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Brain Awareness Week: Neuroplasticity

Our latest post for Brain Awareness Week is an excerpt from Neuroplasticity by Mo Costandi. This book, part of the Essential Knowledge series, is the real story of how our brains and nervous systems change throughout our lifetimes—with or without “brain training.”

If you query Google about “rewiring your brain,” its autocomplete function will give you a list of the most popular search terms using that phrase. You can, according to the results of such a search, rewire your brain for love and for happiness, to become more successful at work, and even to find meaning in your life. Scrolling down the search results brings up yet more options: rewire your brain to think positively, cultivate self-confidence, sleep better, and avoid procrastination. If the Internet is to be believed, you can rewire your brain to improve just about any aspect of your behavior, and so the power to transform your life lies in your ability to consciously change that 1.4-kilogram lump of meat inside your head.

But what does “rewiring your brain” actually mean? It refers to the concept of neuroplasticity, a very loosely defined term that simply means some kind of change in the nervous system. Just 50 years ago, the idea that the adult brain can change in any way was heretical. Researchers accepted that the immature brain is malleable, but also believed that it gradually hardens, like clay poured into a mold, into a permanently fixed structure by the time childhood has ended. It was also believed that we are born with all the brain cells we will ever have, that the brain is incapable of regenerating itself, and, therefore, that any damage or injuries it sustains cannot be fixed.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The adult brain is not only capable of changing, but it does so continuously throughout life, in response to everything we do and every experience we have. Nervous systems evolved to enable us to adapt to the environment and determine the best course of action in any given situation, based on what has been learned from past experiences. This is the case not just for humans, but for all organisms that have a nervous system. That is to say, nervous systems evolved to change, and so neuroplasticity is an intrinsic and fundamental property of all nervous systems.

The concept of neuroplasticity therefore pervades every branch of brain research, and neuroscientists take it for granted that any experiment they perform will induce some kind of change in the nervous system of the organism they are studying. Different researchers define neuroplasticity in different ways, depending on exactly which aspect of brain and behavior they are studying, and the term is so vague that it has become virtually meaningless when used alone and without further explanation of exactly what type of plastic changes are taking place. Nevertheless, the idea that we can willfully shape our brains to change ourselves is an attractive one, and so the concept has captured the public imagination.

Today, neuroplasticity is a buzzword in many different realms. “Rewire your brain” has become something of a mantra for motivational speakers and self-help gurus, and the concept is being evoked by educationalists and business managers in their attempts to enhance learning and improve leadership skills. Misconceptions abound, however, and in these contexts neuroplasticity is usually ill-defined and often misunderstood. Some believe it has miraculous healing powers, and others say they can harness it with products or New Age therapies; but such claims are often hugely exaggerated and sometimes completely unfounded.

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Books, news, and ideas from MIT Press

The MIT PressLog is the official blog of MIT Press. Founded in 2005, the Log chronicles news about MIT Press authors and books. The MIT PressLog also serves as forum for our authors to discuss issues related to their books and scholarship. Views expressed by guest contributors to the blog do not necessarily represent those of MIT Press.