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May 03, 2020 Sunday 01:00:24 PM IST

Educational Neuroscience: How Neuroplasticity can open new pathways to learning

Image by Gerd Altman for Pixabay.com

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to create new neural pathways based on new experiences. It refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses that result from changes in behavior, environmental and neural processes, and changes resulting from bodily injury. 
Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly held theory that the brain is a physiologically static organ. Throughout the life of human or other mammals, these neural connections are fine-tuned through the organism’s interaction with its surroundings.Neuro refers to neurons, (86 billion) the nerve cells that are the building blocks of the brain and nervous system, and plasticity refers to the brain's malleability. Recent findings show that many aspects of the brain remain plastic even into adulthood. Neuroplasticity occurs on a variety of levels, ranging from minute cellular changes resulting from learning to large-scale cortical remapping in response to injury. Modern research has demonstrated that the brain continues to create new neural pathways and alter existing ones in order to adapt to new experiences, learn new information, and create new memories. In short, neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to adapt and develop beyond the usual developmental period of childhood; and if a  person with a growth mindset believes that he or she can get smarter, better, or more skilled at something through sustained effort—which is exactly what neuroplasticity tells us. 
Improved Learning
Neuroplasticity offers the prospect of new ways to improve learning and education, physical rehabilitation, treatment of mental illnesses and addiction. The role of neuroplasticity is widely recognized in healthy development, learning, memory, and recovery from brain damage. While certain parts of the brain have a typical function, the brain can be 'rewired' thanks to plasticity. As the Norman Doidge, famous author of the book, The Brain that Changes Itself  (2011) stated, “Everything having to do with human training and education has to be re-examined in light of neuroplasticity."
The importance of neuroplasticity can’t be overstated: it means that it is possible to change dysfunctional patterns of thinking and behaving and to develop new mindsets, new memories, new skills, and new abilities. The most amazing thing about the new discoveries about brain functioning is that mental training has the power to change the physical structure of the brain. 
Rewiring the Brain
It is not only possible but necessary to use your mind and your body to reshape your brain. Enhancing synaptic connectivity through any of a variety of means actively promotes cognition and mental health, and blunts the impact of negative stimuli. However, rewiring requires setting up of new goals and practicing the new pursuit of reward while the brain is creating new pathways. One of the most powerful ways to open up 'windows of plasticity' in the brain is physical activity. Aerobic exercise helps the brain as much as the heart. Studies show that walking an hour a day, 5 out of 7 days a week, increases brain matter in the hippocampus, the seat of learning and memory. Many other nonpharmacologic ways have been shown to directly stimulate and maintain neuroplasticity. They include:
Intermittent fasting: increases synaptic adaptation, promotes neuron growth improves overall cognitive function and decreases the risk of neurodegenerative disease;
Traveling: exposes your brain to novel stimuli and new environments, opening up new pathways and activity in the brain;
Using mnemonic devices: memory training can enhance connectivity in the prefrontal parietal network and prevent some age-related memory loss;
Learning a musical instrument: may increase connectivity between brain regions and help form new neural networks;
Non-dominant hand exercises: can form new neural pathways and strengthen the connectivity between neurons; 
Reading fiction: increases and enhances connectivity in the brain; 
Expanding your vocabulary: activates the visual and auditory processes as well as memory processing; 
Creating artwork: enhances the connectivity of the brain at rest (the “default mode network” or DMN), which can boost introspection, memory, empathy, attention, and focus; 
Dancing: reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s and increases neural connectivity; 
Sleeping: It encourages learning retention through the growth of the dendritic spines that act as connections between neurons and help transfer information across cells. 
Eating foods that boost brainpower:  The best foods for the brain are omega 3 fish oil, proteins, B complex, Curcumin, Ginseng and Gingko Biloba. Take these supplements under the guidance of your doctor. Avoid coffee and tea. Choose foods with Low GI such as cereals, brown rice, fruits, vegetables, legumes, etc. 
Practicing Mindfulness: It is good to practice 15 minutes of mindfulness every day. There are different ways to do so: breathe in and out, chant a mantra, or stare at a candle in a quiet room (Nguyen, 2016). 
 Online Apps and Games 
You’ve no doubt heard of the many games and apps designed to harness the power of neuroplasticity and apply it to improve your memory, processing speed, and problem-solving skills. The more often you engage a certain neural pathway, the stronger this pathway becomes, and the more likely this pathway will become activated in the future.  That's where habits come from. Going back to teaching and child development, the issue of playing video and mobile games should be seen from another perspective. The question is not if such games have a negative impact on the brain development of a child, as science and teaching practice clearly show that they are beneficial to neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. 
The problem we all should consider, from teachers to parents, and from neuroscientists to game developing companies is, 'how much is too much.' Video game addiction is a real problem and it shouldn't be swept under the carpet in the light of the new research. The issue is when we all should draw the line between playing games for fun and brain development  and playing games because we are addicted to them.‘
Neuroscience and educational sciences have still a lot of work to do in this regard. It is a given fact that more and more practitioners in the medical field and neurosciences recommend that these games do have beneficial effects. The next logical step would be to find out to which extent we can use video and mobile games in the classroom or home to be beneficial to the child (or adult for that matter) and not push them to fall on the dark side.
Educational Neuroscience 
Neuroscientists are beginning to understand the brain mechanisms and dynamics underlying learning. It is generally agreed that new insights from many fields are converging to create a new science of learning that may transform educational practices. 
The bridges between brain sciences and education are numerous and quickly developing.  Neuroplasticity is the key bridging process and its molecular, neuronal and brain-wide mechanisms should be better investigated further. Additionally, ‘the methods of brain and cognitive sciences have reached a stage where we can now objectively monitor the developmental trajectory of the child's brain and document how this trajectory is being shaped by parenting, education and other environmental influences’(Dehaene S, 2011). 
However, for successful implementation of any such program, it is necessary that the teachers, pedagogists, child psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists should come together. The scientists at National Brain Research Centre in cooperation with like-minded researchers from different parts of the country have initiated work in this direction under the aegis of the Cognitive Science Programme of DST (Department of Science and Technology). There is a proposal that this program be named Educational Neuroscience.

Dr. Jose Cletus Plackal

Licensed clinical psychologist, BET-MRT, Jeevas Centre, Aluva, Kerala.

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