What is Neuroplasticity and How Does It Work?

We’re all familiar with the old saying: “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. But is it true?

There’s been a long held belief that when we reach a certain age, our brains stop growing and changing; that we become rather set in our thought processes and habits, and that we simply aren’t capable of learning like we can in childhood. Recent discoveries in neuroscience, however, have exposed the old saying as a myth. You can teach old dogs new tricks thanks to something called neuroplasticity.

What Does Neuroplasticity Mean?

Essentially, our brains are malleable, meaning that they are always growing and changing according to our experiences.

Let’s use post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as an example. In cases of PTSD, a sufferer is capable of experiencing trauma many years after a traumatic event. This is because their brain has used this traumatic experience to establish an association between certain triggers and subsequent feelings. Left untreated, repeated exposure to these triggers solidifies this association, maintaining the condition. Correspondingly, one form of treatment for PTSD – and for a range of other anxiety conditions – is exposure therapy. This treatment involves exposing an individual to triggers in a safe and controlled environment in an effort to breakdown old associations and form newer, more positive and more rational ones.

So How Does Neuroplasticity Work?

Our brains contain some 100 billion neurons which are the basic working components of the brain. Neurons send information from the brain to all parts of the body, telling us to move our legs to walk, to open our mouths to eat, and so on. But different parts of the brain control different things. So if our eyes encounter a staircase, for instance, one part of the brain might see and process the staircase, but another part of the brain might need to then tell our legs to alter our walking style accordingly. Different neurons need to ‘talk’ to each other for this to happen, and they do this along neural pathways.

According to old ways of thinking, these neural pathways would have been understood as fairly set in stone, and unable to change. The science of neuroplasticity, however, reveals that this is not the case. Different forms of cognitive training, along with repeated practice, can actually rewire our brains. We can carve out new neural pathways as we make new connections between things, and we can strengthen these pathways through practice, ultimately forming new habits.

From this perspective, then, the brain is not a machine, capable of many things but unchanging. Instead it is better thought of as a muscle, changing and growing with training.

Why is Neuroplasticity Important For Education?

Neuroplasticity underscores the idea of a growth mindset – the belief in one’s ability to improve at anything through hard work and determination. We all find some things difficult, but the idea of neuroplasticity is proof that we have the power to conquer anything if we put our mind to it. Think about when you first learned how to drive. No one jumps on the freeway straight away. You need to start with the basics, and practice over and over first. Some people might pick it up quicker than others, but we all get there eventually.

One of the most fundamental elements of neuroplasticity is mistake making. It is only by making mistakes, by recognising the wrong way to do something, that our brains can search for an alternative. Mistakes should be celebrated because mistakes are learning! Mistakes are literally the mechanism by which the brain changes and grows. Without mistakes, no one can achieve success.