For more than four centuries it was a common held belief that our brains only developed during childhood and then grew rigid during adulthood lending false credence to the old adage, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” But researchers are continuing to prove that this outdated theory is not accurate and are providing us proof that the human brain can change itself through mental stimuli, brain fitness, and new learning.
Neuroplasticity is the cortical re-mapping of our nerve cells, the process that helps us continually learn. It refers to the ability of the brain to act and react as we experience a change in our environment or develop a new skill.
It is estimated that the ever-changing, neuroplastic characteristics of our brain influence over 100 billion of our nerve cells over a lifetime. When we engage our brain in new ways, we create new pathways for neural communication. As adults, what we learn and adapt to throughout life rearranges our existing neurons. Thus, neuroplasticity is what enables learning, memory, and adaptation through our experience with the world around us.
In Dr. Joenna Driemeyer’s popular research about the cognitive effects of learning how to juggle, Driemeyer’s research team concluded that, “the qualitative change (i.e. learning of a new task) is more critical for the brain to change its structure than continued training of an already-learned task.” Furthermore, recent discoveries in neuroplasticity are paving the way for treatment of neurologic injury and disease, something that until recently was unexplored because of a lack of evidence regarding neuroplasticity.
The moral of the story is that it is important to engage in new activities. Exercising your brain is as important as exercising your body. If you continue to build your cognitive reserve through mental practice and a healthy lifestyle you are likely to maintain your brain’s plasticity, and your ability to learn, as you age.