How Much Can We Change Our Brains?
by Renee DeVere, MS, CHt
What do we mean by "changing our brain"? We generally consider it as a change in intellect, behaviors, cognition, perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and aptitudes. All changes will involve some change at the neuronal level as the brain forms new connections with new thoughts and experiences. Every new experience big or small causes at least some tiny change in synaptic connections. If you were to travel to a new country very different from your own, learn a new language, eat new food, make new friends, take on new activities, and see new sites, your brain would form a new connection to each and every part of the new experience, and those connections would be connected to previous related experiences because your brain is always seeking references and associations to new experiences. That is a whole lot of brain rewiring! This concept is known as neuroplasticity. A theory of brain plasticity was first described by William James in 1890, but perhaps did not truly gain widespread acceptance until about 1970.
Neuroscientists (and most of the rest of us) know that the child’s brain is highly plastic, meaning that it can change dramatically with new experiences, and it can even recover, in some cases, almost completely from a traumatic brain injury. Adult brains have tremendous capacity for change too, but the learning and thinking is more hard set, and it takes a lot more to induce significant brain changes. It is a good thing though, we do want to have stable minds, and not have to worry about every little experience interfering with years of established learning, skills, relationships, and concepts.
Generally, neuroplastic changes in intelligence are believed to have a limit of approximately 14-15 points increase in IQ. Memory, skills, emotional intelligence, habits, and mental performance (creativity, processing speed, etc.) are all believed to be changeable with brain-training methods. Neuroplastic changes after injury, disease, etc., are continuing to amaze the medical and scientific community as we see more people make miraculous recoveries from these tremendous burdens on the brain. For example, a small child can recover significant lost function by the brains ability to reorganize to enable one part of the brain to take over the function of a part lost though injury or even emergency surgical interventions. For adults, this picture is a much greater challenge, and most older adults will not regain functions lost, for example after a massive stroke. But, there are outliers - adults who have suffered severe brain injury, and if they are conscious enough to endure very rigorous rehabilitation, they can, with effort, motivation, and a strong sense of self-efficacy, recover much of their lost function. However, it would be unlikely that there is any known case of major brain recover in an adult who did not demonstrate significant effort and motivation (please submit any case studies, if available!).
Various methods of accentuating neuroplasticity in adults include brain games, learning a new skill (particularly a musical instrument or a new language), continuing education, meditation, yoga, reading, hypnosis, and physical exercise (the brain likes blood flow/oxygenation, and endorphins. The very cutting edge involves brain stimulation and technology-based brain-training programs/techniques such as neurofeedback, EEG-guided meditation, TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation), which is mostly used to correct various types of brain dysfunction, and tDCS. Avid neurohackers are typically fans of all of the above, although some have some trepidation regarding any type of stimulators, as they should since there are some potential risks with certain conditions such as epilepsy and traumatic brain injury, and even those with a clean bill of health are completely free of risk. Disclaimer alert: Always consult your physician before beginning any neuroplasticity, or brain stimulation technology. This general information is not intended to treat any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional.
As more and more people explore the limits of neuroplasticity, more information, discoveries, and advances will be made in this area. Many believe we have a limit in how much we can change the mind/brain, especially as we get older, while some believe significant changes will only be possible with the future of neuroprostetics (implantables such as synthetic hippocampi), or other brain modifications (perhaps genetic manipulation?). As we go further and further up the scale of the magnitude and technology for neuroplasticity, of course, the controversy, legal issues, and ethical questions escalate. We do not intend to answer those larger questions (although many are working on these important questions). Just as long and thoughtful consideration as been given to any advance from organ transplants to artificial hearts, these issues must be addressed, studied, and eventually given a response.