Brain plasticity (or neuroplasticity): what is it?

Although all brains are almost the same, they are actually very far from it. It is true that superficially they all share a basic structure and some form, but if we examine them in detail we will see that they are all incredibly different; each of them contains neural circuits of very different shapes and distributions.

Moreover, these differences are not explained by the genes, i.e. we are not born with them and maintain them in a relatively stable way. In fact, these traits that make our brains unique have to do with a fact that is true in all cases: every life is unique and the experiences we have cause our brains to physically change. This phenomenon is known as brain plasticity or neuroplasticity..

What is brain plasticity?

Neuroplasticity, also known as brain or neuronal plasticity, is the concept that it refers to the way our nervous system changes from its interaction with the environment. Even in the case of monozygotic twins, this interaction is not the same, meaning that each person perceives and acts on the world differently, depending on the sequence of contexts in which they live.

Plus, neural plasticity isn’t something that takes a long time to happen – it happens constantly, in real time, and even while we’re asleep. We are constantly receiving a torrent of stimuli and we are putting out a constant stream of actions that change the environment, and all of these processes change our brains.

To understand it in a simple way, we can think about what the term “plasticity” refers to. Brain, like plastic, can fit into virtually any mold. However, two things need to be clarified in this comparison. The first is that neuroplasticity depends on the intervention of an external intelligence that directs the Fora modeling process towards a specific goal (in the case of the example, the manufacturer of the figurines or plastic parts), and the the second is that, unlike plastic, the structure and shape of the components of our brain can change a lot constantly: not just in a “manufacturing phase”.

How does brain plasticity occur?

Neuroplasticity is based on how neurons in our nervous system connect to each other. As the Spanish physician Santiago Ramón i Cajal discovered, the brain is not made up of a tangle of compacted cells that form a single structure, but are microscopic bodies that are autonomous and physically separate from each other that control information. without being able to unite definitively with each other. They are, in short, morphological individuals.

When a group of neurons are activated at the same time, they tend to send information to each other. If this pattern of activation is repeated with some frequency, these neurons not only send information, but tend to seek a more intense connection with others who are activated at the same time, becoming more inclined to send information to each other. . This increase in the likelihood of activating together is physically expressed in the creation of more stable neural branches that bind these nerve cells together and bring them together physically, which changes the microstructure of the nervous system.

For example, if the neurons that are activated when we recognize the visual patterns of a chocolate bar “light up” along with those that are activated when we taste the candy, the two groups of nerve cells will connect. a. a little more to each other, which will make our brain change even if it is a little.

The same is true of any other experience: even though we may not notice it, we are constantly having experiences (or rather small portions of experiences) that occur almost simultaneously and cause certain neurons to strengthen their bonds further and d ‘others to weaken. more. theirs. This happens both with sensations and with the evocation of memories and abstract ideas; the Halo effect can be considered as an example of the latter.

A scalable advantage

Does this capacity of our nervous system have a purpose to be shaped by our experiences? Actually no; it is a simple product of evolution which, for hundreds of millions of years, has cut our brain and given it certain properties.

In reality, brain plasticity is the opposite of a design created to achieve specific goals, because instead of making our behavior somewhat stereotypical and predictable, it makes it incredibly complex, connected to the many details of the context in what we are experiencing. and depends on our past experiences. This gives neuroplasticity a negative side (the appearance of phobias, trauma, etc.) and a positive side (our ability to learn from our experience and create complex and sophisticated thought patterns, for example).

However, the fact that brain plasticity has no specific purpose does not mean that in the balance of pros and cons, the former have outperformed the latter. The creation of large and highly interconnected societies, our ability to invent artifacts and new technological advances, and of course The ease of learning a language is a phenomenon that we have appreciated thanks to brain plasticity and that largely explains the overwhelming evolutionary success our species has enjoyed so far.

Brain plasticity makes our capacity to adapt to changing situations very high, As we can struggle with many of the new problems that evolution has not had time to generate an adaptation mechanism by natural selection. In the face of a natural disaster, for example, one cannot expect that environmental pressures will cause some individuals to reproduce more than others, so that thousands of years later, the entire population has of an appropriate genetic inheritance to deal with the problem: simply, individuals of a few generations learn to create technological and social solutions that had never been conceived before.

Personal implications

Beyond this cold analysis based on the growth of the human population, which does not have to correspond to the personal value that can be attributed to neuroplasticity, we could also say that a large part of our ability to be happy depends on this characteristic of our central nervous system.

Without brain plasticity, we could not create the abstract ideas needed to generate an autobiographical memory that allows us to be aware of ourselves, or learn from our mistakes or, in general, have what we call “mental life.” “. Brain plasticity is such a fundamental component of the normal functioning of our brains that without it we would be the closest thing to an assembly line robot we could imagine.

Resilience and well-being

At the same time, brain plasticity makes us very good at developing resilience, which is our ability to overcome very difficult situations. For example, we know that the perception of subjective well-being does not decrease significantly as we age away from the time of our birth, indicating that despite all the blows life can give us these do not “pile up” or chronically compromise our happiness. This maintenance of the level of well-being is done thanks to the ability of our neurons to reorganize themselves in the most convenient way, even when age makes many of them disappear.

In short, neuroplasticity allows us to stay afloat despite physical and emotional adversity. Although we often tend to mythologize those aspects of the human mind that seem permanent, we should never forget that each of us we are constantly changing beings, Literally; and this also applies to our psyche.

Bibliographical references:

  • Jäncke, L. (2009). Music stimulates brain plasticity. A: F1000 Biology Reports.
  • Keller TA, Just MA (January 2016). “Structural and Functional Neuroplasticity in Human Learning of Space Pathways.” NeuroImage.
  • Livingston RB (1966). “Brain Mechanisms in Conditioning and Learning”. Bulletin of the Neuroscience Research Program.
  • Wayne NL; et al. (1998). “Seasonal fluctuations in the secretory response of Aplysia californica neuroendocrine cells to protein kinase A and protein kinase C inhibitors.” Comp. General endocrinol. 109 (3).

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