Neuroplasticity has become a buzzword the past few years in health circles, but what does it mean for you and me?
While it sounds intense, the key element of neuroplasticity is the idea that our brains can continue to change their neural pathways throughout our entire lives. This discovery that the brain structures have the ability to keep changing after childhood is fairly recent, and the culmination of decades of research. Neuroscientists used to believe that upon reaching adulthood, our brains stopped changing.
The truth that we now know is that much like the rest of our bodies, our brains stay flexible and keep changing—depending on how we use them.
As I discussed in part one of this series on resilience, much of what we experience as we age will depend on the choices we make. If we choose to keep experiencing new things and looking at the world in different ways, we are promoting healthy structural and functional changes for our brains.
A few simple things that help keep us sharp and enhance our mental resilience:
1. Trying new things: One of the keys to maintaining neuroplasticity is not just that we take in new information, but that we experience new things. Scientists began to notice these changes as a result of negative experiences, such as trauma, but went on to discover that positive experiences shape our brains for the better. While reading and gathering new information is a great way to stimulate the brain, experiences with an embodied component have a more significant impact on creating new neural pathways. This doesn’t mean you have to start bungee jumping for your mental health; you can start with simple things like taking a different route to work or trying a new yoga class.
2. Working hard: In the Okinawan study on longevity, one thing researchers found over and over was that the subjects maintained a sense of purpose throughout their lives; they called this ikigai, which means “that which makes one’s life worth living.” Having a strong sense of purpose and maintaining one’s role as a contributing member of the community strengthens us mentally and physically. It is rare among cultures with a high population of thriving elderly to see “retirement” as we know it. This commitment to pursuing our life’s purpose to an advanced age can also contribute to this ideal state of neuroplasticity as we keep learning new ways to adapt and work, rather than settling into a sedentary life of routine.
3. Playing hard. When we seek out passive leisure activities all the time, we aren’t just short changing ourselves physically. Physical activities that require our brains to make quick decisions and continuously adapt to our surroundings challenge our minds as well, and have been found to help prevent dementia. Even when sedentary, choosing things that keep our minds active, like Sudoku and crossword puzzles, has been found to help keep us sharper longer. We can play little games with ourselves to try and mentally map out the week, or remember the answer to a long-buried trivia question rather than just Googling it.
Our minds have a tremendous capacity to make new connections all the time, if we keep using them.
Tomorrow: Emotional and Spiritual Resilience.
Photo credit: Flickr / neil conway