Brain Plasticity: How learning changes your brain

You may have heard that the brain is plastic.

As you well know. the brain is not made of plastic…Neuroplasticity, or brain plas­tic­i­ty, refers to the brain’s abil­i­ty to CHANGE through­out life.

The human brain has the amaz­ing abil­i­ty to reor­ga­nize itself by form­ing new con­nec­tions between brain cells (neu­rons).

In addi­tion to genet­ic fac­tors, the envi­ron­ment in which a per­son lives, as well as the actions of each per­son, play a sig­nif­i­cant role in plasticity.

Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty occurs in the brain…

1- At the begin­ning of life: when the imma­ture brain orga­nizes itself.

2- In case of brain injury: to com­pen­sate for lost func­tions or max­i­mize remain­ing functions.

3- Through adult­hood: when­ev­er some­thing new is learned and memorized


Plas­tic­i­ty, learn­ing and memory 

For a long time, it was believed that as we aged, the con­nec­tions in the brain became fixed, and then sim­ply fad­ed. Research has shown that in fact the brain nev­er stops chang­ing through learn­ing. Plas­tic­i­ty is the capac­i­ty of the brain to change with learning.

Changes asso­ci­at­ed with learn­ing occur most­ly at the lev­el of con­nec­tions between neu­rons: New con­nec­tions form and the inter­nal struc­ture of the exist­ing synaps­es change. Did you know that when you become an expert in a spe­cif­ic domain, the areas in your brain that deal with this type of skill will grow?

For instance, Lon­don taxi dri­vers have a larg­er hip­pocam­pus (in the pos­te­ri­or region) than Lon­don bus dri­vers. Why is that? It is because this region of the hip­pocam­pus is spe­cial­ized in acquir­ing and using com­plex spa­tial infor­ma­tion in order to nav­i­gate effi­cient­ly. Taxi dri­vers have to nav­i­gate around Lon­don where­as bus dri­vers fol­low a lim­it­ed set of routes.

Plas­tic­i­ty can also be observed in the brains of bilin­guals. It looks like learn­ing a sec­ond lan­guage is pos­si­ble through func­tion­al changes in the brain: the left infe­ri­or pari­etal cor­tex is larg­er in bilin­gual brains than in mono­lin­gual brains.

Plas­tic changes also occur in musi­cians brains com­pared to non-musi­cians. Gas­er and Schlaug com­pared pro­fes­sion­al musi­cians (who prac­tice at least 1hour per day) to ama­teur musi­cians and non-musi­cians. They found that gray mat­ter (cor­tex) vol­ume was high­est in pro­fes­sion­al musi­cians, inter­me­di­ate in ama­teur musi­cians, and low­est in non-musi­cians in sev­er­al brain areas involved in play­ing music: motor regions, ante­ri­or supe­ri­or pari­etal areas and infe­ri­or tem­po­ral areas.

Final­ly, Dra­gan­s­ki and col­leagues recent­ly showed that exten­sive learn­ing of abstract infor­ma­tion can also trig­ger some plas­tic changes in the brain. They imaged the brains of Ger­man med­ical stu­dents 3 months before their med­ical exam and right after the exam and com­pared them to brains of stu­dents who were not study­ing for exam at this time. Med­ical stu­dents’ brains showed learn­ing-induced changes in regions of the pari­etal cor­tex as well as in the pos­te­ri­or hip­pocam­pus. These regions of the brains are known to be involved in mem­o­ry retrieval and learning.

Plas­tic­i­ty and brain injury 

A sur­pris­ing con­se­quence of neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty is the fact that the brain activ­i­ty asso­ci­at­ed with a giv­en func­tion can actu­al­ly move to a dif­fer­ent loca­tion as a con­se­quence of expe­ri­ence or brain damage.

In his book “The Brain That Changes Itself: Sto­ries of Per­son­al Tri­umph from the Fron­tiers of Brain Sci­ence,” Nor­man Doidge describes numer­ous exam­ples of func­tion­al shifts. In one of them, a sur­geon in his 50s suf­fers a stroke. His left arm is par­a­lyzed. Dur­ing his reha­bil­i­ta­tion, his good arm and hand are immo­bi­lized, and he is set to clean­ing tables. The task is at first impos­si­ble. Then slow­ly the bad arm remem­bers how too move. He learns to write again, to play ten­nis again: the func­tions of the brain areas killed in the stroke have trans­ferred them­selves to healthy regions!

The brain com­pen­sates for dam­age by reor­ga­niz­ing and form­ing new con­nec­tions between intact neu­rons. In order to recon­nect, the neu­rons need to be stim­u­lat­ed through activity.

Final­ly, let me address a cou­ple of ques­tions we often get…

Can new neu­rons grow in my brain?

Yes, and regard­less of how young or old you are. Here’s a good article.

Can you rec­om­mend a good book to learn more about neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty and how to har­ness it for good?

Indeed. We pub­lished The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: How to Opti­mize Brain Health and Per­for­mance at Any Age pre­cise­ly to pro­vide a use­ful entry point into all this research and how to apply it. And we’re hap­py to report that it’s get­ting rave reviews!


  1. on November 10, 2009 at 2:09

    the brain can retrain itself be chang­ing its blumb­ing, when giv­en direc­tion via a biofeed­back sys­tem oper­at­ing on EEG measurements

  2. Semhi hassan on May 23, 2016 at 3:44

    Very inter­est­ing find­ings. Can you explain to me the fol­low­ing puzzle?
    I have been suf­fer­ing from depres­sion since 1987 and have been tak­ing drugs up to now, but noth­ing refrained from learn­ing lan­guages. I speak Ara­bic my moth­er lan­guage, French, and Eng­lish flu­ent­ly. I lived I. Ger­many for one year and I have nev­er tak­en any cours­es in Ger­man, but I speak and under­stand German

  3. Josh | BrainSharp on March 8, 2018 at 3:39

    Thank you for shar­ing; great post. Learn­ing can indeed change our brain chem­istry, how we think and behave in gen­er­al. After­all, learn­ing is anoth­er way of edu­cat­ing our­selves and get a bet­ter and more informed per­spec­tive on life. In addi­tion to learn­ing, healthy nutri­tion can also improve learn­ing over­all cog­ni­tive per­for­mance. A healthy mind in a healthy body :). Thanks again

  4. Gilmore on March 10, 2019 at 3:55

    We are see­ing cur­rent­ly a lot of break­throughs in the field of neu­ro­science an the fact that the brain can adapt so well and heal itself gives hope in the 5 years we could final­ly take care of demen­tia relat­ed diseases.

    • Alvaro Fernandez on March 15, 2019 at 10:44

      Agreed! Not sure we’ll ful­ly take care of demen­tia in 5 years but we will for sure be much bet­ter equipped to delay the onset and the qual­i­ty-of-life consequences.

      • Gilmore on March 27, 2019 at 1:20

        Things are mov­ing fast in med­i­cine at the moment I believe that we are near a turn­ing point with the pow­er of com­put­ers and how they allow us to sift trough data faster than ever before. So 5 years is a lot of time to see some seri­ous advances in the fight against brain dysfunction.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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