Brain Development & Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the human brain to change itself to deal with deficits, injuries and general changes in the needs of an individual. Plasticity is merely the term we use to describe the fact that a person's brain is continually growing new neurons and making new connections to old ones. The brain is plastic, pliable, and able to grow new connections. As the needs of an individual change, the brain increases and decreases the neural connections in the brain. The brain is a “use it or lose it” organ. We can use the science of remapping the brain through brain exercises to assist children with autism. Neuroscientists are now encouraging patients to overcome their diagnosis by exercising the weak neural connections in their brains and increase their abilities. This kind of therapy works on many levels from stroke victims, to brain injuries and even children with autism.
Dr. Caroline Leaf relates that up to the mid-twentieth century, much of our knowledge about the brain was a mixture of speculation and dogmatism. Now with the advances in brain imaging techniques over the last thirty years, we are getting a view of the brain operating in real time. The operating principle of brain imaging is that the more the activity in the brain—the more blood will flow to that area, supplying the oxygen and glucose to the hardworking neurons.
From these imaging studies, along with other magnificent research by enlightened men and women in the field of brain research . . .We now know that the brain never wears out and that, in fact, it gets better with use. That’s because more connections are made, creating more context and a depth of knowledge to draw upon. What’s more, it changes its structure and function throughout our lives, adding to the uniqueness of how wonderfully we are made. We quite literally shape our own brains according to the choices we make—I call this the “I-factor”—and our life experiences.
The exciting result of this plasticity of the brain that we hold power over is that no two brains are alike: We are uniquely, fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:140). There is diversity in brain structure and organization and function, which results in the way we think and approach life.
- And as we carry this thought over into the classroom, I believe that sometimes what is diagnosed as a learning disability is actually classroom induced. Not all children are wired to sit still and absorb information. When we don’t work with the structure of our gifting, our ability to process information and build memory can be blocked.
- After we discover that a child labeled with learning disabilities has a kinesthetic gift structure—the dominant way information enters his brain is closely linked with movement—we can then think about strategies to maximize opportunities for him to learn by working with how his brain is wired.
Conventional wisdom for years held that the brain doesn’t grow or change after early childhood and, as we age, that our brain progressively degenerates and lets us down. Also, it was believed that once the brain was damaged it would always be damaged. However, the newly-emergent science of neuroplasticity shows that the brain has the ability to reorganize itself, changing and altering its structure as we think. The brain can adjust to trauma and rewire toxic thoughts and learning patterns. This has profound implications that can break the chains of the past—the brain can grow and change as we think, all under our control. Neuroplasticity research is outlining the boundless potential of the human brain and providing hope, a far cry from the theory of the unchanging brain. 3 (pp. 17-21)
As the child’s brain develops, it builds maps which increase and become more complex with use. Dr. Brown tells us that the vitality of these maps depends on the active and incessant orchestration of countless details.
This child is forming neural connections that make more and more sense as they are added to the growing body of stored, mapped information. The very rich connections among the brain’s maps are reciprocal and may involve millions of fibers. My sense of these interconnecting and dynamic maps is that they are most effectively enriched and shaped by the “states” of play.
The truth is that play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself. [plasticity]
There is no exact blueprint for creating the brain. The information encoded in our DNA is far too sparse to define exactly how all the neurons should connect up with each other. Instead, the brain wires itself up. It does this by creating far too many neurons, which in turn make far too many connections with other neurons throughout the brain. Following rules of interaction laid down in the DNA, the neurons send signals through the circuits, strengthening those that work and weakening or eliminating those that don’t.
This process continues through life, and is a kind of neural evolution. Play also promotes the creation of new connections that didn’t exist before, new connections between neurons and between disparate brain centers. It is activated from and organizes what I call “divinely superfluous neurons.” These are neural connections that don’t seem to have an immediate function but when fired up by play are, in fact, essential to continued brain organization.
But not humans, the brain can keep developing long after we leave adolescence and play promotes that growth. We are designed to be lifelong players, built to benefit from play at any age. The human animal is shaped by evolution to be the most flexible of all animals: as we play we continue to change and adapt into old age. 1 (pp.36-41)
1 Brown, S., (2009). Play: How it shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York, NY: Avery.
3 Leaf, C., (2009). The Gift in You, discover new life through gifts hidden in your mind. Southlake, TX:Inprov, Ltd.