It is known that throughout life, the brain does not wear out. #The greatest characteristic of this organ is its ability #to constantly change.
The belief that we only use 10% of our brain or that we don’t really know how it works, is a myth. The truth is that with current advancements in science, we have been able to learn the details of how brains work.
What is clear to us is how dynamic this organ is and its ability to change and #to strengthen, what can be referred to #as neuroplasticity.
“Everyone uses their brain according to its abilities. The more abilities it has, the more it will be used; the brain will change and stimulate other parts of the brain to perform these new functions or it will select an area for that which it is learning. This is called brain plasticity,” explains clinical neurologist, Alejandro Villarraga Peña.
Just how we take care of our physical bodies, keeping it in shape and making it last for more years, why not do the same for the brain? This is one of the challenges for neurology in the upcoming years. This field does not just seek to prevent or reduce the rates of neurological conditions, it seeks for the brain to stay younger for longer, therefore delaying the onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Genetics is not the only factor that influences intelligence or brain development. Also involved are environmental factors which determine neuron development.
If we just refer to intelligence as the ability to make decisions, and correct ones at that, it is true that the genetics of the individual’s intelligence come pre-established, however everything that happens after birth also plays a role. As this specialist explains, children that have to fend for themselves, obtain food, and work, are not the same as those who do not have to do so: “For those who are exposed to an environment that is considered to be hostile, their abilities to survive and make decisions will be much greater. Over time, with regard to obtaining knowledge and skills in other intellectual areas, someone who did the same thing their whole lives is not going to be the same as someone who didn’t.” By learning, the brain continues to challenge itself, developing new connections and gaining skills that will help achieve a higher quality of life.
But can our brain continue to #improve and create new neurons throughout our lives?
The brain does experience a developmental stage that consists of several different key phases. The first is the prenatal stage. The second, and perhaps most important phase, is birth as there are many complications that occur at that time that can turn into neurological problems. The third stage is childhood, the period of time during which the brain can be most stimulated.
According to the publication Principles of Neural Science, after the age of 20, by Eric R. Kandel, we no longer develop neurons, but this does not mean that we can no longer stimulate the brain. “From that point on, they can be made stronger; neurotransmission can increase in order to make them last longer and develop more synapses,” Villarraga explains.
How to improve the brain?
It is possible to learn new things as an adult, but as Dr. Villaraga explains, it is a matter of focusing on the activity. “If you want to be good at chess, you have to play it, read about it and study it,” he states.
It’s not about learning just to gain knowledge or acquire techniques for a specific need; it’s about stimulating the brain, allowing for this neuroplasticity to continue to develop in order to live a more active life, and thereby, from a young age, seek reaching old age successfully. But what factors can facilitate your learning?
Playful intellectual activities, reading books, going to see a play, and watching movies that require concentration and analysis are all ways to stimulate learning. As the specialist recommends, “Talking about it is what is good, turning it into an intellectual activity.” That is when the brain is stimulated. The exercise of thinking about what you just read or saw, or debating using your own arguments is what strengthens neurons.
Games such as crosswords, trivia questions, and Sudoku are also ways to stimulate the brain as they require the mind to be alert, they wake up neurons in different parts of the brain and they improve mental processing and memory.
It is also essential engaging in exercise and physical activity. One fourth of the blood that the heart pumps goes to the brain and when a person does exercise, their cardiac output increases resulting in blood flow to the brain. This is how neurons increase their capacity to use oxygen, allowing them to establish a connection between them more efficiently.
Going out jogging and practicing sports with other people that you can interact and make connections with is also beneficial to the brain. Studies from Canada and the United States on preventing cognitive impairment have shown that of all the recreational activities, dancing makes the greatest impact as it is a physical activity that requires you to learn, as with its steps and routines, and it is also fun.
Finally, it is important to develop new skills that demand a real effort Learning a new language is an activity that most stimulates brain plasticity. The simple act of incorporating new words in our vocabulary and learning different meanings for things that have always been understood one way but that in another language can be interpreted differently, such as with the concept of love, lead our brain to change. Playing an instrument or learning new technology, if you have never done so, make neurons that were not very active to activate and changes our mental capacity. It is all a matter of choosing a skill or activity that truly challenges you and seriously committing yourself to it.
Of those habits that are not healthy for the brain, smoking is one of the most harmful. The use of cigarettes is related to cerebrovascular issues, causing for an increased risk of developing thrombosis. People who smoke also experience small strokes that can lead to an earlier onset of cognitive degeneration.
This is why avoiding tobacco use as well as seeking smoke-free areas are some key recommendations when it comes time to protecting our mental health and putting the mentioned brain stimulation activates into practice.
The simple act of breathing pure air improves our brain. Exercising in a park, going for a bike ride, meeting up with your friends outdoors and in unpolluted areas, or occasionally leaving the city to nature, not only clears the mind but also allows you to breath clean air and improve the functioning of the brain.
Plasticity is learning in itself. Learning movement patterns, walking, using silverware, expressing oneself adequately skills the brain did not have before, it is everything we ever learn.
20 years is the approximate age after which new neurons can no longer be developed. After this age, they just become stronger.