Experts have yet to determine the limits of the brain’s abilities. Some believe we may never fully understand them all. But evidence does support the existence of one of its most important processes: neuroplasticity.
“Neuroplasticity” refers to your brain’s ability to restructure or rewire itself when it recognizes the need for adaption. In other words, it can continue developing and changing throughout life.
For example, if brain trauma after a car accident affects your ability to speak, you haven’t necessarily lost this ability permanently. Therapy and rehabilitation can help your brain relearn this ability by repairing old pathways or creating new ones.
Neuroplasticity also seems to have promise as a driver of potential treatment for certain mental health conditions.
Rewiring your brain might sound pretty complicated, but it’s absolutely something you can do at home.
Yes, you read that right.
Debate over the potential benefits and risks of video games can get pretty contentious, but if you enjoy gaming, there’s some good news:
The benefits associated with gaming include improvements in:
- motor coordination
- visual recognition and spatial navigation
- memory and reaction time
- reasoning, decision making, and problem-solving skills
- cooperation and team participation
In short, when you play video games, you teach your brain new skills. These effects can improve your gameplay, certainly, but they also carry over to the rest of your life:
- Learning to recover from failure in a game can help you get better at bouncing back from setbacks.
- Exploring different solutions to a task in a game can help enhance creative thinking.
Different games, different benefits
According to a
- 3-D adventure games seemed to contribute to improvements in memory, problem-solving, and scene recognition.
- Puzzle games help boost problem-solving skills, brain connectivity, and spatial prediction.
- Rhythm gaming, like dance or exercise video games, can help improve visuospatial memory and attention.
These effects appear to kick in after about 16 hours of gameplay. This doesn’t mean you have to play for 16 hours at once, of course — this actually isn’t recommended.
But adding a few hours of weekly gameplay to your leisure time can be a great way to improve neuroplasticity.
Ever considered studying another language? Maybe you thought a second (or third) language might boost your career opportunities, or you wanted to pick it up just for fun.
In either case, you’d be doing your brain a big favor. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that acquiring a new language improves cognitive function.
Boost gray matter…
In one 2012 study, researchers looked at 10 exchange students who were native English speakers studying German in Switzerland. After 5 months of intensive language study, their proficiency in German had increased — and so had the density of gray matter in their brain.
Gray matter houses many important regions in your brain, including areas associated with:
- motor skills
Increased gray matter density can improve your function in these areas, especially as you age.
In fact, it’s believed bilingualism may offer some
Another 2012 study found evidence to support the idea that picking up a new language increases gray matter density and neuroplasticity.
After 3 months of intensive study of a new topic, 14 adult interpreters saw increases in both gray matter density and hippocampal volume. The hippocampus plays an important role in long-term memory recall.
…and white matter
Studying a new language at any age can lead to:
- stronger problem-solving and creative thinking skills
- improved vocabulary
- greater reading comprehension
- increased ability to multitask
You may have heard of online programs and apps like Rosetta Stone, Babbel, and Duolingo, but you can study languages in other ways too.
Hit your local secondhand book store for textbooks, or check your library for books and CDs.
Whatever method you choose, try to stick with it for at least a few months, even if you only do 10 or 15 minutes of study a day.
Music has several brain benefits. It can help improve your:
- ability to learn and remember new information
- concentration and focus
Music therapy also appears to help slow down cognitive decline in older adults.
Research from 2017 suggests music, especially when combined with dance, art, gaming, and exercise, helps promote neuroplasticity.
It can improve movement and coordination and may help strengthen memory abilities. But it doesn’t just help prevent additional cognitive decline. It can also help relieve emotional distress and improve quality of life.
According to a 2015 review, musical training also has benefits as a neuroplasticity exercise.
Learning to play music in childhood can help protect against age-related cognitive decline and lead to improved cognitive performance in older adulthood, for one.
- better audio and visual perception
- greater focus and attention
- better memory
- better motor coordination
It’s never too late to learn an instrument. Online tutorials can help you get started, especially if you don’t want to splurge on lessons.
Check your local classified ads for used instruments, or try out inexpensive options like a ukulele, harmonica, or keyboard (as an added bonus, many people find these instruments pretty easy to learn).
Not very musical? That’s OK! Even listening to music more regularly can help increase brain neuroplasticity. So turn on your favorite playlist — it’s good for your brain.
If you enjoy travel, here’s one more reason to get out and explore somewhere new: Travel may help enhance cognitive flexibility, inspire you, and enhance creativity.
Experiencing new scenery and surroundings can also help you learn about different cultures and become a better communicator, both of which can have additional cognitive benefits.
Visiting new places can also help broaden your general worldview, which can help open your mind and give you a new perspective on things closer to home, like career goals, friendships, or personal values.
If you can’t get out into the wider world right now, don’t worry. You can still take yourself on a trip closer to home.
- taking a long walk through a new neighborhood
- doing your grocery shopping in another part of town
- going for a hike
- virtual travel (get started with National Geographic virtual travel on YouTube)
Most people recognize that exercise offers a number of physical benefits:
- stronger muscles
- improved fitness and health
- better sleep
According to a
Another benefit of physical activity as a neuroplasticity exercise? It helps promote increased blood flow and cell growth in the brain, which research links to reduced depression symptoms.
If you exercise with someone else or in a larger group, you’ll probably see some social benefits too.
Strong social connections improve quality of life and emotional wellness, so engaging with others more regularly can be another great way to boost brain health and help relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Exercise recommendations can vary, depending on your age, ability, and health, but it’s a good idea to get at least a little activity every day.
Creating art can help you see the world in new, unique ways. You might use art to sort through and express emotions, share personal experiences, or get deeper insight on personal struggles, for example.
Research from 2015 suggests art forms such as drawing and painting directly benefit your brain by enhancing creativity and improving cognitive abilities.
Artistic pursuits can also help create new pathways and strengthen existing connections in your brain, leading to better cognitive function overall.
No artistic experience? No problem. Like many skills, artistic abilities often improve with time and practice.
YouTube offers plenty of painting tutorials, and your local library (or any bookstore) will likely have books on drawing or sketching for people of any skill level.
Even simple doodling can offer brain benefits by activating the brain’s default mode network, which allows your brain to briefly unfocus.
This occasional mental downtime directly relates to neuroplasticity. Letting your brain rest can:
- improve creativity
- interrupt unwanted habits
- help you find new solutions to problems
So, next time you find yourself waiting on something with empty hands, pick up a pen and get doodling.
Art can also help promote relaxation, so consider building time for art into your week. Involve your partner and family, too — everyone benefits here.
Experts previously believed that after a given point in life, your brain could no longer change or develop further. Now they know this isn’t true.
With a bit of time and patience, you can rewire your brain, which may help with certain mental health symptoms and protect against cognitive decline.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.