A major focus of our work in recent years – with clients and in our training programs -, has been the remarkable development in neuroscience and the wonderful information we now have about the amazing human brain. Neuroplasticity is the ability of our brains to change continuously throughout our lives.
Plastic brains? What? Now before you think our brains are made of Gladwrap or Tupperware, when we talk about plastic brains, we mean the brain’s ability to change throughout our ENTIRE lives; the capacity of our brain to change with learning.
Once upon a time it was thought that as we aged, the connections in our brain became fixed, and then simply faded. We used to think of our brain as a machine, like a computer, “hardwired”, uncompromising and unchanging. We thought of the brain as a non-renewable organ and that brain cells slowly died as we got older. “Plasticity” originates from the Greek word “plastikos”, or the Latin “plasticus” meaning “able to be moulded”. This definitely conjures up a brain that is malleable, teachable, subject to changing, doesn’t it?
So, the “neuro” part of Neuroplasticity refers to the neurons, the nerve cells that are the building blocks of our brains and our nervous system. Neurons in our brain are cells that take up, process and transmit information. They help us react to our environment. For example, say you are cooking dinner and you accidentally burn your finger when you touch the electric hotplate that you thought had been turned off. The stimulation, burning your finger, is transported by neurons to your central nervous system which in turn stimulates your arm to remove your finger from the hotplate. A typical neuron fires 5-50 times a second – which is pretty handy in the burns prevention department. In the time it has taken you to read the last two paragraphs, quadrillions (yes that’s a real word and a quadrillion has 15 zeros!) of signals have travelled inside your head.
The news about brain plasticity is very good, and we are still learning more as neuroscientists continue to research the human brain. We definitely believe that we all have the capacity to be stronger and more capable at weathering life’s storms – building resilience. As Dr Michael Merzenich (another Brainiac neuroscientist) eloquently explains:
“Whatever the circumstances of a child’s early life, and whatever the history and current state of that child, every human has the built-in power to improve, to change for the better, to significantly restore and often to recover. Tomorrow, that person you see in the mirror can be a stronger, more capable, livelier, more powerfully centered, and still-growing person.”