Myth: The adult brain is hardwired and unchangeable
On the contrary, your brain changes with every new skill you learn and the brain can form new connections throughout your life.
Most of us know that the brain has periods where it is especially receptive: If we learn a language during childhood, it’s easier to end up sounding like a native speaker than when we acquire the language later in life.
Sensitive periods in childhood are well documented, but in the educational literature they are sometimes over-accentuated in a way that suggests that it is ‘too late’ for our brains to change once we leave these sensitive windows of childhood behind.
However, the belief that adult brains can’t change after childhood has been debunked. While it is true that the most drastic reorganizations in brains structure happen within the first two years of life our brain never loses its ability to form new connections.
Mini-series: Myths about the brain
In this mini-series Anke Ninija Karabanov will bust 3 common myths about your brain.
Anke is an associate professor in Integrative Physiology at Copenhagen University and is particularly interested in how the brain controls voluntary movement and how brain plasticity can optimally support skill learning. This is the third article in this series.
Read the second one, 'Myth: The left and the right brain hemisphere are fundamentally different'.
Learning a new skill changes your brain
The ability of the brain to reorganise based on experience is called neuroplasticity and implies that our brain structure is not only determined by genetics and early childhood experience but that our experiences keep shaping our brains.
In other words, learning a skill changes your brain.
A now famous study (performed before cell phones and navigation software) showed that the brain structure of London cab drivers differed from the general population in areas associated with spatial navigation and memory.
The changes were more pronounced in more experienced drivers.
This indicates that it was their experience that caused the change and not self-selection, i.e. that people with certain brain features naturally seek an occupation where these features come in handy.
You can shape your brain in any stage in life
Neuroplasticity has a couple of important implications. It dissolves the clear separation between genes and environment by showing how inseparably interwoven nature and nurture are in shaping our brain.
It should also caution against overinterpreting small group-differences in brain structures (e.g. between men & women) as biological proof that groups are innately different. Brain plasticity shows that systematic differences in experience leave traces in our brains.
Whether you play piano, tennis, drive a truck or solve mathematical equations what you spend a significant amount of time on, affects and changes your brain.
Neuroplasticity also offers hope to people that have suffered brain damage. Even serious damage is not fully permanent, and the brain has the capacity to form new connections and recover functions fully or at least partially.
Neuroplasticity shows that by actively practicing the things you want to be good at you can shape your brain at any stage in life – and while this will not turn a pig into a race horse – it certainly allows all of us to become incredibly fast pigs.