Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize and absorb new information by forming new neural pathways. It’s really quite remarkable: Simply by learning a new skill or behavior, the cellular structure of the brain begins to change, and new synapses (the connections between neurons) can develop. Even adjusting your thought patterns can cause the brain to rewire, as scientists at UCLA discovered in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. (Meditation has also been found to affect our gray matter; see Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson, PhD, and our archives for more in “Build a Better Brain” and “Upgrade Your Brain.”)
This is over the span of a lifetime, not just in childhood as scientists previously thought. So the times that I’ve thrown up my hands in protest and said, “This is just the way that I am,” was more about my choice to continue a particular behavior versus my ability to change it.
You can exercise your brain with games, reading and learning a new language, for example, just like you exercise the muscles of the body. And exercising your body improves functioning of the brain, in mood, productivity and concentration. It’s all connected, my friends.
Why am I so excited about neuroplasticity? Because the more I learned about the brain, the more enthused I became to take on healthy challenges. Following a new recipe, practicing yoga, accomplishing a box jump at the gym — each new skill stimulated my mind so that I was not only happier and more energized, I started to feel sharper mentally. My emotional responses changed, too: less stressed, more patient and flexible when plans changed.
Take the tool we used in tonight’s workout: the ViPR. It’s a weighted rubber tube with openings for handles. You can swing it during lunges, hold it horizontally during squats, or flip it over as you perform a lateral shuffle, among other exercises. It was my first time using one, and I felt a bit awkward as I flipped the ViPR from side-to-side in my lunges. But I remembered how moves that challenge my balance and coordination improve my body as well as my brain, so I carried on as usual, in a manner to appear like I knew what I was doing. It’ll take some practice, but the benefits in the novelty alone were exciting to consider. (And my obliques were sore the next day, so there’s that.)
What new practice, physical or mental (or both), have you taken up and enjoyed?