Your brain can be plastic if you want


Anytime you change your way of thinking, many connections that correspond to your old way dissolve and those that identify with your new mode of thinking begin to grow. Photo: 123rf.com

Many people have asked me when I plan to retire. I don’t, I tell them. As long as my mind, body and spirit allow me, I will soldier on to contribute in whatever way I can to make the world a better place for myself and for others.

Some seem genuinely perplexed as to why I would want to continue working for the rest of my life when I could do nothing more exhausting than to sip margaritas and hang around all day long. Well, because doing nothing would be extremely boring and akin to a living death for me, and because I don’t want the neural connections in my brain to die.

At this point, I often get strange looks from the retirement-endorsing people. Like, what has retirement got to do with the brain? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Keeping busy and active throughout your life is one of the key ways to promote neuroplasticity of the brain; thus my intention to keep doing that till I die!

I’m sure many of us have heard the old theory that the brain is a physiologically static organ comprising 86 billion neurons that sort of genetically determines how smart you are. Early researchers believed that the geography of the brain was set in stone and couldn’t change except to deteriorate with age. It was also thought that neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons, stopped at birth.

Today, though, science has shown that the brain has the remarkable ability to create new neural pathways and, in some cases, even create new neurons. This is what neuroplasticity means.

The idea of plasticity of the brain was first suggested in the late 19th century, when the psychologist William James wrote that organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity. In the early 20th century, Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal spoke about neuronal plasticity, the ability of the brain to change after a person had reached adulthood.

Not much attention was paid to these theories because the conventional thinking of the day focused on the conviction that the brain was incapable of growth and change. The technology at the time was also not advanced enough to allow scientists to observe the microscopic activities of the brain and the brain behaviour of patients who had suffered from damage to the organ.

It was in the middle of the last century that scientists discovered the ability of the brain to change and reorganise itself in patients who had suffered from serious trauma, allowing them to recover to an amazing degree. Since then, the field of neuroplasticity has progressed quite rapidly due to better imaging technology. In 1998, American neuro-endocrinologist Dr Bruce McEwen discovered that the shapes of our brain could change in response to how we use them.

This, then, is the basis of my decision to work till I die – how I use my brain and how often, will determine the level of neuroplasticity it exhibits. My brain health is no longer dictated by the size and weight of the brain I was born with, but rather what I do with it. Step aside, genetics! All hail neuroplasticity!

Today, there are few people in the field of neuro-science and related disciplines who believe in the pre-neuroplastic paradigm that the brain is fixed. Developments in neuroplasticity research have led to all kinds of interventions that are currently being applied to treat people with brain trauma, learning disabilities, psychological issues, cognitive dysfunctionality and age-related neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or other dementias.

I’m no neuroscientist, but my belief in neuroplasticity is born out of my inherent optimism that I can make the choices that will determine how long my mind remains sharp and productive. I’ve seen people who retire begin to show signs of mental decline soon after, while others who went on working continued to have wits sharper than those half their age.

A study conducted by Professor Perminder Sachdev, Scientia Professor of Neuropsychiatry at the University of New South Wales, Australia, in 2013 revealed that being physically and mentally active and open to new experiences not only keeps the brain healthy, it can also help people with mild cognitive problems to revert to normal brain function. His research showed that those who reverted were the ones who were more physically and mentally active and had more flexible personalities that were open to new experiences.

Neuroscientific research indicates that cognitive and physical activities can change both the brain’s physical structure as well as its functional organisation. Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Caroline Leaf is a great proponent of the theory that our thoughts can impact our brain architecture. In the same way that you leave footsteps in the sand, your thoughts leave physical traces in the brain. As you think, neural connections form between your brain cells, or neurons. Hence your brain is a constantly changing network of neurons and connections and you are the cause of the transformations.

Anytime you change your way of thinking, many connections that correspond to your old way dissolve and those that identify with your new mode of thinking begin to grow. Eventually, as you continue in the new mode of thinking, more and more connections form at the neurological level and you develop a thought habit.

For example, if you have been a person given to negative thinking for most of your life, you would have developed brain maps that process your negative thoughts and emotions. If you suddenly see the light and decide to practise positive thinking, your brain will begin to respond by growing new maps that process your new, positive way of thinking, while your negative-thinking map will start to shrink. In a short period of time (studies point to about 21 days), your new positive map will become larger than the negative one and becomes wired into your brain, turning you into a different person. Who says people can’t change?

All this points to the fact that your brain can change based on repeated experience and practice. You can fundamentally change your brain so long as oxygen and blood are flowing through you.

The theory of neuroplasticity means you can use your brain to make it work better. The more you work your brain, the more you strengthen the neural connections and enhance your cognitive skills. In a nutshell, you can become smarter!

When I first encountered information on neuroplasticity years ago, I made a conscious decision to find out how I could boost the functioning of my brain to ensure cognitive health into a ripe old age. I learned that combining a number of specific physical, mental and spiritual activities was the way to do it. I’d like to share some of them here.

First, dance like there’s no tomorrow. It’s a great way to increase neural connectivity and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. No partner? Let that not deter you – just get onto YouTube and learn some slick dance moves to excite your brain.

Next, keep learning constantly. Taking up a new language or musical instrument is highly recommended. These increase connectivity between brain regions and help form new neural networks, strengthening brain density. Taking up new courses is also effective, and I’m glad to think that my brain has benefitted by the ten courses I’ve undertaken over the past two years.

Interestingly, learning to do things with your non-dominant hand, such as writing, drawing and cutting, can also be beneficial, as is expanding your vocabulary by learning a new word a day.

I challenge you to go and learn how to pronounce and use the word pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis and add a few new neural connections right now. It does exist, I promise you.

For those who love to travel and try new experiences, you’re on the right path. Now is the time to eat all the food you’ve never tried before, visit places on your bucket list (if ever we are allowed to travel again) and do crazy things like bungee jumping, para sailing or deep-sea diving. Swim with the dolphins or glide with the eagles and visualise those neural connections growing.

Art is another area to explore. It’s funny, you know, how my foray into mixed-media acrylic painting has actually made my mind sharper over the past couple of years. It’s taken me to a meta level in terms of how I analyse things and enables me to come up with more creative ideas and solutions for my work. It’s also made me calmer in dealing with day-to-day challenges in different areas of my life.

On the physical front, varying your exercise routine can help boost neuroplasticity, as can intermittent fasting. Now is as good a time to put the fasting bit into practice, as we embark on the month of Ramadhan. After the initial period of tiredness caused by a drop in sugar levels, those who fast during this time often testify to a heightened awareness and a sharpening in their cognitive functioning. Think of it this way, other than the spiritual benefits for your soul, fasting during this month is also going to make you smarter.

So, going back to the question of retirement – I think it’s a definite no for me. I’m probably going to go off with a bang, doing something novel and exciting, or if my old bones do not permit, fulfilling my passion for building lives by standing in front of a crowd and expounding on how to keep their minds sharp till the end.

Sheila Singam is the founder of Human Equation, a development consultancy specialising in mindset change and innovation. Aside from her work as a consultant, she enjoys cooking, painting, dancing, singing, travelling and eating strange things. She’s thinking of learning Korean next. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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