Have you ever seen an elderly person try to learn how to use a computer or surf the web or even buy stuff online?
When I was a kid, it was the VCR.
I still remember being the one in charge of setting it up to record something because my parents weren’t able to figure out the darn remote control.
And let’s not even get into “advanced stuff” like programming a recording so they could avoid missing a movie or their favorite show because we were out.
The whole thing was like black magic to them.
There are countless examples like this. We’ve always just assumed that the older a person gets, the more difficult it is for them to learn new stuff. There’s even a saying for it: “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.“
But now my parents–the same ones who were completely puzzled by their VCR remote control–can work their iPhones fantastically well.
What’s behind that shift?
Why are they having less trouble with an infinitely more complex device?
Is it just because of Apple’s amazing user experience?
Changing the Paradigm
To understand the shift, we have to look at neuroscience, the science that studies the black box that is the human brain.
When we compare neuroscience to the long pedigree of the other sciences, it’s practically still in diapers. Yet, its discoveries have changed (for the better) our paradigm for understanding how the brain functions.
Until recently, the best scientific opinion was that the brain is static and unchangeable: we are born with a precise number of neurons that gradually degenerate and our intelligence is primarily fixed by our genes.
According to this former view, we experience one dramatic period of cognitive expansion from birth through our childhood. But once this phase is over, the assumption went, the vast majority of neurological connections and pathways had already been cemented.
After that initial burst, brain development slowed down and eventually entered into a phase of degeneration. It was an inevitable fact of development: existing neurons would die as we age, causing us to become duller and slower.
In other words, once the critical period of growth was over, there were only two possibilities left for the brain: deteriorate quickly or deteriorate slowly.
It’s no wonder people thought it was nearly impossible to learn new lessons or change personal beliefs once they had been acquired.
According to this paradigm, the brain is like a giant pool of lava that starts off molten, fluid, and shifting but gradually starts to seize up and solidify as it gets colder.
Thankfully, we now know that this paradigm is completely incorrect.
A number of recent experiments have shifted the paradigm and showed us that, in reality, the brain is a lot less like a solidifying mass of lava and a lot more like a big, adaptable, plastic web that can reconfigure itself in light of the experiences and lessons it encounters every minute.
It’s not fixed or rigid or predetermined; it’s the complete opposite.
It’s malleable and it stays that way throughout our entire life.
The new neuroplasticity paradigm shows us that we are capable of producing neurons and forging new neural pathways until the moment we die.
Let me just say that again: You can create new neurons and neural paths till the moment you die.
This means the learning process is not just for the young but can be carried out at any age.
You’re out of excuses to avoid learning that thing you decided would just be too hard.
It also means that intelligence isn’t fixed by our genes.
And the implications of this are huge.
Just think for a second what this means, not just for you (yes, you can keep thinking you’ve never been on the smart side if you want) but especially for kids, if there are any in your life.
They are not born smart or dumb. Once again, it’s not predetermined by their genes.
They are being forged into kids who are smart or dumb, all depending on the stimulus they receive.
I wish the educational system knew and embraced this.
Because it’s already been proven.
There are numerous studies and scientific research that have gone deep into the human neuroplasticity subject.
Perhaps the most famous is Eleanor Maguire’s study of London taxi drivers.
Her research shows that, compared to the average person, London taxi drivers’ brains have much more grey matter in the hippocampus region, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory and spatial navigation.
But their brains didn’t come that way straight out of the factory, but from cognitive training that changed the size and structure of the hippocampus.
These taxi drivers could only acquire their license after passing a test that required them to memorize more than 25,000 streets and thousands of historical, picturesque, and otherwise notable locations. It takes aspiring taxi drivers between 3 and 4 years to prepare and only about half of them will pass this demanding test.
Talk about the right stimulus.
So they literally restructure their brains during that time and make their hippocampus bigger than most people’s.
Isn’t that cool?
Reconfiguring Our Brains, One Thought at a Time
But neuroplasticity isn’t just about long-term effects.
You don’t need four years in order to see changes in your brain.
It’s something that happens with every thought you have.
The Spanish scientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone taught a group of volunteers to play a simple piano piece with five fingers.
Half of them were allowed to practice on a real piano but the other half were told to simply imagine practicing the piece in their heads.
Pascual-Leone observed that the first group’s continuous practice brought about an increase in the motor cortex, the region of the brain responsible for moving the fingers.
But what’s really fascinating is that the motor cortex also lit up in the second group, those who only imagined practicing.
The mere mental simulation of playing the piano, even in the absence of the activity itself, was enough to provoke the effects of neuroplasticity.
These remarkable findings give us some extraordinary insights into why meditation and other cognitive practices, like visualization and positive thinking, produce real changes to the structure and wiring of the brain.
The brain is ever able to create neurons and synapses when exposed to the necessary external stimulus for a sufficient amount of time. It’s basically the equivalent of what happens to our bodies when we subject our muscles to external stimuli, like lifting something heavy.
It adapts, plain and simple.
So the real secret to keeping your brain young is nothing shocking: just keep learning.
Learning new things, exposing yourself to new ideas and concepts, acquiring a new skill, learning to do handstands (did you know that one of the best generators of brain stimulus is movement?)
Neuroplasticity is a game changer and it’s without doubt one of the foundations that makes any type of personal development work possible and feasible.
Every time someone hits you with that all-time classic excuse, “you know, I’ve been always like this, I can’t change,” please forward this to them.
If they want to stick to that narrative, that’s ok, but at least they’ll have to cut the B.S. for once and call it for what it is: a terrible excuse.
What about you? What is the neuroplasticity paradigm enabling you to do?
Leave a comment and let me know.