this case, how your brain and nerve cells can elastically “stretch” and change in the name of overall brain function. 

Simply put, neuroplasticity is a normal brain function, a fascinating mental capability we all possess, waiting to be shaped by our life and our experiences. While the brain usually does this itself in response to injury or disease, when humans focus their attention enough, they can slowly rewire these pathways themselves.

The good news is that studies now prove that we can continue creating new neural pathways until the day we die.

What we do, fear, or think doesn’t have to be permanent. We can change.

Thanks to neuroplasticity, it is possible for the brain to learn at any age. It is not a trait that infants monopolize or something we will lose one day.

“It is a general misconception that the human brain stops developing after the age of seven,” says Dr. Romie Mushtaq. “And while it is accurate that the number of new brain connections between neurons slows down in adulthood, neuroplasticity is still very much present,” she confirms.

According to researchers, there are two major brain regions where you can increase neuroplasticity. These have the ability to continually give birth to new neurons in adults: the hippocampus, connected to long-term and spatial memory; and the cerebellum, connected to coordination and muscle memory.

These parts of our brain are responsible for most of our memory and both of these regions have the highest rate of neurogenesis, i.e. neuron production.

What we do, fear, or think doesn’t have to be permanent. We can change. Every time we do or learn something new, our brain has created a new connection and repetition reinforces that connection. 

It’s never too late to optimize our brain function. Adopting strategies that nurture brain health is always worthwhile, no matter how old we are. Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach, adopting some of the following strategies can help nurture and rewire our brains for as long as we are alive. 

How to boost our brain’s plasticity

We are all capable of creating new pathways to allow our brains to change and learn. Consider adopting some of the following practices to help your neuronal structure strive.

Establish goals, root passions, and clarity. Do this by using mindfulness, introspection, and awareness of what is positively and negatively influencing your life and therefore your brain. Ask yourself some of the following questions to help you identify your true underlying passions, goals, and consequently what things challenge and engage your brain the most. Ponder them for a long while, write the answers down, and truly think what are the things you want to achieve, need to achieve, and find joy doing. Mapping out your inner thoughts will allow you to head toward them coherently.

Identify a few core passions and goals, pick a few challenging activities that facilitate them, and integrate them into your weekly calendar.
  • What inspires you?
  • What are your regrets?
  • What is the biggest challenge you are facing?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What’s a significant event in your life that helped to define you?
  • Choose three words to describe yourself.

Practice cognitive exercises. Like any other muscle in your body, you either use it or lose it. Keeping your brain engaged and consistently rewiring itself is key to not only your long-term cognitive functioning, but also your overall well-being.

It has been proven that cognitive exercise can physically change the hippocampus and the cerebellum. A great example is The Knowledge test, an assessment that requires London cab drivers to memorize 26,000 streets and 50,000 landmarks within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross in London.

Keeping your brain engaged and consistently rewiring itself is key to not only your long-term cognitive functioning, but also your overall well-being.

Scientists found significant changes in the hippocampus structure to accommodate the huge amount of navigating experience that cab drivers had in comparison to the average person.

Neuroscientist and physiotherapist Dr. Lara Boyd, whose cognitive work also expands to cancer patients, explains, “Your brain is being shaped by everything you do, but also what you don’t do. Cognitive exercise includes the likes of learning a language, learning how to play an instrument, following a recipe, or playing an effective brain-training game such as the scientifically proven Hawk Eye.”

It’s never too late to optimize our brain function. Adopting strategies that nurture brain health is always worthwhile, no matter how old we are.

It’s wise to keep cognitive exercise regular and consistent and add variety when you can, such as nipping into a dance class you wouldn’t normally go to, or cooking a different recipe every weekday.

Stay socially connected. By spending more time with people who align with your core values, you’re more likely to create meaningful growth experiences for yourself and increase your neuroplasticity. Carefully select your circle of influence. Surround yourself with like-minded people who will push you to focus on your growth, goals, and health. These are the people who will help you navigate your goals and passions.

The importance of social interaction has a huge impact on your mental, emotional, and physical health.

The more you spend time with the right people and activities, the more you’ll find yourself living with energy and triggering the active, decision-making part of your brain. The importance of social interaction, especially among seniors, has a huge impact on your mental, emotional, and physical health. This type of alignment can prove to be a powerful recipe for your brain health.

Get plenty of rest. Sleep plays an important role in dendritic growth in the brain. Dendrites are the growths at the end of neurons that help transmit information from one neuron to the next. By strengthening these connections you may be able to encourage greater brain plasticity. You can improve your sleep by practicing good routine habits. This includes developing a consistent schedule and creating an environment that contributes to proper slumber.

You can improve your sleep by practicing good routine habits.

Eat good food. Healthy diets nurture brain plasticity and are essential for brain function, not only because they provide the fuel that supports the high energy demands of the brain, but also because they provide many of the ingredients that are required for neuroplasticity and the building of new cellular structures.

A balanced diet, mostly plant-based, that includes proper amounts of both fruits and vegetables, protein, omegas, and grains, is recommended. Cut out empty-calorie foods such as processed foods, cookies, sodas, and sugar.

Healthy diets nurture brain plasticity and are essential for brain function.

Prioritize your exercise routine. Physical exercise in itself doesn’t cause neuroplasticity, but it does increase blood supply to the hippocampus, our long-term spatial and memory hub, which can be increased with neuroplasticity. The general verdict is the more you exercise, the easier optimizing neuroplasticity should become.

Among the huge pool of physical exercises promising to sharpen your cognitive toolkit, remember that less is more. Identify a few core passions and goals, pick a few challenging activities that facilitate them, and integrate them into your weekly calendar. Power walks, bike rides, dancing classes, yoga, and boxing can be considered. Anything that gives you a cardio workout and helps you break out in a sweat.

 The more you exercise, the easier optimizing neuroplasticity should become.

Finally, add in a few spontaneous, rich new experiences from time to time, and your brain’s resilience will be enhanced significantly. Depth over breadth in activities is key. For example, investing time in a skill in order to advance in it is important, so your brain is challenged to memorize what you’ve learned and learn additional new things, simultaneously. 

Start playing. Games aren’t just for kids. Studies show that playing board, card, video, and other games can improve your brain’s neuroplasticity. There are a variety of activities that can be classified as “brain games,” which are anything that stimulates your brain. Each practice can improve different cognitive functions like memory, problem-solving, and critical thinking. These include crossword puzzles, chess, Sudoku, or bridge. Try to find a variety of mentally stimulating activities that you enjoy so you will be more likely to keep up with doing them regularly.

Playing board, card, video, and other games can improve your brain’s neuroplasticity.

Make some music. Research suggests that music, especially when combined with dance and exercise, helps promote neuroplasticity. Studies show that people who play an instrument often have better audio and visual perception, greater focus, sharper memory, and higher motor coordination.

It’s never too late. Online tutorials can help you get started, especially if you don’t want to splurge on lessons before you are sure what instrument you want to concentrate on.

Research suggests that music, especially when combined with dance and exercise, helps promote neuroplasticity.

Not very musical? That’s okay, too. Even listening to music more regularly can help increase brain neuroplasticity. So turn on your favorite playlist more often, or better yet, stop listening to your favorites and those “best of” albums and discover and dance to some new tunes and lyrics—it’s good for your brain. 

It’s wise to keep cognitive exercise regular and consistent and add variety when you can, such as nipping into a dance class you wouldn’t normally go to, or cooking a different recipe every weekday.

Visit new places. If you enjoy travel, here’s one more reason to get out and explore somewhere new. Visiting new places may help enhance cognitive flexibility, inspire you, and enhance creativity. 

Experiencing new scenery, weather, and surroundings can also help you learn about different cultures and become a better communicator, both of which can have additional cognitive benefits, opening your mind and giving you a new perspective on things closer to home, like career goals, friendships, or personal values.

Visiting new places may help enhance cognitive flexibility, inspire you, and enhance creativity. 

If you can’t get out into the wider world right now, don’t worry. You can still take yourself on a trip closer to home. 

Create art. Creating art helps you see and understand the world in new, unique ways. You might want to learn how to use colors and art media to sort through and express emotions, share personal experiences or get a deeper insight into your struggles.

Drawing, painting, and coloring directly benefit your brain by enhancing creativity and improving cognitive abilities. They also help create new pathways and strengthen existing connections in your brain, leading to better cognitive function overall. 

Like many skills, artistic abilities often improve with time and practice.

Even if you believe you have no artistic talent, try it anyway. Like many skills, artistic abilities often improve with time and practice. Get yourself a clean canvas, some acrylic paints and brushes, and practice your strokes. Remember, many famous artists were self-taught. Give it a try, for your brain’s sake. 

Yes, experts previously believed that after a given point in life, our brain could no longer change or develop further. Now we are all being made aware this isn’t true. 

Opening ourselves to a mindset of learning new things is how to increase neuroplasticity. So start now.