It may be housed in an immovable shell of bone, but your brain—that three-pound fatty mass between your ears—is the most dynamic organ in your body. Your thoughts and actions add brain cells to the 100 billion already there, and create and strengthen the connections among them.
Your brain is constantly inventing and reinventing itself. Knowing how your lifestyle choices dramatically affect these abilities can help you boost the power of your brain and keep it supercharged for the rest of your life.
“Your brain is the single-most magnificent, integrated and complicated miracle ever designed in the history of this or any universe,” says Paul Nussbaum, Ph.D., clinical neuropsychologist, adjunct professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the author of “Save Your Brain.” “The fact that this miracle sits directly between our ears and is the ultimate portable and wireless device and literally defines who we are and what we imagine or choose to do is the reason everyone, beginning at an early age, needs to learn about this beautiful part of their being.”
What do we need to learn, exactly? Mainly that what we have always assumed about our brains may actually be wrong.
“Brain fitness is such a new field that people do have many misconceptions,” says Alvaro Fernandez, CEO of SharpBrains.com and co-author of “The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness.” “For example, many people seem to assume that as long as their brain is working fine, there is no reason to pay more attention to it. In reality, working on optimizing one’s brain is a bit like making sure to add gas to your car and change the oil regularly—it helps it work better and perform longer.”
Your Brain Is “Plastic”
Imagine that emerging from all your brain cells, or neurons, is a huge network of wires forming 100 trillion connections. While it may seem that your adult brain is fully formed and done maturing, the truth is that it’s constantly adapting, making new connections and rerouting old ones. “Brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, refers to the brain’s capacity to rewire itself through experience,” says Fernandez. As you learn things, your brain forms new connections among your existing neurons. It’s constantly changing, morphing and—if you play your cards right—improving. Plasticity explains how stroke patients can relearn skills they’ve lost due to brain damage. It also explains how a healthy part of the brain might assume the job of a damaged part. “Neuroplasticity doesn’t stop when we are 18 or 25 or 30,” explains Fernandez. “Every single day of our lives, no matter our age, we can change our brains for the better.”
Until very recently, the prevailing wisdom among scientists was that by adulthood you had all the brain cells you’d ever have and that as you got older, those cells would gradually die. But there was a scientific sea change in 1998, when it was discovered that the mature adult brain forms new neurons in the learning and memory region called the hippocampus. “Neurogenesis [literally, “the birth of brain cells”] continues during a whole lifetime,” explains Fernandez.
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