Many people believe that you are either born smart or not. Certainly, we are all capable of learning new things but is the ability to learn fixed at birth or can it be expanded?
The area of brain plasticity investigates the way the brain physically changes in response to certain experiences or stimuli. Previously, it was thought that the brain was a static organ. Decades of research has discovered that this is not the case. The brain actually can and does physiologically (functionally) and anatomically (structurally) change throughout our lifetimes. In this piece, we will explain how the brain changes in response to certain experiences or stimuli. In the next installment, we will discuss how to stimulate brain plasticity and what affect it has on learning and memory.
There are two general areas of brain plasticity: developmental plasticity and learning/memory related plasticity. Developmental plasticity refers to the way the brain develops naturally (though it can be stimulated or deteriorated through environment) throughout life. From birth through the early years of life, the number of synapses relating to each neuron increases over 600% (to a point twice the amount of the average adult) because we learn so many new things necessary for survival and growth. As we grow older, these synapses decrease through a process called pruning, where weaker and less used synapses deteriorate and die.
Learning/memory related plasticity refers to how the brain changes in reaction to learning and memory related tasks. Learning can be defined as the ability to acquire new knowledge or skills through instruction or experience. Memory is the process by which that knowledge is retained over time, whether short term or long term. Both processes seem to expand the number of synapses and their related connections.
To recap, the brain actually changes physiologically and anatomically throughout life and through the learning and memory processes. In a future post, we will discuss how you can “train your brain” to increase learning capacity bad knowledge.