The Adaptive Brain

Last night, I started my local course on The Science of Mindfulness. This is taught by the same teacher who taught The Science of Willpower class last year. She has a great book and is an excellent lecturer. I really enjoy her classes and I knew this would be no exception. As she talked about what the class would cover, one of the things she mentioned is how our brains are constantly changing.

I think most of us believe that youth is the time to learn all new things. By the time we reach middle ages, it’s too late to pick up a new instrument, a new “talent.” We’re pretty much done.

It turns out not to be true.

I’ve never believed this to be true so I am glad to find out that there’s research proving the human brain can be changed at all ages. She specifically mentioned a study where a group of adults were taught to juggle. These people had never juggled before. They had brain scans before the study began, then they were taught juggling for a while and had another brain scan done. The research found that certain areas of their brain changed during the study. The part of the brain responsible for tracking visual things (makes sense, right?) got denser. So the brain realized they were doing this and started becoming more efficient and capable.

So lesson 1: you can learn at every age and your brain is constantly adapting and optimizing in your favor.

And, even more interestingly, these same people were then told to stop juggling for six months. At the end of six months, they had another brain scan and it showed that the same areas got less dense. Weaker.

So lesson 2: if you don’t keep practicing, the brain adapts to that, too and thinks you don’t need that optimization anymore and so deteriorates.

Isn’t that fascinating? Your brain is a lot more adaptable than you think. I love this because it shows that we have a lot more control than we assume. If we want to get better at something, we have to do it, and then keep doing it. We say this to kids, but it’s also true for us.

And it’s true for physical/mental activities as well as emotional ones. So we think we can get better at math or music with practice. But we don’t think the same way about depression, pain, anxiety, happiness, etc. Those work the same way, too. You practice, you get better, your brain helps you out.

So you are in control.

You can make it happen.

I am not saying there aren’t limits and that we can do anything, anytime, etc. But the fact that our brains have plasticity all the way from birth to death is a very empowering thought for me.

As we always say: what you water, blooms.

Choose wisely.

4 comments to The Adaptive Brain

  • I heard you mention this on the Paperclipping Roundtable, and it peaked my interest. I am excited to read this book. Having relocated to the Bay Area, I am hoping to take one of Dr. McGonigal’s classes in the future. Thanks for sharing!

  • Margarita

    I love this post! It is very interesting and inspiring.

  • Kate Burroughs

    I started playing the mandolin, a stringed instrument, the year I turned 50. I now play in 3 different bands. I started scrapbooking 9 years ago and watercolor painting 4 years ago, after being a scientist and small business owner for 35 years. No artistic training up to that point. I am happy to continue to exercise my mind and learn new things. Keeps life interesting.
    Aloha, Kate

  • Quinna

    The Willpower Instinct is an incredible book!

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