Our Brains Are Plastic, Post 1

“Our brains are plastic. Every experience alters our brain’s organization on some level.” The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness

Neuroscience is not just for scientists. Nor is it simply theories developed by brainiacs. These days there is a lot the average person can learn about the workings of the brain, things that will help them thrive as human beings in modern times. And in my estimation, understanding just a few simple points that neuroscience gives us, will make us part of the next shift into a better future.

The take-away: Our brains are “plastic.”

One of these simple points we get from neuroscience is that our brains are plastic. I don’t expect anyone not in a scientific field of study to appreciate what a wake-up call this point was for the scientific community. The point for us non-scientists is that we can always learn because the brain is always adapting. And with the longer lives we live, we may want to notice the phases of life we go through and use our ever-adapting brain to make the most of those particular situations.

For instance, many educators are studying how brains develop so they can be more effective teachers of their subject and of their humanity. We all know that young minds are impressionable, and the kind of people we become starts with our earliest role models. If our teachers are strict and stern to us, and subservient to their masters, that can affect our perception of what it means to be human, or about fairness or the need for retribution.

There are other phases of life, too, that form our brains. Early work experience, being young and sexual, the dynamics of our group, becoming responsible for family or co-workers… these all will develop different parts of our brains. The particular challenges develop different neuronal pathways and centers of activity.

Over our years of adaptation, we develop habits that we carry over into our next phase of life, whether those strategies work or not. And when we get into the last 20 to 40 years of our lives, we can find ourselves challenged because the habits have had a long time to establish themselves.

Then, “one day,” we wake up and discover wrinkles, aches and other limitations. We need a new set of brain skills for this phase of seniority! How do we stay connected, active and find meaning when our physical abilities are significantly compromised, our work responsibilities have shifted to a lighter load, and we experience more distance from the responsibilities of running a family? We find what we need by utilizing the brain’s plasticity.

The Five Most Important Life Skills for Seniors

From my reading on recent developments in neuroscience, I feel certain that if we can focus on five areas of activity, our years as elders can be fruitful and satisfying. These five areas are: stress reduction, mental engagement, nutrition, physical activity and mindful wisdom (learning overall balance and sharing this with our communities).

Stress Reduction

Stress reduction at any age is beneficial to brain development and adaptation. We simply are more attuned and able to respond when we aren’t stressed. Modern living has afforded us many ways to reduce our stress. Police that keep our communities safer from criminal activity. Judges that are paid well enough to not take bribes. Firefighters and paramedics that respond to local emergencies. Locksmiths that help us more safely sleep and store our valuables. Electricity that runs through our homes to give light and heat without the need of open flame. Books that help us learn about the world and dangers to avoid. Medicine, clean water, sewage and garbage disposal that reduce the likelihood of plague…

Yet our egos still find time to create stress for us. We worry about bills, politics, missing our flight, losing our jobs, mates or keys… And the result is that our brains are less able to thrive. After four or five decades of stress, we are in a stress habit. Our brains may be less responsive to dynamic growth and more responsive to the pattern of self-initiated stress. It’s a downward spiral that can lead to more forgetfulness, poor judgment and fewer meaningful connections.

But because “every experience alters our brain’s organization,” it isn’t too late to put the brain back on a healthy path. Each of the other four factors that seniors can focus on will contribute to brain health: mental engagement, nutrition, physical activity and mindful wisdom. Do some research on these topics…or wait for my next post on this subject.

Your comments are welcome.

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