Train Your Brain

From the April 2015 Trumpet Print Edition

Your brain is like a machine—essentially fixed, unable to grow after a certain age. At least, that’s what neuroscience long believed. Experts thought that, unlike other organs, the brain couldn’t repair itself or regain lost ability once diseased or damaged. They also believed that different regions of the brain had specific, fixed functions. Underlying it all was the view that, like machines, the brain was destined to deteriorate and break down from use and aging.

New research shows that the opposite is true. Our brains are far likelier to deteriorate from underuse than from overuse.

Norman Doidge’s new book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, discusses the growing body of research disproving the old fatalistic view, and shows that we can seize control of our brains’ destiny. He sums up the brain’s endless ability to adapt by the term “neuroplasticity.” The new understanding has major implications for how we maintain brain health and treat brain problems.

Use It or Lose It

For healthy brains, neuroplasticity’s basic principle is “use it or lose it.” Go easy on your brain as you age, and deterioration will be likely. But push hard with intensive learning, and you can maintain and even improve its power. “Physical exercise produces some new cells in the memory system, but mental exercise preserves and strengthens existing connections in the brain, giving a person a ‘cognitive reserve’ to fend off future losses and to perfect skills,” Doidge writes.

Our brains can be thought of as being filled with “circuits” that constantly change in response to how we behave. “As we think, perceive, form memories or learn new skills, the connections between brain cells also change and strengthen,” Doidge writes. “Far from being hard-wired, the brain has circuits that very rapidly form, unform and re-form.”

Studies show that people who undertake brain exercises show benefits a decade later. Their cognitive ability improves not just for those brain exercises, but also in everyday life. Another study showed that those doing the exercises can process information with as much accuracy and speed as they had when they were 10 years younger.

Doidge says that the exercises don’t always have to be abstract. Learning a language, dance or musical instrument often accomplishes the same thing, as long as the skill is a new one. “As we get older, and particularly as we enter middle age, we are no longer taxing our brains as much as we did when we were at school,” he wrote in the Guardian. “Most of middle age is the replaying of already-mastered skills, such as reading the paper and repeating familiar tasks at work. To maintain an aging brain requires novelty and taxingexercise” (February 15).

Healing and Repair

The new principles are also being implemented to dramatically improve—and sometimes even cure—brain problems that were previously thought irreversible. “If an area is damaged, new neurons can often take over old tasks,” Doidge said. “Nor are we just our neurons. Our memories and experiences are also encoded in the patterns of electrical energy produced by our brain cells, like a musical score. As with an orchestra, when one member of the string section is sick, the show can still go on if a replacement has access to the musical score.”

Doidge describes a man with chronic pain who was cured by intensive visualizing. It worked because a brain region that regulates pain also processes mental imagery. The patient “forced himself to visualize imagery whenever he was in pain,” Doidge said. “It didn’t matter what he imagined, as long he engaged that map for imagery instead of pain.” For the first two weeks, the visualizations would give him only a few seconds of relief at a time. But after several months, he was enjoying significant pain-free periods. After a year, he was off all medications and totally free of pain.

He writes also of a South African man who significantly reversed the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease by forcing himself, over a grueling 20-year period, to relearn how to walk. With the intensive effort, the man effectively rewired his brain. “The physical and mental habits attacked by the disease were bypassed by a self-attentive walking program,” Doidge said. “New neural networks were brought in to play to enable the activity.”

Victims of stroke, brain tumors, autism, blindness, multiple sclerosis and other ailments have also experienced dramatic improvements or cures by applying the principles ofneuroplasticity—remolding their brains.

The Keys Are in Your Hand

Imagine owning a truck that becomes stronger the harder you drive it. The steeper the hills you climb in it, the more torque and horsepower it develops; the further you push it on each drive, the faster it becomes. It’s difficult to envision because the opposite happens to technology: The more it is used, the faster it weakens and breaks down. But not so with biology.

Of course, we do age and degrade over time, and sometimes suffer injury or disease. But very often we are not powerless against it. God designed our bodies and brains to improve as a result of use, effort and labor. He gives us the power to improve ourselves, and commands us to do so (Matthew 5:48).