Most animals have one or more evolved strategies they use to survive: size, speed, armor, sharp claws, sharp teeth, poison, camouflage, agility, keen senses, stealth, or teamwork. Humans certainly have the capacity for teamwork, and we’re capable of limited agility, but we are born with little else from that list. Compared to, say, tigers and elephants, we’re small, weak, and vulnerable. We aren’t born with any weapons, camouflage, or armor. No, we’ve evolved down a different path. Our strategy is adaptability.
Our incredible brains give us the ability to find ways of surviving without innate tools. We rely on cleverness. We invent our own weapons. We make our own camouflage, armor, shelter, and poison. We’ve invented tools that enhance our senses, increase our speed, and improve our ability to work as a team: language, long-distance communication, cultural symbols, and traditional rituals. We’ve mastered clothing, fire, and healing. We’ve learned to tame animals and grow our own food. This inventiveness allows us to survive and thrive in a wide variety of environments, and to handle the enormous changes that may occur during a lifetime.
The human brain is a machine built to handle change. It is designed to be adaptable.1 For some reason, this comes as a surprise to many people. Perhaps, by no fault of their own, they’ve been drenched in a culture that worships genius and talent so much that they’ve come to believe that the ability to succeed is something you’re born with. You either have it, or you don’t. The truth is, there’s only one ability you need to succeed and we’re all born with it: the ability to learn.
I’ve drawn an exaggerated contrast between humans and other animals. We’re certainly not the only ones capable of learning and adapting. All brains are, to some extent, malleable. It’s just that the human brain is especially adaptable. It is more flexible. It has a greater capacity for learning, memory, and creativity. This malleability will henceforth be referred to as neuroplasticity. All animals have some neuroplasticity; humans have a great deal.1
What does this plasticity look like? All animal learning, great and small, is done through physical changes in the brain – changes in wiring, chemistry, and blood flow. As rats learn a maze, for example, their brains undergo physical changes that are observable in brain scans. The greater the learning, the greater the amount of physical change. As children learn their native language, for instance, their brains undergo massive structural changes. Anytime you learn anything, you’re changing the structure of your brain.1
Since humans can continue to learn throughout their lives, we can continuously change our brains as adults. The lesson here is that it’s never too late to change your mind about something, it’s never too late to learn a new skill, and it’s never too late to quit a bad habit. Changing your brain as an adult is harder than it is as a child, but there’s no doubt at all that it can be done.2
Since the discovery of neuroplasticity, it has been applied to the treatment of a wide range of previously intractable human problems: loss of sight or hearing, brain damage from accidents and strokes, speech impediments, childhood learning differences, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and mental illnesses. Treatments derived from an understanding of neuroplasticity are already helping millions of people.2 By understanding how it works, you can improve your own learning and your own life. By understanding how your brain changes, you can take charge and guide that change in whatever direction you desire.
Each neuron is like a city with 10,000 roads leading in and out of it:
Learning adds new roads. Lack of learning causes the roads to fall into disrepair. Basically, your intelligence is a function of the number of neurons you have and the number of connections between them. Since learning adds new connections, learning anything makes you smarter.3
Every time you learn something, it improves your brain’s ability to learn in the future. This is the essential purpose of school – to prepare your brain to learn. It’s very unlikely that you’ll need to know Shakespeare or the quadratic equation for your future career, but by learning those things in school, you’re developing a brain that is more capable of learning.
Learning: Making a Path in the Forest of Your Mind
Whenever you learn something new, connections are formed. For example, when you learn a new vocabulary word, new connections are made between certain neurons. They are very thin, weak connections. If you never use the word again, you’ll forget it, because weak connections don’t last. However, if you are exposed to that word again, the connections will strengthen. If you repeatedly use that word, the connections will become so strong that the word will become part of your long-term memory.2
“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” –Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau was really onto something. The best metaphor for understanding neuroplasticity, as it relates to learning and forgetting, is to imagine creating a path through the forest. If no one has ever walked there, there will be no path to follow. The first walk will be very difficult: It will be unclear which way you should go, and there will be bushwhacking. This is the struggle of learning something new, the struggle of being a beginner.
If the path is walked repeatedly, the brush gets cleared, and a visible trail through the forest begins to appear. The path becomes easier to follow. You may still get lost sometimes, but at least you’re done bushwhacking. This is what it’s like to have a basic understanding of a new idea. This is what it’s like to be an intermediate.
After the trail is walked many times, it becomes an easy, obvious path. The path is nearly permanent. This is what it’s like to have a strong understanding of an idea. This is what it’s like to be an expert.
You have to walk the trail frequently at the beginning in order to establish it, but once it’s established you only need to revisit it occasionally to maintain it. But if no one walks the path for a long time, plants will sprout on the trail, the surrounding bushes will become overgrown, and the trail will fade back into the forest, eventually disappearing completely. This is what it is like to become rusty. Without practice, you’ll lose the skills you have already mastered. Likewise, if you don’t revisit your memories, they become fuzzy and are eventually forgotten completely. This principle is usually summarized by neuroscientists as simply, “Use it or lose it.”2
For the purpose of learning, the lesson is very clear: If you really want to learn something, you must repeatedly expose yourself to the information. In a future blog post we’ll discuss how to space out your repetitions to form strong memories. For now, just know that “cramming” all your repetitions into one day is not the optimal choice if the goal is deep understanding or long-term retention.4
The other implication of neuroplasticity is the necessity of practice. If you want to get good at something, practice it regularly. This is as true for tennis as it is for math. Dr. Barbara Oakley of the University of San Diego likes to say, “Practice makes permanent.”4 There’s simply no other way to rewire your brain.
In later posts we’ll look at neuroplasticity in greater detail. For now, I hope you’ve seen that brains can change and that they change in a particular way. The lessons from this are straightforward: Learn continuously, use spaced repetition to form memories, and keep practicing.
1 Merzenich, Michael. “Growing evidence of brain plasticity.” TED2004. http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_merzenich_on_the_elastic_brain
2 Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself. Penguin Books, 2006.
3 Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press, 2008.
4 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.
Title Image: kellinahandbasket. “Lauri at the Wheel.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0. Words added to image.
Neuron: Seyfang, Mike. “neurons.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0.
Bushwhacking: Woelber, Paxson. “Scrambling down an overgrown trail toward the head of Eklutna Lake. Chugach Mountains, Alaska.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0.
Faint Path: Tonelli, Nicholas A. “Early-Morning Hike (5).” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0.
Well-Established Trail: Ateş, Faruk. “Big Sur camping trip for the 4th of July.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0.