Neuroplasticity -- it's the term scientists use to describe how the brain changes itself through experience. Thinking, learning, and taking new actions all change the brain's physical structure, organization, and capacity -- all the way into old age. Cool, eh?
Dr. Norman Doidge, a research psychiatrist at Columbia University, wrote The Brain That Changes Itself and according to an article in The Times of London:
"Doidge argues that the discovery that thoughts can change the structure and function of our brains--even into old age--is the most important breakthrough in neuroscience in 400 years. His collection of case histories is inspiring: people who have had strokes and been declared incurable have been helped to recover, learning disorders have been cured, IQs raised, obsessions and traumas overcome, and there are 80-year-olds whose memories have been restored to the function of people 20 years younger."
We've been running a Mindfulness & Health tele-series with Pam Weiss, an Insight Meditation teacher, and Pam spent time on a recent call talking about how meditation and mindfulness help change the brain through an ongoing practice of concentration. My mom has started to be a bit forgetful and she is in the course (and enjoying it), so the topic of neuroplasticity has been on my mind of late.
Dr. Doidge believes that brain exercises are often more effective than medication, connecting brain re-wiring to the building of new muscles in areas that are weak. He has seen kids diagnosed with ADD who are helped through learning sessions designed to increase connections between nerve cells. According to Doidge, connections between two cells might double from 1300 connections to 2600 connections with one learning session. The analogy to lifting weights is often made.
Particularly interesting is the notion that thoughts can turn genes on or off. Yikes...any of us dealing with health issues of undetermined nature may need to turn even more intensively to mindfulness activities-whether in the form of traditional meditation or learning a new game or profession, as highly-focused attention creates positive changes to the brain.
I came across a company, Advanced Brain Technologies, based out here in Utah, that offers learning programs for improving memory, listening, attention, and even sensory processing skills. The have music programs and also a Brain Builder program, which might be worth checking out if you're worried about your own memory or brain health.
Hmm. I could get the "kat" to do an interview with the CEO of Advanced Brain Technologies if enough of you are interested. Let me know!