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What is Brain Plasticity?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Brain plasticity is a term which is used to refer the brain's unique ability to constantly change, grow, and remap itself over the course of a lifetime. The “plastic” in this sense refers to “moldable,” rather than to the family of products derived from petrochemicals. This distinctive trait makes the brain a very valuable organ, as it can constantly adapt itself to deal with new input and information. All animals possess this characteristic to some extent, although most studies have focused specifically on the workings of the human brain.

There are three different types of brain plasticity. The first occurs when infants are born and start developing into children. Studies have shown that the immature brain grows and creates neural networks at an unprecedented rate, as the brain is flooded with new sensory input from the outside world. The second type occurs over the course of a lifetime, as the brain changes with age to reflect new experiences and events. Additionally, the brain demonstrates tremendous plasticity in the wake of injury.

Without this characteristic, the brain would remain static, frozen at a particular point in time. It allows the brain to do everything from learn how to speak to refining physical movements such as those associated with playing a musical instrument. Every time the brain encounters information, it reworks itself to accommodate it, and creates a map of the information it contains so that it can readily retrieve information when it is needed. People always need to be able to store and interpret new information, making brain plasticity critical to function at all ages.

In addition to reworking itself to store information and organize it effectively, the brain can also repair itself, to some extent. When an area of the brain is damaged, the activities associated with that region will sometimes move to another area of the brain, allowing the person to recover functionality. This type of brain plasticity is critical for people recovering from brain injuries and neurological disorders, as the damage may be permanent, but it can be possible to mitigate the effects.

Numerous studies have been conducted on brain plasticity to explore the changes in cellular structure which occur in the brain over time. A number of factors appear to contribute, from hormones generated inside the body to environmental cues, and people appear to be able to enhance the flexibility of the brain by exercising it, much like function of the musculoskeletal system can be improved or modified with exercise.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon293236 — On Sep 24, 2012

@anon147834: The problem with God in your argument is that there is no evidence that he has a direct relationship with any physics. Your conclusion "of course he did it" has no evidence. Fitness234 is just trying to say lets not jump to conclusions. Personally, I think all psychological studies point to determinism.

By anon147834 — On Jan 30, 2011

@ fitness234: That's only true if you have no inherent curiosity about the mechanics of the cosmos-- with such intellectual sloth, theological beliefs become irrelevant because the flame that kindles intellectual passion has not been lit.

I am a Christian, and a professional physicist. I certainly don't think the way you presume. You perceive me to say "God did it"-- well of course he did! But that's not a satisfying answer, the question is how did God do it? To quote a nameless physicist, God created everything by number, weight, and measure.

Number, weight, and measure provides me the mathematical relationship to further comprehend the Almighty.

By Burlap — On Oct 06, 2010

@fitness234, I think you will find that there are actually many intellectuals that exist in this world that have accepted god into their life. The ability to handle the overflowing effect god has on explanations and keeping a keen curiosity is not mutually exclusive processes.

Some people have their curiosity peaked when they find that god is real in their life. Questions about divine intervention and the ways that god does his bidding can come to mind. It also helps us ask questions about the world that we will then seek answers for even if they are from god.

God fills our brains and keeps us from becoming dormant in thought and emotion. He illuminates the life we live.

By fitness234 — On Oct 06, 2010

@Ubiquitous, while I respect your right to worship a god, whether it be false in my mind or not. I do have to agree that the revelation of a superior being would most certainly change some chemicals within our heads to help you develop new thinking patterns that compensate for this new acceptance.

On the other side of that argument though is a long term effect that the acceptance of god can bring into ones life and one that I think actually degrades the brain plasticity that we have.

When we accept god as the creator and overall answer to things that are unexplainable or unreasonable then we automatically create a pathway in our brain to god whenever we are confronted with problem or situation that we cannot comprehend. This leads to a degradation in our critical analysis skills as our mind will become accustomed to simply passing off the conundrum to an act of god.

As you can see this will eventually lead you to being less of a problem solver and more of a follower. Let me state again that I fully support the rights of humans to worship whatever god they want but please consider what it does to your decision making process and how you complete thoughts in your mind.

By Ubiquitous — On Oct 06, 2010

@GraniteChief, you are absolutely correct in the statement that hallucinogens can affect the plasticity of the brain however one must be very careful experimenting with such drugs. I think there are much more natural influence that we can use that will have the same mind opening experience and won't get your arrested or mentally deranged.

One such example is the acceptance of Christ in your life. While you may not want to recognize Jesus as your lord and savior the natural human desire and angst to find god can show you that we are pre-programmed for such thoughts.

When we do find god, as many of us will, there is a mental awakening that could be compared to a hallucinogenic experience. The same feelings of revelation and euphoria can take over not just the mind but the body as well. Thoughts change as our perception of the world shifts and our heads make sense of the new information.

One thing is for sure, it is the plasticity of the brain that allows for humans to be so flexible in society and one of the main contributing factors to how we are able to cope with the ever changing world in which we live.

By GraniteChief — On Oct 06, 2010

I wonder what effects hallucinogenic substances have on brain plasticity? My personal experience would lead me to believe that our brains open up while under the influence of these mind-altering substances. After all, we do call them mind altering.

The change of perception that one can feel during these experiences is both intense and very real. Different thoughts on the same subjects in our everyday life result in the creation of new brain pathways.

When we alter our thinking with the use of a chemical we can take advantage of the perception difference to analyze things in a different light then before. I wonder what other ways besides the use of drugs that we can alter our minds to increase brain plasticity.

By summertime — On Oct 06, 2010

It is amazing to me just how flexible and magnificent the human brain really is. Brain plasticity is why I continue everyday to exercise my mind with functions of math, intrigue and amazement.

These mental stimulation keep me feeling young and healthy even as I age and feel the strain of everyday life taking hold.

Doctors actually will recommend daily mental activity like crossword puzzles as a way for our minds to stay sharp even in these brain numbing days of television entertainment and instant satisfaction that the internet has brought to our living rooms.

By anon111107 — On Sep 15, 2010

Excellent breakdown of plasticity! Better than my Cog Psych book did, and that's great for me!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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