Mould and redesign your brain at any age during our lifetime
Professor Ramakrishnan, age 75, retired at the age of 65 from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, after an active life of teaching and research. He never had interest in music, but about a year ago, he wanted to learn to play the piano. He discussed his newly found interest with his wife. She expressed her surprise and remarked,
“At this age, you want to learn piano! How is it possible?”
After a few days, he bought a piano and engaged a teacher for lessons. To everyone’s surprise, he learned to play remarkably well in just 10 days, and within three months had become a virtuoso. Somehow or other, he had learned an altogether new skill at the age of 75, with practice.
Like the Professor, senior citizens in large numbers learn new skills, develop new hobbies, start pursuing new interests, and gain admission to learning institutions to pursue their interests. Inspiringly enough, we all have an inherent capacity to undertake any new task or learn new things in life at any age, thanks to neuroplasticity, the plastic nature of our brain.
Whenever we think, act, or react, various brain areas get excited and “charged up,” due to neural firing. Each and every thought we experience changes the structure and function of our brain at the micro level by altering the neural connections. Even imagination can produce structural changes in neural pathways. It has been found that simply imagining doing a physical exercise increases muscle strength, because the neurons responsible for the activation of movement are used and get strengthened.
There has recently been a radical change in our understanding of the human brain, especially the way our brain is reshaped in light of continuing experiences. Now researchers say that the brain has potential for change and development throughout one’s lifetime.
It is believed that all experiences make new neural connections which change the structure in various parts of our brain. The brain is highly dynamic and changing all the time. In fact, throughout one’s lifetime, not only are new brain cells/neurons continually being born (neurogenesis), but also changes taking place in brain structure (neuroplasticity).
While neurogenesis refers to the birth of new brain cells, neuroplasticity stands for the brain’s ability to mould and change (plastic nature) because of our experiences. Recent findings suggest that neurogenesis occurs not only during embryonic development, and also until the day we die.
Although we come into this world with a genetically predetermined body, we have enormous potential to structurally and functionally change our brain. This is a paradigm-shattering discovery made by neuroscientists in recent times. For centuries, neuroscientists were of the opinion that our brain is immutable, unchangeable, and static, and that therefore whatever genes we inherit from our parents would to a large extent control our destiny.
Now the fact is, we are all amazingly empowered to change ourselves. Mind has unlimited potential to upgrade itself to learn and create new skills, behaviour patterns, belief systems, etc. We actually have the capacity to remould and rebuild certain regions of our brain. Neurologists call this “brain plasticity” or “neuroplasticity,” which refers to changes in the brain via modification in neural pathways and synapses.
As we learn to adapt to changes in our life, our brain also changes, both structurally as well as functionally. With each new thought, we begin to create a new neural pathway along which information travels through the neurons (nerve cells) of the brain. With every repetition of a thought or emotion, we reinforce that pathway. These small changes, that are repeated frequently, lead to changes in how our brain works.
What is neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is like a “muscle-building exercise” of the brain. By this process, we gain experience and develop mastery of that particular activity or skill. When we don’t repeat certain activities, we lose those pathways. That is the physical basis of how we develop and improve our skills, expertise, capability, efficiency, and competence. Over time, it becomes automatic, a part of us.
All around us are living examples demonstrating the power of neuroplasticity. People at the age of 90-plus are running marathons, learning new skills, and performing difficult exercises. Age is no bar for any activity or skill which is performed by youngsters. Buddha, around 2600 years ago, rightly preached that
“we are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think.”
Now it has been proved by neuroscientists that we do indeed have the ability to become what we think or intend. We have the ultimate tool to fulfil our dreams and, in turn, our destiny. In earlier times most people assumed that they were too old to learn a new skill or venture into a new area. Not so now: within each one of us is the innate potential to design and shape our destiny.
Consistency is the key.
This remodelling of brain structure and function through neuroplasticity continues throughout life. Our behaviour and thought patterns evolve (or may, devolve) with the passage of time. We also adapt to new experiences, learn new information, and create new memories. Our mind has infinite capacity to learn and bring about permanent changes in our brain all through our lives.
As a result, we are constantly being shaped by our experiences. We can therefore be encouraged by the fact that at any age of life, we are capable of learning, practicing, and improving any skills. Brain plasticity does not significantly decrease with age.
Earlier, scientists were of the opinion that as we age, our ability to form new neural pathways decreases and therefore brain plasticity decreases. Research in recent years has established that as we age, the rate of change in the brain, or neuroplasticity, does decline but does not stop.
We further know that new neurons can appear in certain parts of the brain until the day we die. However, as we age, our brain size decreases, particularly in forebrain (frontal cortex). In any case, through the power of neuroplasticity, we can start transforming our life at any stage of time by venturing into any new areas of learning. Through physically rewiring our brain, we can change our lives.