We’ve mentioned brain plasticity in a couple of our post regarding brain injury and brain repair, so this post is going to delve into exactly what this term means and why it’s so important.
Brain plasticity, also called neuroplasticity, cortical plasticity and cortical re-mapping, is a term used to describe the way the brain organizes itself in response to experience. More specifically, “neuro” stands for neuron, the nerve cells in our brains and nervous centers, and “plasticity” for changeable or malleable. Since scientists began to study the brain, the idea was fairly set in stone that it was hardwired to respond in certain ways, and much like a computer, when one drive failed, that drive and all of it’s information was gone for good. The knowledge (read synaptic connections) contained in that portion of the brain would be wiped out if damaged, to never be regained.
Looking back now, it seems surprising that people who could easily grasp that the brain grows both in physical size and knowledge from childhood to adulthood, would assume that such an amazing organ was as unchanging as a machine. When scientists in the late 60s and early 70s began to discover that the brain was able to change what parts it used for different activities, switching over to other areas as the previously used portions stopped working or were utilized for different functions, the idea of brain plasticity was born.
Now decades of research have given credence to the idea that the brain changes in reaction to new situations or in counterbalance to brain injury. Thinking, learning and even acting change not only the brain’s organization but its actual physical structure. Called “maps”, the way the sensory system in the brain is organized changes with stimulus, often moving from one part of the brain to the other. Picture a map overlaying the brain, then move it from one area to another and you have an idea of how it works.
No longer are we limited by the idea of a never changing mind… we can now work on various aspects that are poorly formed or badly damaged with the hope of creating the necessary connections in some other part of the brain – a part capable of the needed responses. For a great book on this process and how to help your own brain function better, visit Norman Doidge’s Website or order his book, The Brain that Changes Itself.