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The Learning Zone

Can thoughts change our brain only when we are young?

Can the mind, through the conscious use of directed thoughts and experience, change our brain’s structure and functions only when we are young? It would come natural to surmise that this phenomenon, called neuroplasticity1, is probably only observable in a younger population and as a person grows older, his/her brain loses this capacity.

As far as younger populations are concerned studies have indeed shown that synaptic2 pruning occurs during adolescence and that an adult-like brain is obtained around 20-25. The activities that you engage in will thus shape brain functions to a certain extent, and it is in a person’s interest to learn some useful skills rather waste time with less useful ones (e.g. video games) since the effects of these activities on the brain will last.

However, there is hope also for adults! Although it requires more efforts, adults too can shape the structure and functioning of their brains and it is possible for them to have a second chance in case they did not make the best use of their time during adolescence!

The experimental evidence supporting this comes from studies done with the blind. For instance, it has been shown that the visual cortex of people who were blind since birth was being stimulated by sounds or was used to recall words. In order to understand whether the same was true for people who had become blind later during their lifetime, an experiment was done where volunteers were blindfolded for a week and had to learn Braille. Within only five days, changes in their visual cortex were observed and the visual cortex started to process auditory and tactile information, while the somatosensory cortex, that would normally process Braille in a sighted person, became quiet. The very short time that it took the visual cortex to be reassigned to new functions shows that neuroplasticity does not end in childhood. Now, it’s highly unlikely that the brains grew new synapses during those five days. What was being observed instead, was probably the result of the involvement of connections that had not being used up to that point.

1Neuroplasticity: the ability to change the structure and functioning of the brain through experiences and the conscious use of directed thought

2 Synapses: it refers a functional contact area (a small gap) between two neurons or between a neuron and another cell, through which information flows. Information can flow by means of neurotransmitters (chemical synapsis) or through a gap junction (electrical synapsis)

Reference article: Begley, S. “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves”.

By the Horizon Research Foundation editorial board

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