The Secret to Growing a Better Brain

Expansive research and advances in technology have contributed to a shift in a fundamental belief: that our brains are fully developed by the time we turn 30. Now we know that just isn't the case. We can actually grow more neural connections and rewire the brain well into our senior years. The brain is a learning muscle.  And like any other muscle in the body, the more we use different regions of that muscle, the stronger those regions get.  Experiences that are intense, prolonged, or repeated will physically change the anatomy and chemistry of the brain. Neuroscientists refer to this process as experience-dependent neuroplasticity.  


Back in 1949, a Canadian neuropsychologist named Donald Hebb discovered that every experience, thought, feeling, and physical sensation triggers thousands of neurons that pass information back and forth and create a neural network. When we repeat an experience over and over, those neural connections literally get stronger and bigger.

For example, studies show that Black Cab drivers in London use one part of their brains over and over and as a result it’s bigger than yours and mine. If you’ve ever been to London then you know that the streets are ridiculously complex and aren’t constructed on a typical grid pattern.

Neuroscientists have compared brain scans of London cabbies with people like you and me and discovered that the London cabbie has a larger more neuron dense hippocampus.   The hippocampus is where our built-in GPS lives. Because they use it day in and day out, it grows bigger and stronger.

Okay, so you may not be interested in driving a black cab or growing your hippocampus. Maybe you don’t need a new neural GPS. But you should be a little interested in neuroplasticity because it’s at the root of research on rewiring the brain for better emotional health and overall well-being. A wealth of studies show that the practice of gratitude and kindness enable us to embed positive experiences in the brain and over time rewire the brain to be more receptive to neural activity that makes us smarter and happier.

 That’s the good news. The bad news is that we can also rewire the brain to be more receptive to negative emotions and the neural consequences. The brain reacts more strongly to negative experiences than positive ones. It’s an ancestral hand-me-down designed to keep us alive. Intense, repeated or prolonged negative experiences will actually grow and strengthen our stress receptors and connections making us more sensitive to stress.

So embed a little happiness in your brain today and appreciate the good things in your corner of the world.

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