Is your brain shaped by your experience? And does that lead to better thinking?

Research has shown that your brain is altered by everyday experiences and these brain changes do lead to better thinking.

To find out what experiences can rewire your brain leading to better thinking, read on.

Experiences that rewire your brain

Let’s look at education. Studies have shown that the brain is influenced by class groupings, school environment, curriculum, and examinations. These experiences affect the brain, and the brain affects them.

Schools present many opportunities that affect students’ brains. Issues such as social conditions, stress, physical exercise, and nutrition can affect memory, cognition, attention, and discipline.

A school will work well if the brains in the school are working well. If there is a mismatch between the brain and the school environment, something at the school will suffer.

Similarly, an organization works well if the brains in the organization are working well.

Let’s look at some of these experiences.

1. Growth of neurons

Research has shown that the human brain can and does grow new neurons.

With this understanding that the brain can grow new neurons, every school day will change a student’s brain in some way. Educators should prioritize policies and strategies that promote the growth of neurons.

Likewise, every working day at the workplace can change a person’s brain in some way. So, human resource managers or those involved in staff training and welfare should promote strategies that support brain development.

Since new neurons are highly correlated with memory, mood, and learning, educators can regulate these in everyday behaviors. Specifically, this can be enhanced by physical exercise, lower levels of stress, and good nutrition (Kempermann & Gage).

If you want to grow more neurons, check out our post on Neurogenesis.

2. Neuroplasticity

The ability to rewire your brain and remap itself is profound and is explored in The Journal of Neuroplasticity.

Schools can influence this process through skill-building, reading, meditation, the arts, career and technical education, and thinking skills that build student success.

Neuroscientists Paula Tallal and Michael Merzenich found that educators using the correct skill-building protocol, can make positive and significant changes to students’ brains quickly (Tallal, Merzenich, et al.). By understanding these rules on how brains change, educators can save time and money, and prevent students from failing

3. Nature vs nurture

The old-school view is that either nature or nurture (genes or environment) decides the outcome for a student. This view is still held by many even though in 1951, psychologist Calvin Hall suggested that debating this dichotomy is ultimately fruitless (Hall).

There is now a third option called gene expression which refers to the capacity of genes to respond to chronic or acute environmental input. This presents a new vehicle for change in students.

Neuroscientists Bruce Lipton and Ernest Rossi have written about how our everyday behaviors can influence gene expression. Studies have shown that gene expression can be regulated by what a student does at school and that this can enhance or harm long-term change prospects.

New journals like Gene Expression, Gene Expression Patterns, and Nature Genetics explore the mechanisms for epigenetic (outside of genes) changes.

4. Social conditions

Social conditions can influence your brain in unexpected ways.

In schools, many student behaviors are highly social experiences that become encoded through their sense of reward, acceptance, pleasure, pain, and stress. This suggests that school principals and teachers be more active in managing students’ social environment since students are more affected by it.

5. Chronic stress

Chronic stress is a very real issue at schools for both staff and students.

Homeostasis – a process that living things use to actively maintain fairly stable conditions necessary for survival – is no longer a fixed or static point.

Neuroscientist Bruce McEwen discovered that allostasis, a metabolic state, is evident in the brains of people with anxiety and stress disorders. These allostatic stress loads are becoming increasingly common and they have serious health, learning, and behavioral risks. They can affect attendance, memory, social skills, and cognition.

Check out The Journal of Stress Management and the Journal of Traumatic Stress for more of these topics.

For more on stress, see our post on the 8 things you should know about stress.

6. Rehabilitation

Stunning strides have been made in the rehabilitation of brain-based disorders, including fetal alcohol syndrome, autism, retardation, strokes, and spinal cord injury.

New drugs, stem cell implantation, and behavioral therapies can be used to influence, regulate and repair brain-based disorders.

Check out The Journal of Rehabilitation and The International Journal of Rehabilitation Research for articles on how special-needs students can improve with rehabilitation

7. Nutrition

Good nutrition is essential for brainpower and avoiding obesity.

Journals like Nutritional Neuroscience and The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition explore the effects on our brain of what we eat.

The effects on cognition, memory, attention, stress, and even intelligence are now emerging. Schools that pay attention to nutrition and cognition (not just obesity) will probably support better student achievement.

8. Art and neuroscience

There is increasing evidence that art enhances brain function. When people look at art (e.g. a painting), their brain wave patterns, mood, and emotions may be affected. Art can also raise their serotonin levels.

Professor Semir Zeki found that when people viewed art that was beautiful, their blood flow increased by 10% thereby enhancing thinking (Zeki). In another study, Anne Bolwerk found that art does affect brain function (Bolwerk, et al.).

Simply looking at art and getting a pleasurable experience can rewire your brain leading to better thinking.

9. Physical education

Because of the high demand for test results, many educators are eliminating recess, play, or physical education from their school agendas so that students focus more on studying.

Yet there is strong evidence that physical exercise is strongly correlated with increased brain mass, better cognition, and new cell production. This information, unknown a generation ago, is now discussed in The Journal of Exercise, and The Journal of Exercise Physiology.

10. Environment

In the 1960s, psychologist Mark R. Rosenzweig did extensive studies to show that environmental therapy can stimulate brain growth not only in children but also in adults. Working with laboratory rats, Rosenzweig found that rats that lived in an enriched environment and were given stimulating interactive tasks performed better at learning activities than those rats that lived in passive and impoverished conditions.

While this discovery that the environment can rewire your brain is profound, it has led to a new collaboration between neuroscientists and architects. One such collaboration is the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) whose goal is “to promote the use of neuro and cognitive science research to improve the design of the built environment.”

This research and knowledge will be highly relevant for administrators and policymakers who are responsible for school and organization building designs.

Conclusion

Is your brain shaped by your experience?

An overwhelming body of evidence shows that everyday experiences, such as learning to read, learning vocabulary, studying for tests, learning to play a musical instrument, or working on a project, can rewire your brain, leading to better thinking.


References

  • Bolwerk, A., Mack-Andrick, J., et al. “How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity.” PLOS One, July 2014.
  • Hall, C. S. “The Genetics of Behavior.” Handbook of Experimental Psychology, 1951, pp. 304–329.
  • Kempermann, G. & Gage, F. “Experience-dependent Regulation of Adult Hippocampal Neurogenesis: Effects Of Long-Term Stimulation and Stimulus Withdrawal.” Hippocampus, vol. 9, no. 2, 1999, pp. 321-332.
  • Jensen, E. “Is Your Brain Shaped by Your Experience.” Adapted with permission.
  • Lipton, B. The Biology of Belief – Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles, 2005.
  • Rizzolatti, G., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V. “Resonance Behaviors and Mirror Neurons.” A Journal of Neuroscience, vol 137, no 2/3.
  • Rosenzweig, M. R. & Renner, M. J. Enriched and Impoverished Environments: Effects on Brain and Behavior. New York: Springer, 1987.
  • Tallal, P., Merzenich, M., Miller, S., Jenkins, W. “Language Learning Impairments: Integrating Basic Science, Technology, and Remediation.” Experimental Brain Research, vol. 1231998, pp. 210–219.
  • Zeki, S. “Art and the Brain.” Daedalus, vol. 127, no. 2, 1998, pp. 71-103.