When was the last time you worked out your brain? One of the most exciting science developments of recent years is the discovery of the plasticity of the brain. For a long time, scientists believed that the brain stopped developing during childhood. We now know that the brain continues to make connections between neurons throughout our lives. American neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel won the 2000 Nobel Prize in neuroscience for this discovery, which is behind many medical advances, including changing the way we treat learning abilities, mental illness, stroke victims and mental degeneration in diseases such as Alzheimer’s. More and more neuroplasticity exercises are becoming available to improve brain functioning. Whether you want to power charge your memory or treat a learning disability, you can easily find a brain program, exercise or game available on the Internet.
For brain damage victims, in particular, the outlook under the old scientific beliefs on how the brain works was pretty grim. The lack of brain plasticity hypothesis meant that nerve cells could not form new connections and regenerate. Therefore, if brain function was lost it was expected to be permanent. Kandel discovered that the brain’s neural connectors can be strengthened and regenerated. This ability of the brain to form new neural connections is called neuroplasticity.
Improving the Neuroplasticity of the Brain
You can improve the neuroplasticity of the brain by exercising it in the same way you exercise your physical body. You should not wait until you suffer brain damage to exercise your brain. Brain function is affected daily by many factors, including the environment, drugs, stress, growth factors, learning and aging. Your brain needs to be conditioned in the same way you condition your heart each day through aerobic exercise. Regular conditioning promotes whole brain thinking.
Let’s look at an example. Daily brain exercises can protect against the ravages of stress. Stress has been shown to reduce the neuroplasticity of the brain. Under stress, studies have shown that the geometric length of the apical dendrites of pyramidal neurons in the hippocampus shorten. When dendrites retract, the surface of neurons shrink and, in turn, reduce the number of synapses and thus neural connections. This dendrite retraction has been observed in other areas of the brain under stress. The good news is that once the stress is reduced, the synapses are replaced. Depression has been known to have a similar effect. Stress and depression may not directly kill neurons but they do lead to changes that affect the neuroplasticity of the brain.
The ability of the brain to regenerate neurons is called neurogenesis. Many neurogenic factors stimulate neurogenesis. Some of these factors including steroid hormones are also stimulated through physical exercise. Thus, brain health depends on a good overall fitness regime that includes physical, mental (meditation) and brain exercises. Meditation has also been shown to improve brain functioning in brain imaging studies.
Brain Workout Rules
- Before we get started, here are a few brain exercise rules and cautions.
- Practice brain exercises regularly. Over time, neurons that are not stimulated will fail to reconnect. Especially after brain damage, it is important to start neuroplasticity exercises before neurons die. If you do not water your garden, the plants will shrivel until they are hydrated. If they are not watered, eventually the roots will die and the plant will lose its ability to regenerate. While the inability of neuronal connections to regenerate is a higher risk in someone who has suffered brain damage it shows the importance of regular brain exercises. Recently, neuroscientists have discovered that the brain can regenerate not only neural connections but the neurons themselves.
- Which brain exercises should you do? Some studies have shown no improvements from brain exercises. Many brain games are being rebranded “neuroplasticity exercises,” or vice versa. Despite the many references to neuroplasticity exercises on the Internet, neuroscientists are still learning and approaching this new area of fitness with caution.
- Stay away from scientifically unproven approaches. Scientists are trying to provide this same stimulation to the brain using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which uses an electric coil to produce electric current in areas of the brain. This technology, and many others, are still in the experimental stage.
- Exercises should be balanced. Repeating a brain exercise millions of times could cause overstimulation of brain cell growth in targeted areas, squeezing out the formation of new connections in other areas, cautions the Huntington’s Outreach Project for Education at Stanford.
- Look for improvements in daily functioning. You may improve your score in brain games but for the exercise to be useful these improvements must be evident in everyday functioning, a process called generalization.
- Be cautious of exercises that claim to increase the portion of the brain used from 10% to 50%.
Improving neuroplasticity does not have to involve brain games with complex algorithms compiled by a team of neuroscientists. Below are examples of a broad range of brain exercises you can fit into your daily life.
Immersing oneself in intellectually stimulating activities provides a brain workout. They could include online courses, debates, or board games. Challenge your brain by doing common tasks differently. Rather than hiking your regular trail this weekend, find a new trail to explore. If you do Tibetan Buddhist meditation each week, drop in on a Zen class and bend those brainwaves in a different direction. If you teach psychology, switch a few classes with a colleague and guest lecture on social psychology, or perhaps you have an interest in behavioral economics. You get the idea. Stretch out your intellectual capacity.
Physical activity has many beneficial effects on brain health, including pumping up brain stimulating hormones. Stroke patients do rehabilitative exercises to stimulate neurons. Specific motor activities can target select areas of the brain. When stroke victims are engaged in walking exercises, they strengthen neural connections in the brain area associated with that movement.
Binaural beats have been shown to promote left and right brain hemispheric convergence. This promotes whole brain thinking. Today, meditation music is available to stimulate select brain waves. If you are a creative person, your right brain will be more developed and you are more likely to have improved hemispheric convergence. Many business people fail to fully develop their right brain but instead lean more on left brain thinking. You can master your mind and develop one of today’s most sought-after business skills – creative, out-of-the-box right brain thinking. More and more employers are testing for right brain thinking in the hiring process.
Brain Workout Regimes – Treating Learning Difficulties
An inspiring and promising area for neuroplasticity exercises are programs for individuals who have parts of the brain that are not functioning normally. Until neuroplasticity exercises, cognitive behavioral therapy was one of the few known effective treatments for learning disorders. Barbara Aerosmith Young is a psychologist who had multiple learning disabilities as a child, including reading and writing backwards. She chronicles her use of neuroplasticity exercises to overcome her learning difficulties in The Woman Who Changed Her Brain. The Aerosmith Program has helped thousands of individuals overcome learning difficulties in Canada, the US, Australia, and elsewhere.
There is not enough space to write about the Arrowsmith program exercises here. In her book she addresses exercises for the following targeted areas: reasoning; thinking, planning and problem solving; visual memory for symbol patterns; lexical memory; memory for objects and faces; number sense and quantification; kinaesthetic perception; spatial reasoning; learning motor plans; and non-verbal thinking required for effective social interaction.
Based on many satisfied learners, the program is spreading globally. Brain imaging shows that dyslexics use different parts of the brain when processing information. After phonological and auditory exercises, their brain activity is closer to that of a normally developing brain.
Memory and Attention Training
Lumosity.com is the largest provider of memory and attention training games. Personal trainers are available to help you design your own program. In addition to memory and attention training, games address problem solving, speed and flexibility. At Lumosity, over 60 games are offered. To start, sign up with one of the brain training sites, do the initial performance exercises, choose the areas you would like to improve and follow the suggestions for brain training games.
These games have been applied in other areas, including traumatic brain injury. One question that has arisen is the ability of these brain games to achieve generalization, which refers to one’s ability to apply new learning in different settings. In other words, does an improvement in scores in brain games produce an improvement in brain functioning in other areas of life? The best way to find out is to try the games and judge for yourself.
Neuroplasticity Exercise Programs
The evidence so far points to more successful performance for specific brain training programs, such as for learning difficulties or stroke victims, than general cognitive enhancement exercises, such as online memory and attention training. It is easy to see how the targeted programs provide more value. Athletes, for example, may want to try Training the Athletic Brain. Learning how the brain functions under expert skill performance, psychological behavior, skill development and acquisition pathways, and biomechanics can greatly enhance the coach’s understanding of how to facilitate athlete development, and the athlete’s mental and physical conditioning.
Training techniques to treat learning and developmental challenges are the most advanced cognitive development programs. Applied Behavioral Analysis has been successfully used to treat those with autism disorders for decades. Now combined with new knowledge about neuroplasticity, these programs are even more effective. ADHD Mastery Training addresses the specific learning development and daily challenges of individual’s with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. An emphasis is placed on stress – framing, resilience and coping strategies. Stress and anxiety are major triggers of ADHD. More specifically, the program provides an ADHD management toolbox for entrepreneurs and professionals.
In recent years, behavioral scientists have been bringing our attention to the many biases that lead to irrational thinking. Whether you are a marketer selling a product or a consumer being overwhelmed by advertising messages, you will benefit from mastering the neuroscience of reframing in a business context. The ability to train the brain to operate outside presumptions, biases and perceptions is a powerful tool. Neuroscience Now: Framestorm Your Way to Success in Business will introduce you to the neuroscience principles behind framestorm and show you how to create change in your life through self-directed neuroplasticity.
 Fuchs, Eberhard, and Gabriele Flügge. “Adult Neuroplasticity: More Than 40 Years of Research.” Neural Plasticity 2014 (2014).