As children and young adults (between the ages of 0 and 25) our brains are designed to change. In the early years of development, our neurons are often over-connected, a spaghetti mess of connections that can do and learn almost anything. A key part of developing into adulthood is the brain pruning connections, reinforcing ones that it needs to make them faster and more effective, and removing the ones it does not need. This all happens largely without conscious effort, children can learn simply by experiencing, they don’t necessarily need to apply conscious focus. This is true of language for instance, a young child can learn tens of thousands of words without giving it conscious thought; or motor skills, walking, running etc. This can be thought of as 'passive' neuroplasticity.
By the time we are 30 'passive' neuroplasticity has stopped, the neural pathways in the brain have solidified and it becomes much harder to re-train and re-direct them. Learning activity that during childhood might have been passive now required focus and conscious effort. Now we need to engage 'active' neuroplasticity.
So, how do I engage 'active' neuroplasticity to learn something new?
3 important ingredients are required:
Focus. This is the conscious and deliberate act of blocking out distractions and directing our focus to the subject in question.
Epinephrine. This is a hormone released from the brain stem (it is the same chemical we call adrenaline when released from the kidneys).
Acetylcholine. This is a neurotransmitter released from the Nucleus basalis (a cluster of neurones in the forebrain).
Achieving focus is key, that can cue the brain to release the other chemicals required to set the brain up for neuroplasticity. So how do we achieve focus?
visual focus = mental focus
One of the best ways to focus mentally is to focus our eyes. The eye is an extension of the brain and the act of focussing in on an object, for example the face of a family member as they are telling you a story, and blocking out other distractions can generate this 'spotlight of attention' that tells the brain that what they are saying is important enough to remember. This sounds easy, but many of us are actually very poor at focussing effectively; we are used to keeping one eye on our smart phone, another on a distant noise, another on what we are having for dinner tonight. All of these competing distractors confuse the brain and prevent it deploying its energy to reinforce or build a new memory. Without focus, the brain will not build those new connections required to form the memory.
Once we have focus, the act of focussing and blocking out other distractions can then cause this cascade of Epinephrine and Acetylcholine that sets up the brain to build new connections. The more stimulus that we can deploy in our focus, the better the result. Social interactions are highly stimulating for the brain and are a great way to supercharge active neuroplasticity.
So, in this example, we focussed visually on our family member talking to kick off neuroplasticity, we can enhance this effect by adding more stimulus. Special occasions and holidays are often some of our strongest memories for this reason, they stand out in our consciousness as being exciting, different, emotional and are often the subject of recall and re-telling which maintains and reinforces the memory over time. huru are testing a procedure we call 'reminiscence experience' (based on reminiscence therapy) that uses the incredible power of recall in the presence of family members to supercharge neuroplasticity and improve cognitive performance.
Neuroplasticity is a wonderful mechanism that means our brains can adapt to our needs and learn new things. Over the age of 25 we need to be deliberate about our learning and actively engaging neuroplasticity to keep our brains healthy. Visit the huru Science page for further reading on neuroplasticity and practical ways to keep your brain healthy as an adult.