You have probably seen self-help guides or personal development programs touting that they can help you “train your brain.” What? The brain isn’t like a muscle that you can just take to the gym for a work out. You’re stuck with what you’ve got. Right? Wrong.
Brain development is possible
The scientific evidence paints a different picture. While the brain isn’t a muscle, the neural networks within it can be altered on the physical level through changes in behavior, external stimulation, and practice.1 This principle is called neuroplasticity, and it encompasses the brain’s ability to reorganize itself and form new connections or networks based on experience.
Agents of neuroplastic change can be in the form of sensory inputs (sights, sounds, smell, touch, etc.), as well as repeated motor or cognitive activities.
One of the most important factors involved in neuroplasticity is that it requires a sustained change in neural activity patterns. In other words, it is activity dependent.2 If you want your brain to react differently, you have to do something about it.
Although neuroplasticity is now viewed as the most fundamental mechanism underlying the modifiability of behavior3, that was not always the case.
A history of neuroplasticity
Usage of the term “neuronal plasticity” can be traced back to the late 1800’s, when scientists first started to challenge the view that once a person reaches adulthood. there is a fixed number of neurons in the brain and that, when they die, they cannot be replaced. This was a controversial idea at the time, and it sparked a huge influx of research into the topic of neuroplasticity, specifically neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons or synapses).
However, the prevailing view up until only two decades ago was that such extreme changes in the physical or chemical makeup of the brain were limited to a critical period during childhood.3 That idea has since been refuted, with the literature now showing that there can in fact be great neuroplastic change at any age in the life span.4 What’s more, neuroplasticity can be influenced by a number of factors, including exercise, stress, hormones, and environmental enrichment.
When you hear a 40-year-old say, “This is just who I am, I can’t change,” the answer is really, “you can’t if you won’t” – because growth truly is possible!
Musicians. Amputees. What can they teach us about our brains?
Perhaps one of the more well-known explorations of the possibilities of experience-driven neuroplasticity has been the study of the brains of musicians. Professional musicianship represents an extremely complex feat of the human brain and requires a tremendous amount of practice. This makes it a perfect model for studying the level of neuroplastic change which can occur over time. A multitude of studies have shown that compared to non-musicians, musicians have altered cortical representations which are specific to motor coordination and auditory processing.5 Amazingly, researchers have even found that coordinated firing of auditory and motor neurons during piano training exercises is established in only the first several minutes of training, and is consolidated within weeks of continued practice.6,7
An even more fascinating avenue of research involving neuroplasticity is the phenomenon of phantom-limb pain. Up to 80% of individuals who have undergone limb amputation report feeling pain in the limb that is no longer present.8 Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies in both humans and animals have given us new insights into the cause of phantom-limb pain. These studies have focused on the primary somatosensory cortex. This is the area of the brain responsible for processing our sense of touch, including pain, temperature, and proprioception (our sense of where our body is located in space).
This area contains a mapping of all the parts of the body. Within this map, the body parts that require higher sensitivity, such as the fingertips, take up a larger amount of space compared to other body parts. Previously, scientists believed that changes to this sensory map were limited to a brief period during development.8 However, the fMRI research conducted on the phantom-limb phenomenon has shown that a rapid reorganization of the somatosensory cortex can occur after amputation, leading to perceived sensations of pain in a body part that no longer exists.
Our amazing brains can develop!
For example, the area of the somatosensory cortex containing the neurons dedicated to processing sensations in or around the mouth is located just next to the area dedicated to the hand. Following the amputation of a hand, the neurons in the “hand area” will no longer receive any input or activation, since the hand is no longer part of the body. With a lack of activity in the “hand area,” the “mouth area” of the cortex begins to invade it and adopt the now useless hand neurons into the processing of mouth sensations.
There is evidence that the greater the shift in cortical representation following an amputation, the greater the phantom-limb pain in the patient.8 This is an example of the incredible extent to which the adult brain can initiate neuroplastic change that subsequently influences perceptions and behavior.
What this means for Human Capital Management
Neuroplasticity is occurring in our brains every time we experience something new and learn to overcome a new challenge. Reinforcement of learned information is critical to maintain the newly formed neural pathways. And the more something is reinforced, the easier it is for our brains to engage those pathways.
We can use this principle to the advantage of empowering people with the tools to develop better thinking, which will drive better performance at work, and at home. At ThinkX, we stay up to date on the evolving scientific evidence to design personalized strategies aimed at improving performance by improving thinking patterns.
Perspectives on neuroplasticity give us the tools to identify and benchmark the thinking that drives higher performance. We then give you the technology to hire to that benchmark and develop existing employees to the benchmark. This creates an overall lift of the organizational performance, driving engagement and sustainable long-term results.
ThinkX has harnessed the power of the built-in system for adaptation to transform individual thinking and human performance.
By Amanda Tardiff, MSc, ThinkX Neuroscience Specialist with Kim Levings, ThinkX Chief Strategy Officer
1. Ragert, P., Schmidt, A., Altenmüller, E., & Dinse, H. R. (2004). Superior tactile performance and learning in professional pianists: evidence for meta‐plasticity in musicians. European Journal of Neuroscience, 19(2), 473-478.
2. Lillard, A. S., & Erisir, A. (2011). Old Dogs Learning New Tricks: Neuroplasticity Beyond the Juvenile Period. Developmental review: DR, 31(4), 207–239. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2011.07.008
3. Berlucchi, G., & Buchtel, H. A. (2009). Neuronal plasticity: historical roots and evolution of meaning. Experimental brain research, 192(3), 307-319.
4. Shaffer, J. (2016). Neuroplasticity and clinical practice: building brain power for health. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1118.
5. Münte, T. F., Altenmüller, E., & Jäncke, L. (2002). The musician’s brain as a model of neuroplasticity. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 3(6), 473-478.
6. Classen, J., Liepert, J., Wise, S. P., Hallett, M., & Cohen, L. G. (1998).
7. Bangert, M., Haeusler, U., & Altenmüller, E. (2001). On practice: how the brain connects piano keys and piano sounds. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 930(1), 425-428.
8. Flor, H. (2002). Phantom-limb pain: characteristics, causes, and treatment. The Lancet Neurology, 1(3), 182-189.