How the things you do change your brain

The ability of our brain to continue to change throughout our lives is known as neuroplasticity. 

Video source: DNews / YouTube

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I just changed the structure of my brain. Or broke something up there. We should have an ambulance standing by, guys. 

Anthony here from DNews. And your brain is adapting and changing all the time, based on everything you do. A new study from Imperial College, London, shows that ballet dancers' brain structures actually change to keep them from getting dizzy. They just suppress the signal from the inner ear that tells them to get disoriented. Just: no, not needed, filter that information please. But it's not just a switch or a filter; the bits of the cerebral cortex that process those signals actually shrink. They get out of the way to allow other bits to get stronger. This is neuroplasticity. And it is the jam. It's a fairly new idea. Even though it was proposed in 1890 by William James, up until the 1960s, everyone pretty much thought that once childhood was over, your brain just froze, stopped developing. Not only is that false, the extent to which your brain can change is crazy. A study of London cab drivers actually found that they have more fully developed hippocampuses than most people. That's the part of the brain associated with space and memory. Animals that hide food for the winter and have to find it later have more fully developed hippocampuses than animals that don't. And years of having to know their way around all 25,000 streets of London made the cab drivers' brains restructure to become good at it. 

Studies of the brains of high-level athletes have showed that having to focus on precision and constantly integrate feedback into their routine actually thinckens the outermost layers of their brains. Scientists can actually tell how long somebody has been intensely practising a sport by how thick those layers are.

But it doesn't take years of practised routine to make this stuff happen. Your brain is insanely adaptive, even in the short term, even if you just think about changing it. A Harvard study a few years back gave two groups of people a couple days of piano lessons. Then one group practised for another five days and the other group imagined practising for five days. They just mentally went through the steps of playing the song in their head. And after scanning everyone's brains, they found that the motor cortexes of both groups expanded just as much, at least for the first few days. 

Now, on the other hand, neuroplasticity could be part of why habits can be so hard to break, and might also have a hand in addiction. Mice given cocaine just once grew new brain circuitry within two hours. They adapted quickly to love the drug and to seek out the environment where it was given to them.

But it also means that if you need to change a habit that seems impossible to kick, you might still be able to strenthen the parts of your brain you need to get rid of it. A study of musicians' brains showed that they have highly developed frontal lobes and are more likely to be calmer and open-minded. So if you have anger or defensiveness issues, you could potentially take up an instrument to help train yourself out of them. 

Basically, your brain becomes the brain you make it through what you do every day. You can train it just like any other part of your body.

Now I just need to know which part of my brain hits the snooze button too many times in the morning. 

What would you like to train your brain to do? Let me know down in the comments, and subsrcibe for more D News. 

Brain games: how athletes' minds work

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