Cheerful child with plasticine

This is first of a series of posts on brain plasticity.

As a child, we have all played with plasticene. The joy of making new things from existing plasticene is something that one never forgets.

Our brain is like plasticene, malleable and changeable. It is not like clay that changes too easily. It is not like wood or metal that are both rigid and not easily changeable. It is like plasticene, it is plastic; something that can be moulded.

Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity refers to the ability of the brain to change its structure and connections. It is the brain’s ability to rewire itself.

A network of roads

Brain-NetworkTo understand brain plasticity better, imagine a network of roads and routes that are used by couriers for sending mails. Once a network with route-nodes is set up, the courier will use it over and over again for that particular route. Until something happens to the route – say a node gets taken off, there is a huge traffic jam in one route or a road repair. When a route is affected, new alternative routes are evaluated and then used.

  1. What is the most difficult step for the courier? Obviously, setting a new network is the most challenging?
  2. For a courier who is new to a given route, the first trip is most difficult. With each trip along the same route, the journey becomes progressively easier.
  3. After many successful trips, one can travel almost on autopilot, with minimum attention.
  4. When a set route is affected, making adjustments to it becomes a new challenge and needs more attention.

Brain Function – A network of neurons

Each brain function is performed by a network of brain cells (neurons) that form a network or a route to communicate and signal to each other. We have different networks for different functions.

Using the analogy of route network, commonsense (and neuro-science) tells us:

  1. Doing something for the first time is most challenging for the brain.
  2. Repetition makes things easier.
  3. Unlearning (losing a part or a complete network) and relearning (developing a completely or partiallly new network of neurons) is also challenging.
  4. Again, repetition is the key to integrating new abilities.

A few decades ago, it was believed that brain networks were static after their initial formation period. Now that belief has changed. Thankfully!

The next post talks of the implications of brain plasticity and why this is so important to understand. 

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