Neuroplasticity. Eat, drink, and be merry.
Although there are still a lot of unsolved mysteries about our complex biological computer inside our skull, we now know that our brain is flexible and we are able to change the physical structure in various ways.
When we are born, the surface of our brain, the grey matter or cerebral cortex, is like a blank board. The adult brain has areas called lobes, with different functionalities. The frontal lobe is, for example, one of the most important for our more human feelings, consciousness, and rational thoughts.
The brain is the most flexible when we are children. Since we are not born with a fully developed brain, it is still growing, creating new neurons, and new paths between them.
But even when the adult brain is fully matured and developed at the age of 25 years, it is still possible to change and reorganize it — and hence change and develop yourself, alter your thought patterns, change your habits.
Our brain can structurally be rearranged by:
- Generating new neurons
- Creating new synapses to connect neurons
- Strengthen and weaken existing connections
Let’s consider each of these, what they are for and how you can use this knowledge for self-improvement.
1. Generate new neurons
Creating new neurons (brain cells) in your brain is also called neurogenesis. This mostly happens in the early development of your brain and at a very low scale after your brain has reached maturity.
Until about a decade ago, it was believed that the adult brain didn’t produce any new neurons. But the latest research shows that certain regions of your brain will continuously generate new neurons from neural stem cells:
- Lateral ventricles, responsible for producing a protective cerebrospinal fluid into your brain.
- Part of the hippocampus (dentate gyrus), which is mainly known for its long-term memory processing functionality.
What does it mean for you?
It is still uncertain what the role of adult neurogenesis, but there is some evidence that the new neurons in the hippocampus might be important for our ability to learn and remember.
Other studies show that a decrease in new neurons can trigger Alzheimer’s. Neurogenesis will help you to keep your memory sharp.
How can you stimulate neurogenesis?
- Exercise seems to be the number one thing you can do for your mind and your body and this also shows to be true in this case. Physical exercise increases the generation of new neurons in adult neurogenesis.
- Eat oily fish: Omega-3 fatty acids upregulate adult neurogenesis.
- Eat walnuts and blueberries: Walnuts also contain an essential omega-3 acid. Blueberries are blue due to anthocyanin dye, which has been linked to neurogenesis.
- Green tea will also help you generate more neurons in your brain.
- Get enough sleep, as long term sleep deprivation might reduce neurogenesis.
- Meditate: Long term meditation and yoga practice might also stimulate neurogenesis.
2. Create new, strengthen or weaken existing neural connections
Neural connections — the connections between your brain cells — are one of the most important factors in your ability to cognitive thinking.
As opposed to neurogenesis, new neural connections are created all the time. New synapses are being created when we learn or experience something new and hence there are new possible neural connections and paths between the neurons.
When practicing by repetition, you strengthen the connections between specific neurons. It is said: “Neurons that fire together, wire together” (Donald Hebb)
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
What does it mean for you?
If you don’t use or practice your new skill, the connection will be lost. This is why it’s important to practice, rehearse and use your new skills and knowledge if it’s important for you to know it.
On the other hand, if you need to unlearn something or lose some bad habits, you will need to break these connections. It is harder to unlearn than to learn because breaking existing bonds will require that you try to make new connections instead and connections that have been reinforced for a long time (habits and well-established knowledge) are not easily broken.
How can you create and strengthen neural connections?
When you learn and practice a skill, rehearse knowledge or repeat affirmations, the connections and paths between the neurons used in that skill, knowledge or idea, will be strengthened.
Therefore, to create new and stronger neural connections you should learn new things and reinforce them by repetition. To rewire existing connections differently you should get out of your comfort zone:
- Learn a new skill:When we learn something we didn’t know before, existing neurons will make new connections with each other.
- Read:Reading non-fiction will give you new knowledge by creating new connections between your brain cells. But also non-fiction creates new connections because you read about new situations.
- Experience new things: Travel, meet new people, experience different environments, try new foods.
- Experiment or combines things differently. Try a new recipe or combine foods you wouldn’t usually try together.
- Get lost intentionally and find your way back without a GPS. Or choose a different route than you usually do when going places.
- Visualize, for example:Think yourself stronger. A study shows that you can gain some muscle-power by preforming exercise only mentally!
There is of course much more to neuroplasticity. The signals between neurons — the neurotransmitters — are chemicals that highly affect your mood, motivations, thoughts, and your ability to concentrate, to mention a few examples.
The neurotransmitters move in synapses (gaps) between neurons and bind to specific receptors, which induces electrical changes. While the structural paths in our brains are important, it is just as important what actually flows through the neural network.
Just like the structural patterns in your brain, the chemicals can also be affected by your diet and your behavior. So eat, drink, and be merry!