It has been confirmed thanks to neuroimaging technologies, including positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which make it possible to monitor the activity of the living brain.
However, does it mean that we cannot make more of our brains? Science doesn’t give a solid answer to this question simply because it still has a very poor understanding of how the human brain works and what it is actually capable of. The only certain thing is that the brain is a very flexible organ, whose structure and organization can be influenced by external factors and altered through a number of activities.
Till recently it was believed that growing new brain cells is simply impossible. The prevailing scientific view was that a person is born with a particular number of neurons, or brain cells, which only decreases with age.
In the 1970s, American researcher Michael Kaplan was conducting experiments on mice, in which some had stimulating toys and exercises in their cages, and others did not. As a result, Kaplan found that the animals that were involved in cognitive tasks demonstrated increased brain cell growth and enhanced activity in their mature neurons.
Moreover, Kaplan concluded that the mechanism of neurogenesis, or the formation of new brain cells, was based on stem cells turning into brain cells, not the mature neurons replicating. This type of cells remains in the human brain for lifetime, which means that it is possible to grow new neurons at any age.
A study conducted in 2010 in Harvard Medical School showed that mindfulness meditation rebuilds the brain, increasing gray matter in hippocampus, a brain region which plays an important role in learning and memory processing, and other brain areas involved in self-awareness and introspection.
Another study at the University of Zurich in Switzerland confirmed that performing altruistic acts can change your brain. The research team conducted the experiment using 30 volunteers and two games, during which the participants were asked to decide how much money they would give one another. It was found that the grey matter in the right side of their temporoparietal junction was unusually large.
The researchers concluded that people who are kind and perform altruistic acts actually have more developed brain regions and grey matter than those who do not. These are only some of the studies that confirm the fact that even a mature brain can grow new neurons and that it can be induced by performing cognitive tasks, such as learning and problem solving, and other brain-enhancing activities, including meditation, yoga and aerobic exercises.
However, brain function is based not only on the brain cells, but also on the connections between them, called synapses. Even if we imagine that we only have a fixed number of brain cells, do you think that we use the same pathways between them throughout our lives?
These pathways are the key to intelligence, creativity and innovative thinking. Scientists give birth to new radical theories, entrepreneurs come up with pioneering business ideas and artists create mind-boggling masterpieces because their neurons are arranged and wired in a certain way, and their neural connections are stronger in particular brain regions. The stronger our synapses are, the better our brain works, and the more productive and creative we are.
Here comes the concept called neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences. This amazing ability not only affects our development and cognitive functions, but can even help recover from a grave brain injury.
Dr. Yaffe and her colleagues of the University of California studied risks of Alzheimer’s disease by measuring the protein beta amyloid levels in the blood. They results showed that the cognitive decline was more significant when there was less beta amyloid in the blood, but lifestyle factors can affect this tendency. In particular, people with higher cognitive reserve (education, literacy) tend to experience less cognitive decline.
Dr. Matthew Bambling of the University of Queensland, Australia, believes that learning new things stimulates the brain and encourages it to rewire itself and change throughout life. By learning new activities our brain can develop new neural connections and thus alter its physical structure. “The brain is a remarkably flexible and dynamic organ responding structurally to everything we do, the old adage ‘use it or lose it’ might never be more true than for the brain,” he says.
Human brain is a wonderful organ and still hides a lot of mysteries to be unlocked. Maybe one day neuroscience will explain incredible superpowers of the human brain, such as photographic memory or the ability to solve complex math problems in the head (remember Daniel Tammet, “human-calculator” from UK?), and will find the key to unraveling its potential. Perhaps, it is impossible to move objects with your mind or change form by manipulating the cells of your body, like Lucy in the recent Luc Besson’s sci-fi movie did (or maybe it is, who knows?), but it is certain that you can enhance your abilities and boost your brain power. Stimulate your brain function – learn, read, meditate – and you will see that soon you will get miraculous results.