You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Old habits die hard. Brain cells never regenerate. This is the conventional wisdom, and everyone has probably heard something like it at some point in their lives
But recent research and case studies are turning this so-called “conventional wisdom” on its head.
More and more, studies are demonstrating that our brains are actually remodelling themselves continually during our adult years, proving that it is possible for the brain to grow and pick up new skills at any age.
Neuroplasticity is the term for change and growth in the brain. It’s all based on the idea that our neural connections are constantly forming and degrading, strengthening certain skills and pathways while weakening others.
As Dr. Norman Doidge, a pre-eminent scholar in the field, puts it in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, “[M]ental activity is not only the product of the brain but the shaper of it.” Brain cell connections, as it turns out, function not unlike human muscles – as they work, they get stronger.
One example is that of the London cabbie. A 2006 study compared the brains of London black cab drivers, who navigate through the famously complex city streets from memory, to those of London bus drivers, who travel predetermined routes each day. The images showed that the cabbies had noticeably larger hippocampi (a.k.a., the brain’s memory center) when compared to the bus drivers.
Since then, study after study has shown similar phenomena, and the effect has even been replicated in controlled environments.
Of course, there’s more to getting the intellectual version of a six-pack than just mental sit-ups. Scientists have concluded that physical exercise is necessary to strengthen neural connections. Cardio exercise in particular floods the brain with just the right mix of hormones to promote neural growth – especially if you’re using those particular neurons while you exercise.
But there is one catch – your brain can’t grow if you don’t let it. One study found that many older adults lack confidence in their memories. When asked to answer repetitive math questions, they found that older adults tended to calculate each and every question, instead of remembering the answer to questions they’d already encountered. The older the subject, the less likely they were to trust their memory. The “conventional wisdom” appears to have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For older adults, these recent revelations could mean a pathway to a longer and more fruitful life. These studies offer clear, actionable ways to keep cognitive functions sharp for decades after retirement age. Simple things such as doing regular cardio, picking up a new hobby, or practicing a foreign language could help stave off debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Scientists are also optimistic about the potential applications this research could have to the field of medical science. Neuroplasticity could be the answer to a medley of maladies that were once thought incurable – from brain damage to blindness to PTSD or even Parkinson’s disease. A new clinic in the United States offers neuroplastic therapy for chronic pain, which could even offer an answer to the medical community’s reliance on prescription opiates to manage pain.
So, how can these findings help you improve your association for your members?
You can start by offering your members continuing education workshops, webinars, or similar benefits, if you don’t already. If you already offer such benefits, consider including opportunities to enhance your members physical and mental fitness, such as a membership to an online fitness video library or meditation app.
Simply bringing your members together to explore new subjects and hobbies could help your members strengthen their brain connections. Consider organizing enlightening lectures, planning local group outings or meetups, or even just providing a forum with the intent for members to connect and share with one another.
How can you apply the insights surrounding neuroplasticity to developing your association and supporting your members? Tell us in the comments!