How I Learned to Love Neuroplasticity — And Why You Should, Too

By Sheeva Azma

As I continually learn and grow over the course of my life, neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change) is one thing that has helped me do it all.  Neuroplasticity helps our brains — and us — adapt to a changing world, which is why it’s so important in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

A Brainbow — that is, a rainbow of brain cells (Harvard Center for Brain Science)

As an undergraduate at MIT, I did what people think you should do, and what everyone thinks is the only thing that happens there — study engineering.  So, when it came time to choose a major at the end of my first year, I chose chemical engineering — this was despite my love of neuroscience and the brain, and the fact that, on my application, I had stated that I wanted to study neuroscience.  Looking back, there were a bunch of reasons I wanted to study chemical engineering — but none of the right ones.  MIT is notorious for quashing students’ dreams in this way.

The truth is, I probably could have become an engineer if I wanted, but my heart wasn’t entirely in it.  MIT is one of the best engineering schools in the world, and, as I learned, you have to really like something and work really hard to succeed at it at a high level.

One reason I didn’t make it in chemical engineering was that I was not ready for the endless equations involved.  In one introductory course, my professor wrote a very long and complicated equation on the board.  I immediately felt the anxiety set in.  Then, a strange thing happened.  He began to cross things off in the equation, because, as he explained, they were not important for various reasons.  The equation then became very simple.  While the other students looked relieved that the math became easier, my anxiety compounded. “What just happened?,” I wondered.

It should be no surprise that I did not do as well as I would have liked in chemical engineering.  After a few tough semesters, I opted for a different path — studying neuroscience.  The brain made a lot more sense to me, especially now that I could use my limited engineering knowledge to see the brain as a dynamic system composed of many individual brain cells (which are also called neurons).

Basic Structure of a Brain Cell (Neuron)

Before we continue with this discussion, let’s first brush up on our basic neuroscience knowledge and talk about brain cells (sometimes called neurons). Our brains are made up of many, many neurons, which are connected and communicate via both electrical and chemical means.

One simple way to think about neurons is as an electrical circuit, like something you might find in your computer’s CPU. In this analogy, the brain is a system of brain cells which have long, conductive “wiring” called axons.  At the end of the axons, are thin strands of “wiring” called dendrites which connect one brain cell to the next.  Connections between brain cells are called synapses.

structure of a brain cell
Basic Structure of a Brain Cell (modified, from Simple Wikipedia).

Neuroplasticity: What is it and how does it help us?

In my neuroscience courses at MIT, I learned about a cool thing called neuroplasticity (sometimes also called “neural plasticity” or “brain plasticity”). 

Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to adapt — to help *you* adapt. #science

Simply put, neuroplasticity refers to your brain’s ability to adapt — to help you adapt.  It is the process “by which your brain changes depending on what has happened to it,” as Dr. Max Cynader states in his TED Talk.  As he explains, this neural plasticity can include learning and remembering new information or skills, recovering from brain damage such as a stroke, or even adapting to minor changes in your day-to-day life: a new routine, a new route to get to work, even a new healthy habit.  As we all know, such things take time.  Science can help us understand why — it’s because they involve a neurobiological process that is not instantaneous.

For Neurons, Less is More

You may know that neurons work by transmitting chemical and electrical messages to each other. While neurons are useful, having too many neurons means that too many conflicting messages would be sent, which could clog the system, making our brains more inefficient.

We’re actually born with what can be considered a “starter pack” of neurons — yet, this initial set of brain cells is way more than you need! During childhood, your brain development is shaped by your experiences — things like your visual input and what languages you speak, even whether you grow up in poverty or not.  The neurons which go relatively unused, or are less efficient from an information processing standpoint, eventually die off in our childhood via a process called “synaptic pruning.”

To reduce complexity in our brains while we are young, synaptic pruning gets rid of the extra neurons, and strengthens the neurons that are most useful for us to be able to do think, see, remember — everything that is involved in the daily human experience.

Synaptic pruning is a form of neuroplasticity. In our brains, this process works much the same way that pruning happens in gardening — trim a neuron here, and a neuron there, until only the most useful neurons remain.  Thanks to synaptic pruning, the brain works a lot more efficiently, doing more with less.

Over the course of our lives, neuroplasticity helps our brains remodel to keep up with our experiences.  Because we have a limited amount of brain cells, they must function as efficiently and effectively as possible. This means making space for the new when the old is no longer useful.  As a result, neuroplasticity operates via a “use it or lose it” principle.

“Neurons that fire together, wire together”

The theory behind neuroplasticity comes from a Canadian neuroscientist, Donald O. Hebb, who is considered the “father of neuropsychology.”  Hebb’s work laid the foundations for all that we know about neuroplasticity today.  Hebb famously coined the phrase, “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

This statement has two parts — the first part (“neurons that fire together…”) talks about how the neurons function.  The second part (“…wire together”) talks about how the functioning affects our brain structure. 

What does this mean for neuroplasticity? This simple statement basically describes how neuroplasticity works from a systems standpoint. It means that if a network of brain cells is engaged often, it will strengthen. If the same network does not get recruited often, it will be replaced by a different network that is used more often. This principle — “fire together, wire together” — helps your brain learn efficiently while saving space and resources to hold on to only the most important information.

Learning any new skill can involve many different brain systems, and the neural pathways — the connections between neurons — for any given skill will strengthen with practice of the skill. 

“It’s Like Learning to Ride A Bike”

People always talk about learning how to ride a bike and use the analogy “it’s like learning to ride a bike!” to explain skills which have a steep learning curve. What is implied by this statement is that, once you’ve mastered how to ride a bike, you never need to completely relearn it.

The phrase, “It’s like learning how to ride a bike!” is the most famous example of #neuroplasticity at work.

This analogy is perhaps the best example of neurons firing together and wiring together. If you are learning how to ride a bike, you will need to move your legs to pedal the bike — which involves your motor system.  You will also need to see using your visual system so that you can know where you are going.  Your brain has to integrate what you are seeing (for example, the road, hazards, other people around you) to help you pedal the bike to move forward safely.  This can be very difficult when you are just starting out, but, after a bit of experience riding a bike, can become second nature.

Why is this?  It’s because your neurons from your visual and motor systems have been firing together — they are both being used in the task of riding a bicycle — which has created new connections between your brain’s cells.  Neurons that fire together, wire together!

Neuroplasticity is why learning a new skill is so difficult, but doing something you’ve done a million times can seem effortless.  When you’re learning a new skill, neurons work together to help you develop that skill.  By the time you master it, you have also created a new network of highly interconnected neurons in your brain that served as the neural basis for your expert-level functioning in the task.  The concept of neuroplasticity is the biological basis for the “learning curve.”

Neuroplasticity Serves a Protective Function in Our Brains

Neuroplasticity keeps your brain functioning in the most effective and efficient way possible.  If your brain can’t adapt and learn properly, or if your brain can’t properly repair itself after an injury, bad things can happen.  People who suffer from depression, Traumatic Brain Injury, Alzheimer’s Disease, or other neurodegenerative conditions may have impairments in their brain’s ability to repair itself and adapt.  The lack of neuroplasticity in these conditions may contribute to why they can be so devastating.  That’s why researchers are currently looking for treatments which can improve neuroplasticity for people with neurological conditions. The idea here is that improved brain plasticity, where regeneration cannot normally be accomplished, can help neurological patients regain function and be able to live more normal lives.

Neuroplasticity Helps Us Learn New Things and Adapt

Since graduating from college, I have many different things.  One could argue that my brain has been very busy learning and adapting, just like I have.  Since graduating from college, I have: done academic research, earned a Master’s degree, started freelance writing, started a business, worked in public policy, and most recently, learned the basics of journalism to become a reporter for LifeWire.  Even though everything I have done in the past two decades since college has involved my college major — neuroscience — there has been a lot of learning along the way.  I have spent many days Googling things, asking people for help, and generally trying to figure out new things that my brain seemed reluctant to grasp at first.  This process hasn’t always been pretty, but neuroplasticity has always helped me out, even as I get older and my brain doesn’t seem as sharp as it was when I was in my twenties.  I realize that I am lucky to have these opportunities, but I also credit neuroplasticity to my success, resilience, and adaptability navigating these various industries.

In the COVID-19 Pandemic, Neuroplasticity is Your Friend

We’re all using neuroplasticity during the pandemic in many different ways.  There’s the obvious application — learning new information about COVID-19 and adapting our daily life to what we know about the novel coronavirus to curb the spread.  We can also easily learn new skills and adapt our day-to-day life when we can’t easily pop out to run an errand. 

Apple stores are closed in many places, so when my iPhone mysteriously had battery issues, I had to do figure out how to repair the battery myself.  This process, for me, took three days — I am sure a Genius at the Apple store could have repaired my iPhone in 20 minutes if the Apple store was open, but it was not.  Yet, I emerged from this challenge feeling more confident in my abilities, having learned a new, important skill out of necessity.  

20 Years after I First Learned about it, I Still Find Neuroplasticity Awesome

Learning a new thing builds confidence, and that’s the cool thing about neuroplasticity.  Once the neural pathways for a new skill are established, the next time you try to do that skill, the process is a lot easier.  

The cool thing about neuroplasticity is that mastery of a skill builds confidence.

Neuroplasticity applies as much to complex learning as it does to simpler things.  Besides learning how to fix my iPhone during the pandemic, I also figured out how to make the perfect cup of coffee, brushed up on my sterile technique to help me reduce my exposure to COVID-19, learned a lot about a bunch of new technologies and tools for remote work (the new norm), and, of course, got out of my “comfort zone” and diversify my skill set as a freelance writer.

I am grateful to the concept of neuroplasticity — for being so interesting and useful that it helped me spark my career as a scientist and science writer, and for helping me do so much.

Photo by Jesse Martini on Unsplash

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