Can the brain continue to grow? It was once believed that our brains were developmentally fixed. This thinking led to the belief that as we age our brain becomes rigid and we can’t change how our brain processes information. In essence, an old dog can’t learn new tricks. Thankfully, current research has shown this to not be the case.
We are talking about neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to grow and develop throughout one’s life span. But what exactly is neuroplasticity and how does it impact learning? Well, the term neuro refers to the brain and plasticity means pertaining to plastic? Does this mean that the brain is plastic in form? Of course not! However, the brain is moldable like plastic. More specifically, as we learn new things in life, our brain actually grows like a muscle. It does this by increasing the size of its cells and, more importantly, through the process of developing new connections between cells. With a basic understanding of neuroplasticity, parents and educators can better shape the development of our children.
The concept of brain plasticity is in direct opposition to the old adage, use it or lose it. To be able to grow and develop new cells and connections within the brain, one needs to partake in learning. The process of brain development stems from a basic understanding of what brain cells need to survive and grow. The recipe is quite simple and consists of: fuel + activation+ oxygen.
1.) Fuel is in the form of glucose and, no, that doesn’t mean that candy is the best fuel for the brain. This means that the brain uses glucose as energy and our diet is the primary source of glucose. This is why it is important to eat protein along with your carbohydrates (glucose). The protein acts to slow digestion and provides a more balanced and sustained release of glucose to the brain.
2.) Activation comes in the form of stimulation from the environment. Environmental stimulation is provided through many of our day to day activities, including: exercising or moving our bodies, listening, communicating, learning, teaching, planning, goal setting, playing music, socializing, and anything that is considered an activity.
3.) Oxygen is obviously consumed during breathing. Although, this is common knowledge, many people are not aware that most of us have compromised breathing. This can be observed by a posture that exhibits rounded shoulders and a forward head carriage. This type of posture is induced by prolonged sitting and has worsened with an increase in sedentary lifestyle and over utilization of computers and video games. A decrease in oxygen delivery can manifest itself as fatigue, poor concentration, inattentiveness, and mood dysregulation. As one can imagine, any imbalance within the above recipe could lead to systemic effects considering that the brain is the organ impacted.
Now that we knowing that the brain is adaptable, how do we keep it maturing throughout life? Using the principles of neuroplasticity and learning, a 10 step plan will be suggested to stimulate brain development throughout life.
1. Set goals annually to evaluate areas of your life that need improvement.
2. Develop a monthly action plan to accomplish the above goals.
3. Measure your goals weekly to ensure attaining your goals.
4. Make a point to learn something new everyday.
5. Challenge yourself to teach someone what you learned.
6. Exercise daily.
7. Eat to nourish your brain and body.
8. Regularly perform activities with friends and family.
9. Weekly challenge yourself with things outside your comfort zone.
10. Plan appropriate time to rest and recover.
Dr. Jeremy Fritz is a board eligible Chiropractic Neurologist with the American Chiropractic Neurology Board, certified as a Clinical Nutritionist by the International and American Associations of Clinical Nutrition, and functional medicine practitioner with an emphasis on Childhood Neurobehavioral and Developmental Disorders. Dr. Fritz is also the Executive Director of the Brain Balance Achievement Centers of Vernon Hills, IL & Mequon WI.