Science and Reality Today: Neuroplasticity and the learning brain …

We’ve all had that moment of running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

Perhaps it happened when we couldn’t find the car keys and feared we were going to be late for work. It’s only after a few minutes that we realize the keys were in our hand all along — joke’s on you: You’re fired.

The term neuroplasticity is derived from the words neuron and plastic. The human brain consists of 10 billion neurons. Every single neuron has the entire human genome in it. Every neuron is connected to thousands of other neurons with which it communicates.

The number of connections reaches the hundreds of trillions, which means when we learn something new it physically changes our brain.

Once people believed that the human brain could not generate new neurons after a certain age; so once a neuron was lost it was lost forever. This assumed that we are born with a finite number of neural cells and once the cell died no new one could grow. More recent data shows this assumption is wrong.

Our brains receive an astonishing amount of input everyday. At night while asleep (which is why enough sleep is such a crucial part of health) that new information is organized and pieced together.

When college students study all night “cramming” for an exam they are actually hurting their chances of obtaining that good grade. No matter how much information is taken in they will not be able to retain it for the next day (especially when you order pizza at midnight as we did).

So what is the key to learning and memory? One word — innovation.

Think about it. When you take the same route to work everyday, go to the same places every weekend or only talk to the same people, your brain is not being challenged. Your brain is not receiving new input from different ideas or experiences; so it has no reason to create new connections.

Think of it like exercise. If you don’t challenge your muscles in new ways, they have no need to grow and strengthen since these muscles are now accustomed to a certain way of doing things.

Little changes in our everyday lives can go a long way. Something as simple as finding new routes home, joining a new activity group in your area or trying out a new routine at the gym can help improve neuroplasticity.

I’m currently learning a third language and venturing into a new career field. (I can’t tell you what since my columns are supposed to be G-rated).

I also suggest starting out with something simple like holding your keys in a different hand everyday — one day the left, the next day the right — so you are never late to work again. Or, if you can afford it, buy pants that have pockets and ignore my previous suggestion.

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