What is Neuroplasticity: How Does It Work, Training & Benefits

Blog post cover image.

europlasticity helps to keep neural connections in the brain flexible. Structural changes affect your memory, processing speed, and make learning faster.

There are proven methods that increase plasticity and the health of the brain.

Research shows that exercising and new skills help to increase productivity, processing speed, and learning rate.

In this article, you will learn what is neuroplasticity, how to increase it, and how to improve brain performance in the long run.

## What is neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity, also knowns as brain plasticity, is the ability of neural networks to change their connections and structure through growth and reorganization.

Changes result from education, environment, learning a new skill and experience.

Brain plasticity was considered a feature of a developing brain. Recent studies show that neural connections and their structure can change even during adulthood. The more you age, though, the harder it becomes to alter.

Strong connections are expensive for the brain to alter. That is why people learn less and only reinforce the established knowledge and believes. Without a proper reason in the midbrain's reward system economy, structural changes are not [motivated](https://www.maray.ai/posts/motivation-reward-system-economy).

The good news is the more you train flexibility in neural pathways, the easier comes [learning](https://www.maray.ai/posts/my-favorite-way-to-learn-and-retain-knowledge) and the necessary changes.

Neuroplasticity definition

## How does neuroplasticity works?

The difference between humans and other animals is in preprogrammed behavior and instincts. Most mammals are capable of taking care of themselves from birth. Humans, in contrast, can perform only basic things like breathing and learning. They need more care than other mammals. Evolution traded off the ability to have higher survival chances at birth to a flexible brain because of the ability to learn.

> Neuroplasticity is the reflection of your experience captures in the neural network.

When you learn or encounter experience, new neural connections form in the brain to reflect the new knowledge. The more you use the learned knowledge, the stronger become the synapses between neurons. In other words, the repeated experience is remembered better. Oppositely, neurons with little use diminish in time and lose the synapse.

There are two types of neuroplasticity:

1. **Structural plasticity.** The brain’s ability to change the physical structure (such as crevices in the neocortex) and the neural connection by increasing the volume and optimizing the network.

   For instance, when a person loses sight, the whole space used for visual processing becomes idle. Since the area is limited in the brain, it tries to use up the space that is not put into work. As a consequence, other senses become stronger as they utilize the processing power of the idle region in the brain.

2. **Functional plasticity.** The ability of the brain to move a function from one area to another. As space and resources are limited, the brain tries to utilize all the available resources it can.

   Structural plasticity refers to actual physical changes that can occur in the brain. For instance, piano players have enlargements that are associated with the motor functions of the fingers.

   Structural changes also involve changes in neuronal connections and the integration of newborn neurons into the nervous system.

## Why do you need neuroplasticity?

The space and area in the brain are limited. The reason why the neocortex looks wrinkled is that it expands the area while keeping the volume of the skull. Flexibility is simply an effective use of the given area. Structural changes allow using the available space in the brain.

> The flexibility allowed human beings to adapt to different conditions, whether environmental or social. We learned to live in cold climates, during wars, and under dictatorships, thanks to neuroplasticity.

The ability to change neural connections and their structure are used to increase the survival rate. However, it also helps to rewire the brain, learn new skills, and adapt to our fast-changing world.

Since the industrial revolution, the world is changing at an unimaginable speed. Something that was true years ago becomes irrelevant.

To keep up, you should be flexible to adjust to the occurring changes.

### 1. Health

Physical exercises promote neurogenesis and produce compounds that are essential for neural growth and survival. Neurogenesis in the hippocampus is proved to improve spatial memory.

Consistent aerobic exercises improve executive functions and increase gray matter in the brain regions responsible for cognitive control.

Physical fitness is associated with faster processing speed.

### 2. Performance

[Activity-dependent plasticity](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Activity-dependent_plasticity) is effective in [learning](https://www.maray.ai/posts/my-favorite-way-to-learn-and-retain-knowledge) and understanding new things. Demanding activities help to adapt the brain to novel information and function.

> "In essence, the brain can retain and develop memories based on activity-driven changes of synaptic strength that allow stronger learning of information." - Wikipedia.

Changes in the neural structure take a lot of energy, and when they are not justified, the [midbrain's reward system](https://www.maray.ai/posts/motivation-reward-system-economy) will not motivate you for such demanding tasks. That is why learning is harder for adults and easier for children.

You might recall how many times you wanted to give up on learning something challenging because it was too hard. The brain needs a good reason to spend energy to rewire the network and to reflect the new knowledge. The principle in learning is to increment the complexity and not to overwhelm the brain. A gradual increase in difficulty will promote small but necessary changes without a burden for the brain.

### 3. Keep up with the fast-changing world.

The world we live in changes faster than ever before. Technologies that are relevant today can be outdated in 5-10 years. Something we knew to be true might be outdated soon.

If you do not adapt to the environment, then you will likely fail. Neuroplasticity is a feature that helps to keep up with the changing variables. But it evolved under different circumstances. It was never meant to keep up with the fast-changing world we live in now. Therefore, there is an additional reason to train neuroplasticity so that you can adapt and keep up.

There is an excuse for the former generations that are not good with the technologies. They simply did not have them when they grew up. Now, they have to rewire their brains to make use of the tech. It proves extremely hard.

Imagine that you can be in the same position as they are now. You grew with technologies but may end up just like them. The same way computers evolved from manual machines size of a room to pocket-size tablets and phones, they can evolve into something yet unimaginable.

Perhaps we will have devices that input and read directly from the brain. To stay in steps with the times you have to train neuroplasticity to adapt better.

### 4. Worldview.

Decreased brain plasticity affects your political and life views.

We become more conservative as we age. The neural connections and structure become stronger. The experience reinforces the connections. However, life is changing, and your beliefs should adapt to reflect the new state of the world.

For instance, elder people have stronger beliefs because they were reinforced by relevant experiences during their youth. Decreased neuroplasticity does not allow for changes to keep up with the changing world. Views that formed years ago become aged and irrelevant. They apply outdated knowledge to the current world, and misaligned values bring unsatisfied results.

Types of brain plasticity

## Why does neuroplasticity decrease with age?

In the first two years, children develop the maximum number of synaptic connections. Synapses reflect the overwhelming knowledge that all the senses input to the brain.

As you mature, half of the synapses become pruned if they prove unnecessary.

> "You become who you are not because of what grows in your brain, but because of what is remove." David Eagleman, Brain: The Story of You

Synapses that are actively used become stronger. Others diminish in strength and eventually are eliminated. You develop and establish your core values and knowledge the more you learn and see. Experience makes connections stronger.

Aging, unfortunately, declines neuroplasticity in the brain. The years of experience formed the backbone of your worldview. You become more confident in the knowledge of the reality you live in. Nothing or little can shake your beliefs.

Fortunately, neuroplasticity can be increased by exercising, learning, and acquiring unique skills.

## Neuroplasticity in psychology

Everything you experience is reflected in the neural network.

The way synapses are connected define the personality or certain traits. In the early ages of brain development, each synapse can have in total 15000 different connections. Once you learn, experience, and develop, certain connections become stronger and others get eliminated.

One of the core functions of neuroplasticity is to adapt to the environment. The positive experience reinforces behavior by creating new connections. Traumatic experience creates defensive mechanisms to cope with similar situations in the future. Fear and joy are reactions to learned experience.

Changing traits are possible due to neuroplasticity. The same way we acquire fears, we can work to alter the defined synaptic connections to feel a different response to a stimulus.

### How can neuroplasticity help anxiety and depression?

All this means that the brain is capable to change our reactions to certain events. Rewiring your brain to a certain stimulus can lead to different behavior.

For instance, if a dog bites you at an early age, most certainly you feel develop a fear of dogs. Neurons in the brain will be wired in a way to always respond with fear to avoid similar traumatic experiences in the future.

Its goal is to protect you and maximize the chances of survival. It was useful for our ancestors to learn and not repeat the same mistakes. However, it can cause more harm now.

The difference is that most of the traumatic experiences are rather exceptions than rules. An aggressive stray dog that made you fear all other dogs is likely an event that will never happen again. This kind of behavior is driven by our ancient limbic system.

The limbic system works automatically. It does not operate with the modern world variables and only takes into account threats to your existence. Depression, [anxiety](https://www.maray.ai/posts/why-you-should-listen-to-your-time-anxiety), and fears are symptoms of experience that once were wired by the limbic system.

However, thanks to neural plasticity and cognitive effort you can rewire your brain to help your anxiety or depression.

### How to rewire the brain to think differently

The ability to change can be used to alter thinking, whether it is more creative or positive thinking that you want.

Through self-directed neuroplasticity or work with psychologists, it is possible to find the underlying reasons and to change your response.

Instead of fear, you can rewire your brain to respond with understanding and knowledge. Instead of depression or anxiety, you can cope with rationalism and logic. Instead of stereotypical thinking, you can develop original thoughts and [creativity](https://www.maray.ai/posts/the-secrets-of-creativity).

Here are several steps that can help to think differently.

1. Understand that your negative response is a defense mechanism that your brain utilizes to protect you from similar experiences. The negative response is captured in the corresponding neural synapses. It is a bunch of neurons connected that tell you to respond the way you do.
2. Internalize the fact, that this type of defense is not useful anymore. Knowledge is much more powerful than an automatic emotional response. It’s not life-threatening to have an opinion that is different from an established one. Fear of failure or shame only hinders you from new experiences and changes that can occur in the brain. Negative thinking, as a reaction, does not bring anything valuable to your life.
3. The more you believe in the way you think, the more you establish stronger neural connections harder they are to break. It’s a long process to make things move. Be patient.
4. Start small by first addressing overall neuroplasticity. Unique skills will move the grounds and you will start noticing changes. Things you considered as an inseparable part of you will show as replaceable.
5. Take the chance to alter your worldview on things that you always wished to change. The more you train neuroplasticity, the easier it will be to sculpt your identity. You will become the sculptor instead of the automatic limbic system that we inherited from our ancestors.
6. Move from one issue to another slowly unrolling the threads.

It takes time, but it is possible to shift the way of thinking in the opposite direction. There are many instances of successful identity transformations and I am a good example.

I used to think negatively and in established patterns. Once I started to think about it and take steps to change them, I became more positive and creative in my life and work.

7 effective ways to increase brain plasticity

## How exercises improve brain performance

Structural changes form new pathways. The new pathways are used to perform a task. Exercises that focus on the speed and the structural changes are beneficial for brain activity.

Exercises that involve training memory strengthen recollection of specific information, rather than remembering better.

Exercises and training should be coupled with rewards and attention to drive the changes in the brain. To motivate the brain, it should be perceived as beneficial for the limbic system. As rewiring and structural changes are costly, it should be justified. Attention and deliberate practice make changes more effective.

To improve overall brain performance and processing speed you have to focus on exercises that train concentration, performance, processing speed.

## Best and the most effective neuroplasticity examples

Many examples show the ability of the brain to adapt and change.

1. **Environment**. People adapt to different conditions. The human race successfully colonized every continent. Hot and cold weather. Democratic and dictatorship societies. Freedom and slavery.
2. **Education**. Music enlarges certain areas of the brain. Involving fingers and hearing promotes changes in the neural structure and enhances connections with different parts of the brain.
3. **Psychology**. Neuroplasticity creates negative responses to traumatic events but due to the brain's plasticity, it is possible to rewire the brain and change the reaction to previous negative experiences.
4. **Cognitive decline**. Mental and physical exercises help to keep the brain malleable and increase neurogenesis over time. Retired people have less brain activity and accelerate age-related cognitive decline.
5. **Learning a new language**. People who know and use more than one language perform better, have longer attention spans, and analytical skills. Research shows that the benefits are caused by improved neuroplasticity.

## What is neurogenesis?

Neurogenesis is the process of forming new neurons. It is most active in embryonic development but also occurs in adults.

Adult neurogenesis happens in several regions of the brain, such as the hippocampus and the amygdala. Neurogenesis in the hippocampus affects memory, spatial learning, and mood.

A 2017 [study](https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2019.01000/full) on mice showed that consistent physical exercises promote neural generation and development. The exercises also help to integrate newly born neurons in the aging brain. The effects of physical exercises accumulated and promoted further neurogenesis.

Depression and aging, on the other hand, decrease the formation of neurons.

## 7 most effective exercises that stimulate and enhance neuroplasticity

Most of the exercises promote structural changes in the brain because of their uniqueness. Experience-based brain plasticity occurs when an individual learns or practices a skill that is unique to him or her.

The more challenging an experience appears the more structural changes and new connections your brain makes.

However, the difficulty is not the primary factor. To successfully learn a skill you have to take it slow and let your brain keep up with the changes and the new information. Plan and increment the changes. Do not let the difficulty overwhelm and demotivate you.

### 1. Be open to new experiences

To propagate the changes in the existing neural structure you must practice skills that are unique to you. The brain creates new pathways and changes its structure to adapt to new experiences. Learning new information creates new pathways and new memories. It alters old ones and adds new perspectives.

### 2. Multilingualism

The benefit of multilingualism is well-researched. Bilinguals tend to have a larger attention span, better cognitive functions, and stronger organizational skills.

Another advantage is a better understanding of the theory of mind as different languages give different perspectives on how the human brain thinks. Knowing that certain words sound similar in different languages gives a clearer understanding of the brain's nature.

Unique language knowledge attributes to brain plasticity. Language's logic, grammar, and pronunciation promote corresponding enhancements in different parts of the brain.

The demand for communicating in different languages requires a more efficient and optimized neural structure. As a consequence, it results in higher processing speed as the axon's myelination increases.

If you know a Latin based language, a more valuable and plasticity driving language would be an Asian language, which has a different grammar, sounds, and logic.

### 3. Learn to play a musical instrument.

A study by Justin Ker and Stephen Nelson showed that playing music [enhances auditory, motor, and language processing](https://kosmospublishers.com/the-effects-of-musical-training-on-brain-plasticity-and-cognitive-processes/) parts of the brain. The positive effect of neuroplasticity happens when the brain needs to optimize the established neural structure and enhance the connections to perform the task.

Another study by Hyde et al. demonstrated that children develop structural brain changes in 15 months of piano lessons. The research also showed that musicians are better at planning, motor functions, and auditory processing compared to non-musicians.

The area marked with red is the Omega Sign (or knob). Professional right-handed string players have this region enlarged.

Einstein's brain omega sign

The area marked with red is the Omega Sign (or knob). Professional right-handed string players have this region enlarged.

When Einstein died, his brain was stolen and later studied. Nothing extraordinary was found except the enlargement of an area in the brain called Omega Sign. This enlargement is usually associated with professional string-players. Einstein's had lessons on the violin in his childhood years. The practice resulted in the structural change of his brain and enlargement of the area that is the primary motor cortex for the left hand.

Musical instruments involve different parts of the brain and their activity evokes changes in neural connections and the structure of the network.

### 4. Meditate.

Several studies linked the increase in gray matter and cortical thickness [link to wiki] to meditation. [Richard Davidson](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Davidson), a neuroscientist, conducted experiments in collaboration with Dalai Lama on the effects of meditation on the brain. He suggests that meditation can lead to activities in the brain that are associated with attention, anxiety, depression, and fear. These changes might be caused by structural changes and the activity in the brain.

### 5. Do things that are out of your comfort zone

Make things differently, brush teeth with your other hand, take another route home, reverse a routine, or a ritual. In other words, every task that you do in a unique way promotes neuroplasticity.

Comfort zone is a psychological term that defines activities and believes that are strongly associated with your identity. Doing something that breaks out of it, for instance learning a new skill, forms new connections in the brain, and optimizes the established neural network.

### 6. Form a new habit

New habits are costly for the brain as they require new pathways and new connections in the brain. Similar to new skills, habits form connections that are unique to your brain's network and help to automate the processing by creating stronger connections.

Breaking an old habit also propagates changes in the brain's circuitry and makes it possible for other more productive and healthy habits to form.

### 7. Travel

Experience in different parts of the world is beneficial for neuroplasticity. The more you know, the closer is your worldview to reality. Exploring new places benefit spatial memory, give new insights, and enhances knowledge about the world. All of this requires changes in the brain to establish new connections.

## Long-term potentiation on brain performance

If exercising, learning a new skill, or speaking a couple of languages do not appear as benefits by themselves, then you might want to know that all the abovementioned activities increase brain performance in the long run as well.

Every task, whether it is playing an instrument or exercising your body improves general processing speed. Due to the limited capacity of the brain, the new information has to be better integrated into your current neural network. To do so, the brain optimizes the connections to increase performance.

Learning an instrument influences the auditory cortex, which in turn makes learning a language easier. Since your hearing is improved, understanding new sounds in another language requires less effort.

Training peripheral vision and attention speed can affect focus in sports and your reaction speed.

The flexibility of the brain can also keep you afloat when new dramatic changes happen to the world, such as the next technological revolution or the dominance of AI.

If your brain is fixed on the current state of the world, it will be much harder to adapt to upcoming changes.

To avoid being conservative in your views and stay closer to the changing reality it’s crucial to develop and gain new knowledge.

## Neuroplastic changes result in sharper cognition, memory, and attention

More connections result in higher creativity. Associations are essential in creativity. More connections equal more associations.

Neuroplasticity also leads to better [diffuse thinking](https://www.maray.ai/posts/here-is-what-you-can-learn-from-learning-how-to-learn-course#toc-how-our-brain-works), i.e. connecting different regions of the brain to get an insight.

Many complex concepts involve different areas. To easier understand new information, the brain has to effectively connect pieces of information. Optimized neural networks and their plasticity make it easier.

Focused thinking benefits from neuroplasticity as well. Exercising tends to increase the attention span which directly affects how long you can focus on a task. Longer attention spans result in deeper work and better productivity.

## Final thoughts

Neural plasticity is a feature that evolution gifted us. It makes humans beings vulnerable in the early ages of development but gives us a huge benefit in the long run. Its ability to adapt the brain to changes let our civilization to prosper on every continent and under different conditions.

Nowadays, it helps us to reflect changes of the modern world. Without plasticity, we would have been programmed to live certain lives. Any change in the variables would decrease survival chances.

Fortunately, you can harness its potential to improve performance and defer age-related cognitive decline.

Now that you know what is neural plasticity, you can make yourself more [productive](https://www.maray.ai/posts/productive-sabbatical), work with psychological issues, and keep your brain healthy for as long as possible.

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