By Jackie Rainford Corcoran EBS Health Columnist
It was only 30 years ago that a tipping point in neuroscience was reached and neuroscientists—those who study the brain—began to fully shift their understanding of how the brain works.
For approximately 400 years prior, it was widely accepted that after adolescence, not only did the brain stop growing, but it began a long steady decline. And if brain cells died, that was the end of that.
I’m grateful to be alive in an age where we now embrace and celebrate that the brain is highly malleable, and growth and change are possible throughout our entire lives.
This new understanding of the brain is referred to as neuroplasticity, and as I prepare to leave my 40s behind, this provides great comfort. Old dogs can learn new tricks.
Not only have scientists shifted from believing that the brain stops growing, but they’re now proving that it’s possibly the most adaptable and changing part of the body, regardless of age.
Modern technology is responsible for this radical shift. New sophisticated tools allow neuroscientists to have a much more complex and complete understanding of how neural connections are made. And they’re just scratching the surface.
So what does this mean for our health? The implications are very exciting since most of us have a change we’d like to make in order to grow and enrich our lives. While we may have tried to change in the past and failed, we can be hopeful that it is in fact possible and we shouldn’t give up.
However, while it’s true that the brain remains plastic throughout our lives, it is more malleable when we’re younger since the brain is still forming. Current understanding is that the rational brain isn’t fully formed until age 25. This is a great reason for young people to practice healthy behaviors early on.
As we get older, we create stronger brain patterns, or neural connections, due to repetitive actions. This type of patterning benefits us by allowing us to not have to overthink our daily routines—consider the concentration it took the very first time you drove a car, compared to driving today. But it can also make change more challenging.
Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a professor of neurology at Harvard University, likens the plasticity of the brain to fresh snow on a hill saying that, “When we go down the hill on a sled, we can be flexible because we have the option of taking different paths through the soft snow each time. But should we choose the same path the second time or the third time, tracks will start to develop, and soon we will get stuck in a rut.”
That said, as we get older, “unlearning” is often the first step in change. And while this requires more effort and time, change is still possible and, if it means living a more fulfilling and meaningful life, it’s worth pursuing.
If you’re interested in learning more about reprogramming your mind and behaviors in order to change, I recommend starting with an easy to read book by Carol S. Dweck titled “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” It offers tips and tools on how to develop a “growth” over a “fixed” mindset in order to change and grow.
You can do it!
Jackie Rainford Corcoran is an IIN Certified Holistic Health Coach. Check out her new website corcoranhealth.com where you can schedule a free 30-minute health coaching session.