Michelangelo's Creation of Adam Anatomy of the Brain
Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ may correlate with major sulci of the cerebrum in the inner and outer surface of the brain, the brain stem, the frontal lobe, the basilar artery, the pituitary gland and the optic chiasm.[
Today’s blog comes from my courageous friend and fellow brain blogger, Debbie Hampton, who writes over at The Best Brain Possible. In her words her blog provides: information and inspiration for anyone with a brain and desiring to improve it.

The Battle in Your Brain

When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, he had to work in an awkward position with his head thrown back looking up. During the project, his brain adapted so that he saw the world in that weird upside down way all the time.  Upon completion, his vision took several months to go back to normal.

Studies have revealed that musicians, who play stringed instruments, have larger areas of their brains dedicated to their active hands. Brain scans of London taxi drivers have shown that the more years a driver has on the job correlates to a larger portion of their brain handling the storage of spatial relationships. Meditators exhibited denser parts of their brains activated when paying close attention to something.

What’s going on here?

For decades, it was believed that by adulthood the brain was hardwired, fixed in form and function.  This concept was colorfully illustrated in textbooks and implied that we were pretty much destined to live our lives with the unalterable brains and traits we were born with.

Research in the past decade has completely overturned this dogma. We now know that the adult brain retains impressive powers of “neuroplasticity,” the ability to change its structure and function in response to experience.

Every minute of every day there’s a battle going on in your brain — a battle for cortical real estate.

Your experiences, behaviours, emotions, and even your thoughts are constantly, literally changing and shaping your brain.

These aren’t minor tweaks either.

Alvaro Pascual-Leone, MD, PhD, Harvard Medical School, blindfolded sighted people for five days scanning their brains at various times.  He had to make sure that the participants experienced absolute darkness because vision is such a powerful sense that if even the slightest light could be detected, their brains would prefer to process it.

In the experiment, the blindfolds acted as roadblocks for the neural pathways dedicated to processing the sense of sight.  After just two days, Pascual-Leone saw evidence of the blindfolded people’s brains reorganizing themselves with the “visual cortices” beginning to process information from touch and hearing.  Within twenty-four hours of the blindfolds coming off, the traditionally visual brain areas went back to their prior function.

Reasoning that the brain couldn’t grow new nerve connections that quickly, Pascual-Leone confirmed in later experiments that our brains are not organised in terms of systems that process a specific sense, but rather in terms of a series of specific operators that process more abstract information, for instance shapes or movement, for several senses.

It is these operators that are selected by competition.  The 1987 Nobel Prize Winner, Gerald Edelman proposed that there is constant competition, “neural Darwanism,” happening between operators.  When learning a new skill, people can recruit operators devoted to other activities to increase their processing power.  For example, someone trying to memorize a long passage might blindfold themselves to incorporate operators usually processing sight.

Competitive plasticity also explains why bad habits are so difficult to break because what really has to happen is the brain map allocated to the bad habit has to be taken over by something else.

The competitive nature of neuroplasticity has profound ramifications for us all. There is an endless battle for cortical real estate going on all the time in your brain.  If you stop playing guitar, speaking a second language or any mental skill, you don’t just forget it, you lose the brain space dedicated to it.  It truly is a use it or lose it brain.

Neuroplasticity Basics:

  • Neuroplasticity is the brain’s amazing capacity to physiologically change and adapt as the result of interactions with our environments, behaviors, and thoughts.
  • Neuroplasticity begins in utero and happens until the day you die.
  • Neuroplastic change takes place when the brain is engaged, interested and focused and can be directed and is enhanced by strong emotion and motivation.
  • Change strengthens the connections between neurons engaged at the same time.  Neurons that fire together, wire together.
  • Neuroplasticity is competitive.  Inactive areas of the brain will be taken over.  Use it or lose it.

Image credit: WikiComms Media

15 Responses to Neuroplasticity: the battle in your brain

  1. Sarah,

    Thanks so much for the wonderful opportunity to be a guest author on your blog. Like you, I love this stuff and want to spread the word. I find neuroplasticity and the amazing capabilities of our brains so empowering. Because of them, we all can change our lives for the better. Powerfully good stuff!

    • Debbie – I’m so honoured to have you blogging for me. Hopefully everyone heads over you way and reads more of you inspiring story 🙂 So glad to have you in my life 🙂

  2. I have found this thing to be true in my own life, be careful what you joke about repeatedly, be careful any repetitive thoughts, because my brain maps these and they then become true. I am constantly trying to curb my thoughts of “i am depressed”, or “i don’t feel good”, thinking, saying these things over and over does seem to make it come true

  3. Hi Dr. McKay, How are you? Yes I used concepts of neuroplasticity in 1986 quite intuitively. I had severe “obsessive compulsive disorder” to the point of long term psychiatric hospitalization. I thought up a phrase “I am Kurt I am somebody I am worth being loved by myself.” Now I said that every time I had an obsessive thought, which at first was very, very often. Within 6-8 months I no longer had symptoms of the description “ocd” and was on No psychotropic medication. I was no longer hospitalized. I had remission for 19 years, yes neuroplasticity works. I did not know about neuroplasticity and affirmations back in 1986, I just said the positive phrase and got results. Who Knew?

  4. It has been pointed out to me the following by a LinkedIn contact Pamela Brooks: “Great piece, but one thing in the article is not correct. It says “bad habits are so difficult to break because what really has to happen is the brain map allocated to the bad habit has to be taken over by something else” What they are really finding is that new habits are not learned over top of an old habit. The old wiring is still in place, but the alternate path or new habit has to be practiced over and over and over, until it becomes stronger and the neuro-connections that made up the old habit become weaker through lack of use. Thus the new habit then takes over as the preferred neuro-pathway. We do not get to wipe out our brain like a fresh slate. We will always have a bit of residual left behind. “Thus old habits die hard!”

  5. ‘Old habits die hard’ – That’s quite right, and there is a commonly known practice that says if you want to incorporate something into your life, then do it every day for 40 days. I am sure there must be some neuroscience to this – perhaps thats the amount of time it takes for our brain to prune old synapses and strengthen new wiring !

  6. I enjoy reading your blog. I teach 5th, 6th 7th, and 8th grade health. My 6th graders study body systems. I especially enjoy teaching my unit on the nervous system. We talk a lot about brain plasticity. I use the case of hemispherectomy patients good recoveries to illustrate brain plasticity. My 11 year old students are eager learners.

  7. Thank you Sarah,
    Your article is an inspiration. I’m a volunteer ‘poetry facilitator’ with the elderly in aged care facilities. Some cognitive residents, surrounded by those afflicted with advanced dementia fear they ‘will go the same way’ … ‘it’s inevitable.’ Your marvellous article is so easy to follow, so jam packed with gems of hope and inspiration that they feel is within their grasp because of the wonderful way you write.
    Can we hear that article again please? they ask.
    I NEVER tire of reading it. They NEVER tire of hearing it!
    Loved your TED talk – a treasure for the group … and for me too!
    Robyn Youl.

  8. […] Competition for neural real estate – In his book The Brain that Changes Itself Norman Doidge writes about two studies which prove that there is competition for brain real estate. The first one was where kittens had one eye sutured closed prior to them opening their eyes. That eye was never able to see because it received no vision input during the critical brain development period for eyes. What the researchers did find was the area which should have been processing sight from the covered eye was actually processing the inputs from the sighted eye. It appears that no part of the brain goes unused. Here is a short video of Dr. Doidge explaining competition for cortical real estate. […]

  9. […] Competition for neural real estate – In his book The Brain that Changes Itself Norman Doidge wrote about two studies which proved that there is competition for brain real estate. The first one was where kittens had one eye sutured closed prior to them opening their eyes. That eye was never able to see because it received no visual input during the critical brain development period for eyes in cats. What the researchers did find was the area which should have been processing sight from the sightless eye was actually processing the inputs from the sighted eye. It appears that no part of the brain goes unused. Here is a short video of Dr. Doidge explaining competition for cortical real estate. […]

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