Brain plasticity allows you to learn new skills, gather and use new information, and recover from brain injury. How can you enhance it?

Circumstances can change and so can you. That may be one of the benefits of neuroplasticity.

Although there’s no consensus on the definition of neuroplasticity, some experts use the term to refer to the brain’s ability to adapt to change and learn. Other professionals use it to describe the brain’s ability to grow, change, and heal.

In every case, research on this topic is limited but promising.

Let’s break the word “neuroplasticity” down. “Neuro” refers to the nervous system consisting of the brain and spinal cord, and “plasticity” refers to change.

[Your brain] is constantly changing. You can participate in that process. This means that things are not permanent as we once thought that they were and also that you can heal trauma,” says Lousie Hansen, a psychologist in Edmonton, Australia.

Historically, neuroscientists didn’t always operate on the knowledge of the brain’s capacity to adapt. It was assumed the brain didn’t or couldn’t change once you reached a certain age.

Among other things, this led many to believe that all injuries to the nervous system resulted in fixed outcomes: lifelong damages and limitations.

Nowadays, neuroscientists have discovered that this isn’t always true.

Through a process called neurogenesis, some cells in the brain grow and heal, particularly during the early years. In other words, new neurons and new connections between existing ones are sometimes created.

New brain skills are created by having new experiences and building new skills.

Every new experience you have, from grabbing a coffee at an unfamiliar cafe to hiking a mountain in a new country, can impact the brain. This can protect cognitive function and prevent age-related degeneration.

Just like you can go to the gym to lift weights to build muscles, you can also exercise your brain to strengthen memory and emotional regulation skills.

Through action and experience, you take advantage of your brain’s ability to modify its activity.

Every time you learn or do something new, your brain creates a new connection. Repeating that action reinforces such a connection.

Though researchers know the brain grows, changes, and can heal from injury, they don’t know how to make that happen intentionally.

Research suggests that you can start by engaging in new activities or those that require you to use diverse skills. This opens the doors to emotional and behavioral change.

Some of the ways you could promote neuroplasticity include:

Take new routes

Every new experience has the potential to enhance your brain’s ability to change.

Traveling, for example, can help. Our brains are forced to stop auto-piloting in an unfamiliar environment like a new city.

Research from 2013 shows that novelty and challenges can enhance cognitive function. So, technically, you don’t have to leave your town to promote brain plasticity.

Consider finding alternative routes to your daily commute. Try that new coffee shop or restaurant around the corner. Go around your desk in the opposite direction that you typically do.

Move

A 2018 literature review showed that physical exercise can promote neuroplasticity in general. Activity is beneficial for many different regions of the brain and affects various aspects of cognitive function, including memory and learning.

This might be helpful for people facing major or mild cognitive decline, including Alzheimer’s disease.

In sum, exercising may help you slow the cellular aging process and enhance your overall brain health.

Practice meditation

Studies show that long-term meditation practice can change the function of the brain.

Specifically, mindfulness practice can enhance focus and attention and prevent cognitive decline.

Learn a new skill

The relationship between learning and neuroplasticity is twofold. Learning new things enhances brain plasticity, and because of the brain’s ability to adapt to change, you’re able to learn.

In this sense, every time you learn something, you benefit from neuroplasticity and promote it.

Research backs this up.

A 2021 study, for example, suggests that learning a new skill, such as Braille language, can promote neuroplasticity and enhance its benefits.

Other examples include learning to:

  • use your nondominant hand
  • speak a new language
  • play a new instrument
  • paint or draw
  • code computers
  • do puzzles

Rest

A lack of sleep seems to contribute to a decrease in neurogenesis, the process that allows the brain to repair and change.

Older research shows that not getting enough sleep inhibits the body’s capacity for neuroplasticity.

Researchers from The Center for Vital Longevity at the School of Brain and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas reviewed literature around what’s called the “cognitive reserve model.”

This model suggests specific experiences and behaviors that, through brain plasticity, protect against age-related cognitive function.

Some examples of behaviors that may protect your cognitive function include:

  • education
  • high literacy
  • engaging work
  • maintaining an active, engaged lifestyle in late adulthood

Other factors crucial to enhancing neuroplasticity include:

Stimulation

Our brains are attentive to our surroundings.

A growing body of evidence demonstrates that a stimulating environment — whether that be nature, a workplace with lots of art on the walls, or an exciting city landscape — impact our brains’ ability to thrive.

A propensity for new experiences

It’s natural to do what feels comfortable repeatedly. Yet, our brains need novelty to thrive.

You don’t have to hike Machu Picchu, but you could try switching up everyday activities. For example, try brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand.

Healthy lifestyle

The brain comprises 2% of our total body weight and it uses about 20% of the energy we take in from nutrition.

In other words, the brain requires fuel. To “feed” the process of neuroplasticity, research from 2017 suggests the need to supply our brains with enough wholesome food and an active lifestyle that feel good in our bodies.

We can change. What you do, fear, or think doesn’t have to be permanent.

Remembering the brain’s capacity to change can help you realize you can respond to stress, anxiety, frustration, or disappointment differently than you did before. This, in turn, can help you break thought and behavioral patterns.

While much of life may feel out of control, there are many other things you can control.

If your thoughts or beliefs are causing you anxiety, for example, you have the innate ability to change those thoughts and beliefs. You can change unwanted habits, too, and develop new ones.

Neuroplasticity can also make it possible to recover from injury and trauma.

Other benefits of brain plasticity include:

  • increased capacity for healing
  • enhanced cognitive ability
  • clarity and inner calm
  • planning and achieving goals
  • adaptability and flexibility

But while neuroplasticity offers you countless benefits, it may also offer some challenges.

“Neuroplasticity isn’t all good news; it renders our brains not only more resourceful but also more vulnerable to outside influences, psychiatrist Norman Doidge wrote in his 2007 book “The Brain That Changes Itself.”

“Ironically, some of our most stubborn habits and disorders are products of our plasticity. Once a particular plastic change occurs in the brain and becomes well established, it can prevent other changes from occurring.”

It may be a good idea to keep in mind that the brain can both recover and decline in response to life’s experiences and personal behavior.

Some external factors may impact you negatively. For example,

  • injury
  • trauma
  • disease

But it’s also through neuroplasticity that you have the chance to heal and change from these experiences.

For example, having the support of a mental health professional can help you develop new coping skills that, if practiced continually, could lead you to change hurtful thoughts and behaviors.

You may have more say over your thoughts and behaviors than you think you do. Your brain provides you with the capacity for change and healing.

It’s also possible to enhance that innate resource by trying new experiences, constantly learning, staying physically active, and creating stimulating environments.