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. Mark Wiseman on February 26, 2008 at 6:06

    Real­ly inter­est­ing. Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty also plays a huge role in the devel­op­ment and main­te­nance of chron­ic pain.
    It appears that chron­ic pain is a learned neu­ro­log­i­cal response. It would be won­der­ful if some­one could devel­op and effec­tive way of unlearn­ing this response.

  2. Alvaro on February 26, 2008 at 7:05

    Hel­lo Mark, we are less famil­iar with pain research but I’d sus­pect what you say is right.

    In gen­er­al, the best way to “unlearn” a response is by learn­ing a new response that over­takes the pre­vi­ous one. 

    If you come across inter­est­ing research in that field, please let us know!

  3. Amol on February 26, 2008 at 8:42

    Just curi­ous,

    How does the “learn­ing” of how to use your sec­ond hand fit into this? i.e a right han­der becom­ing ambidexturous? 

    Are the same process­es involved in terms of rewiring between hemi­spheres of the brain? Is it pos­si­ble to devel­op hand­ed­ness by focus­ing on the skill or this some­thing more gene related?



  4. Pascale Michelon on February 27, 2008 at 7:58

    Hi Amol,
    I would think that learn­ing to use your non-dom­i­nant hand does involve plas­tic­i­ty. My guess is that the area in the motor cor­tex that cor­re­sponds to that hand will start devel­op­ing as a result of the increased move­ment in that hand.

  5. Bernard on February 27, 2008 at 8:01

    It is pre­cise­ly because the brain has neur­al plas­tic­i­ty that EEG neu­ro­feed­back works.

    Amol, the brain can retrain itself (strength­en­ing the new neu­ronal path­ways, when giv­en direc­tion via a biofeed­back sys­tem oper­at­ing on EEG measurements.

    It takes time for the new path­ways to become dominant/habitual, but once they do, the results of EEG neu­ro­feed­back are large­ly permanent.

    Sim­i­lar­ly, (but on the oppo­site end of the spec­trum), epilep­sy patients that do not get their seizure activ­i­ty under con­trol (only some­thing like 40% gain 100% con­trol through drug ther­a­py) are at risk of a process called kin­dling — where the brain learns/trains itself to seize. The wrong neu­ronal path­ways are being strength­ened in that case.

    I rec­om­mend hav­ing a look at Stephen Lar­son­’s book, The Heal­ing Pow­er of Neu­ro­feed­back: The Rev­o­lu­tion­ary LENS Tech­nique for Restor­ing Opti­mal Brain Func­tion. It ref­er­ences sev­er­al inter­est­ing stud­ies on the subject.

  6. Alvaro on February 27, 2008 at 8:50

    Bernard: neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty explains why any kind of learn­ing can occur. It is a premise for all learn­ing. And a vari­ety of train­ing pro­grams, such as neu­ro­feed­back, can be help­ful in guid­ing neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty in appro­pri­ate ways. 

    Now, the ques­tion is: what is the causal, direct, evi­dence that a giv­en train­ing inter­ven­tion is pro­duc­ing the right kind of learn­ing? Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty itself does not address that.

  7. Debbie on April 25, 2008 at 5:49

    I have a friend who is bare­ly 40 & had 2 strokes (clots). It has been 5 years. Her left side is par­a­lyzed. Then I saw a PBS show on neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty. Is there some kind of PT or oth­er pro­gram I can do with her to help her brain re-learn? She is a good, kind, lov­ing per­son & does­n’t deserve to live like this.

  8. Alvaro on April 27, 2008 at 4:36

    Hel­lo Debbie,

    Your friend’s neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist would be the ide­al per­son to sug­gest what spe­cif­ic phys­i­cal and men­tal activ­i­ties ca help the reha­bil­i­ta­tion process. No two strokes affect the same areas.

    I hope she gets bet­ter. You may enjoy the superb book by the Woodruffs,
    In an Instant: A Fam­i­ly’s Jour­ney of Love and Heal­ing (Hard­cov­er)

  9. Padma on May 22, 2008 at 4:32

    Get the won­der­ful book of Dr.Jill Bolte Tay­lor who is a neu­roanatomist and had a stroke at 37, recov­ered com­plete­ly and advo­cates pas­sion­ate­ly treat­ment strate­gies forstork patients and their car­ers. It is called “My Stroke of insight” Her web­site

  10. Melody on June 29, 2008 at 4:59

    I am in a Lifes­pan Psy­chol­o­gy class right now, and we are study­ing brain plas­tic­i­ty. I would like to know if the brain can make new neur­al con­nec­tions to over­come trau­ma, can it also do the same, with train­ing, to over­come cer­tain men­tal ill­ness­es, such as depres­sion, schiz­o­phre­nia, or bipo­lar disorder?

  11. Alvaro on June 30, 2008 at 2:21

    Hel­lo Melody,

    The­o­ret­i­cal­ly, yes, of course (neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty is the premise for learn­ing itself) but research is just emerg­ing in trau­ma-relat­ed areas.

    Some very promis­ing applications:
    — Cog­ni­tive ther­a­py for depres­sion and OCD
    — Com­put­er­ized cog­ni­tive train­ing for stroke/ TBI rehab

    There is research going on focused on schiz­o­phre­nia. We are not aware of spe­cif­ic tri­als on patients with bipo­lar disorder.

    In gen­er­al, I’d say: Stay Tuned. There will be a good num­ber of appli­ca­tions relat­ed to clin­i­cal con­di­tions. But the field is emerg­ing-no mag­ic cures today.


  12. Anne McGinnis Breen on August 7, 2008 at 3:11

    Dear Good People,
    Just a note to say thanks for mar­ket­ing and wide­ly shar­ing the sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge of neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis and adult neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty with so many oth­ers. Learn­ing more about the amaz­ing brain and my own mind through cog­ni­tive ther­a­py and the free Dana Foun­da­tion pub­li­ca­tions has helped me to learn to use the com­put­er and oth­er edu­ca­tion­al tools to over­come some of the neu­ro­log­i­cal, emo­tion­al and social deficits of my own chron­ic med­ical con­di­tion, liv­ing with a recur­rent low-grade brain tumor in my left tem­po­ral lobe. Learn­ing new sci­en­tif­ic facts about our brain’s regen­er­a­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties gave me new hope for my own future many years ago. I hope some oth­er brain injured peo­ple will soon begin to share their own expe­ri­ences with some of these new cog­ni­tive retraining

  13. Anne McGinnis Breen on August 7, 2008 at 3:16

    (Ophs! I hit the sub­mit but­ton too soon by acci­dent!) I hope oth­ers will want to share their per­son­al results of the new brain train­ing tools and pro­grams here soon! GBYAY Anne McGin­nis Breen

  14. Pat on September 24, 2008 at 1:33

    Qt per­tain­ing to learn­ing a new ath­let­ic move­ment. I am a golf instruc­tor and the biggest chal­lenges to me are my old­er clients with years of poor habits. I under­stand the brain nev­er stops learn­ing, but what would be the best way to con­vince a per­son of 50 yrs old+ that has been play­ing golf their way for 20–30 yrs fun­da­men­tal­ly wrong and now wants to change? They may under­stand clear­ly what they need to do, but their body tells them dif­fer­ent­ly, in fact it tells them the new feel­ing is quite awk­ward — what is real­is­tic for their brain — neur­al path­ways to over­ride the old habit?

  15. Alvaro Fernandez on September 24, 2008 at 5:44

    Anne, thank you for shar­ing your sto­ry. In fact, hope is a need­ed ele­ment for improve­ment, and more and more jus­ti­fied with the grow­ing research behind neuroplasticity.

    Pat: great ques­tion. From a phys­i­cal “brain” point of view, the most impor­tant thing for you to know is that you can­not erase exist­ing pat­terns (pre­vent well-con­nect­ed neu­rons from fir­ing togeth­er, or erase those con­nec­tions), what you have to do is to build a new pat­tern (“neur­al path­way”) that with time and prac­tice will over­ride the pre­vi­ous one.

    Now, from a Ped­a­gogy point of view, may I also sug­gest that a) you don’t tell them (or even think!) that they are doing some­thing “fun­da­men­tal­ly wrong”. The point is that they can do it bet­ter. All of us can, includ­ing Tiger; b) you reas­sure them that “feel­ing quite awk­ward” is a nor­mal tran­si­tion phase when we are learn­ing a new skill. Sim­ply moti­vate them to con­tin­ue to rehearse and rehearse and come to enjoy the new pat­terns, and with prac­tice they will become the default habits.

    It is often said that “Cells that fire togeth­er, wire togeth­er”. Your ques­tion puts for­ward the Pros and Cons of such a system :-)

  16. M. A. Greenstein on September 24, 2008 at 11:02

    Alvaro and Pat, a thought on the ped­a­gogy of move­ment behavior.

    Alvaro, I’m so pleased you not­ed the enjoy­ment of new pat­terns in the process of rehearsal.
    Help­ing peo­ple dis­cov­er new move­ment (brain) pat­terns and motifs invites both oppor­tu­ni­ties to enjoy an expand­ed sense of aes­thet­ics as well as a chance to return to the pri­ma­ry feel­ing of move­ment lib­er­at­ed from the shack­les of uncon­scious habit­u­al form. The uber tal­ent­ed bal­let mas­ter Barysh­nikov has been known to talk about going back to the basic barre to re-dis­cov­er the joy and sen­sa­tion of learn­ing the core val­ues of bal­let movement.

    To help stu­dents or clients reap the ath­let­ic rewards of neu­ro-plas­tic­i­ty, I found it help­ful to encour­age a cre­ative, “begin­ner’s mind” atti­tude in the rehearsal phase. And research on mind­ful move­ment does sug­gest a neu­ro­log­i­cal difference.

    Thoughts any­one?

    M. A. a.k.a. Dr. G.
    The George Green­stein Insti­tute for the Advance­ment of Somat­ic Arts and Science

  17. Tracy on October 3, 2008 at 5:55

    I am curi­ous to learn how to use brain plas­tic­i­ty to help me to con­tin­ue in my recov­ery from depres­sion. I love to learn new things and think that this con­cept can help explain why talk­ing to a ther­a­pist can lit­er­al­ly change the biol­o­gy of my brain. This has mys­ti­fied me but I think this con­cept helps to explain it.

  18. Tina on October 17, 2008 at 6:38

    Hello…I’m cur­rent­ly in a Lifes­pan Psy­chol­o­gy class and have some ques­tions regard­ing brain plas­tic­i­ty and the learn­ing of a new lan­guage. I’m try­ing to see if there is any cor­re­la­tion between learn­ing a new lan­guage and our bio­log­i­cal system. 

    If a tod­dler is adopt­ed by a new fam­i­ly that speaks a dif­fer­ent lan­guage from his/her bio­log­i­cal par­ent would that auto­mat­i­cal­ly trig­ger brain plac­tic­i­ty to occur? If so, what chem­i­cal changes hap­pen with­in the hip­pocam­pus? Are their oth­er areas of the brain that are involved in this process as well?

  19. james a. bellanca on October 17, 2008 at 12:00

    It is amaz­ing to read this newslet­ter and see all the sell­ers of “brain stuff” claim­ing to find some­thing new and won­der­ful-that the brain is plas­tic, not immutable. The most amaz­ing part is that these folks don’t have any inkling that they are not the pio­neers they claim to be. They might humbly go to the work of Israeli cogn­tive psy­chol­o­gist Reuven Feuer­stein who pos­tu­lat­ed the the­o­ry more of struc­tur­al cog­ni­tive mod­i­fi­a­bil­i­ty more than 50 years ago in his work with learn­ing impaired chil­dren. After they read Feuer­stein’s work, they will also see that he does­n’t make the out­landish claims that they do with their mir­a­cle prod­ucts. He knows that after all the work he and his col­leagues have done with severe­ly bain dam­aged chil­dren, brain trau­ma­tized adults and oth­ers, that what specif­i­cal­ly works to change the brain is still a very hyy­po­thet­i­cal ques­tion, not the quick fix answers that many, includ­ing peo­ple quot­ed in the newslet­ter, are sell­ing. Final­ly, he would sug­gest that just because a tool (includ­ing software)makes the brain change, there is very lit­tle hard evi­dence about how suc­cess­ful they are in pro­mot­ing learning.

  20. Alvaro Fernandez on October 17, 2008 at 1:01

    Tra­cy, cog­ni­tive ther­a­py is the brain train­ing modal­i­ty that has been shown to help patients with depres­sion, so I encour­age you to find a good prac­ti­tion­er. You may enjoy my inter­view with Judith Beck (see under Resources — Inter­views with Brain Sci­en­tists), which includes links to fas­ci­nat­ing studies.

    Tina: plas­tic­i­ty (the abil­i­ty to change respond­ing to expe­ri­ence) is a prop­er­ty of the brain. Our brain is chang­ing all the time. And, yes, sig­nif­i­cant envi­ron­men­tal changes (such as chang­ing coun­try and lan­guage) is going to accel­er­ate some changes due to the need for adap­ta­tion. A very inter­est­ing area of research is how being bilin­gual can reduce the prob­a­bil­i­ty of devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s symp­toms, pre­sum­ably via the Cog­ni­tive Reserve and the con­stant frontal lobe “work­out” need­ed to select words in the right language/ inhib­it words from the “wrong” language.

    James: you should prob­a­bly first dis­close that you are in the busi­ness of sell­ing ser­vices based on the the­o­ries that you are pro­mot­ing in your comment. 

    Sec­ond, and most impor­tant, I would encour­age you to share the pub­lished ref­er­ences of the effi­ca­cy of the pro­grams you advo­cate and seem to be sell­ing. 50 years of prac­tice means, I hope, that some high-qual­i­ty, ran­dom­ized, large-scale stud­ies have been per­formed and results pub­lished in the kind of jour­nals we can find in PubMed (from a health/ med­i­cine point of view) or in What Works Clear­ing­house (from an edu­ca­tion point of view).

    Talk­ing about the the­o­ries of one per­son ‑no mat­ter how admirable he/ she is‑, is not enough jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. Vygot­sky and Luria were cognitive/ neu­ropsych pio­neers since the ear­ly XX cen­tu­ry, yet I hope
    you would like to see some direct evi­dence of effi­ca­cy for any pro­gram that claims to be based on their admirable work.

    Final­ly, I am not sure where you find “quick fix­es” in this blog…exactly the oppo­site of what we are try­ing to do. As you point out well, tools are just that, tools, not mag­ic solutions.

  21. Gary D on October 24, 2008 at 10:00

    So, an old dog (like me) *can* learn new tricks! This is good news and encouraging.

    Ques­tion: why is it that learn­ing a sec­ond lan­guage is eas­i­er when you’re young as com­pared to when you’re old­er? And, from your per­spec­tive what can be done to make it easier..??

  22. Alvaro Fernandez on October 27, 2008 at 3:10

    Hel­lo Gary, I sug­gest you take a look at my inter­view with neu­ro­sci­en­tist Art Kramer on how, indeed, old dogs can learn new tricks…but at a slow­er pace than when we are younger. Which means, we need more patience, prac­tice, and motivation…perhaps you can com­bine trav­el with learn­ing that sec­ond language.

  23. spencer lord on February 23, 2009 at 9:35

    doidge’s book is superb. i read it three times.

  24. linda berger MA.Ed on April 1, 2009 at 12:47

    I am on the senior advi­so­ry com­mit­tee at the Jewish
    Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter, in St. Louis, Mis­souri. Do you pro­vide infor­ma­tion to any­one from the St. louis area?

  25. on May 19, 2009 at 5:38

    im a lon­don cab­bie, i always sus­pect­ed i had more pow­er than bus drivers ;)

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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