With the rising rates of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, more folks than ever are paying attention to brain health these days. However, conventional medical wisdom hasn’t always been overly encouraging on this subject. We’ve been taught that once the brain developed in the formative years, that was it. Our adult brain was “hardwired,” and it was all downhill from there. We were also told that our brain cells slowly dwindled in number and could never be replaced.
The exciting news is that researchers are finding that simply exposing yourself to new, positive experiences can spark a phenomenon called synaptogenesis in the brain. Read on to learn more about this way to boost brain power and keep your brain sharp and healthy as you age.
What Is Neuroplasticity?
Beginning in the 1960s, brain researchers finally began to realize that brain cells, like all cells in the body, are not stagnant. They have the ability to regenerate . What’s more, neural networks can rearrange themselves as well (for better or worse). This process is called neuroplasticity and it is the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections.
According to Board-Certified Neurologist and best-selling author Dr. David Perlmutter,
“Neuroplasticity provides us with a brain that can adapt not only to changes inflicted by damage, but more importantly, allows adaptation to any and all experiences and changes we may encounter, freeing us from merely responding reflexively as a consequence of genetically determined hardwiring .”
In other words, we indeed have the ability to “rewire” our brains based on what we expose them to.
You probably already know the influence certain foods can have on brain function. For instance, too much junk food has been found to lead to brain fog, confusion, and even Alzheimer’s .
On the other hand, healthy fats , green leafy veggies, and high-quality sources of protein can help create crystal-clear focus and mental energy throughout the day. And, did you know that the same goes for other types of input as well?
Can Watching TV Lead to a Lower IQ?
Researchers from Tohoku University in Japan found that changes in brain tissue occurred in children and young adults the more television they watched .
These changes, especially to the hypothalamus and frontal lobe, correspond to lower verbal IQ scores and possibly to higher rates of depression and aggressive behavior.
The good news is that the opposite is also true! Good experiences, especially those that create a sense of awe and wonder, can create disease-preventing pathways in the brain for a healthy, more robust you!
Synaptogenesis: A Very Good Thing for Brain Health
In order to understand why new, novel, and positive experiences can be good for a brain at any age, we have to narrow in on the process of synaptogenesis, or the formation of new brain synapses.
This, of course, begs the question: what exactly is a brain synapsis and what its function? For all the “just the facts, ma’am” folks out there, here is the hard-science definition of a brain synapsis, as supplied by researchers at the University of Berlin :
“Synapses are specialized asymmetric cell–cell connections permitting the controlled transfer of an electrical or chemical signal between a presynaptic neuronal cell and a postsynaptic target cell (e.g. neuron or muscle).”
In translation, healthy brain synapses are what make you a higher-thinking, creative individual with a sound memory and the capability to learn and grow. The more synapses you have, the more “neural flexibility” you have. This means the easier it is for you to adapt to the demands of a particular environment.
Greater Synaptic Density = More Brain Power
It also means a higher-functioning brain when compared to those with reduced “synaptic density.” Studies such as a 2018 investigation at the University of Edinburgh in the UK have found that those with low synapses counts suffer from cognitive impairment, reduced intelligence and more incidents of neurological disorders than those with higher density .
3 Ways to Become a “Wonder Junkie” and Boost Your Brain Power
One of the best ways to encourage synaptogenesis and increase synaptic density is to expose yourself to new fun, exciting and awe-inspiring events. Here are three ways to kick up the “wow” factor in your life and grow some healthy brain synapses to boot!
#1 – Do something you’ve never done before.
Learning something novel promotes new brain synapses to grow. As it turns out, however, not just anything will do when it comes to building a better brain. Activities that involve motor learning as well as cognitive balance are best.
These include activities such as table tennis, juggling, gymnastics, rock climbing, team sports, surfing, even tango lessons… anything that gets your body moving as well as your brain firing in new and different ways would qualify.
#2 – See something you’ve never seen before.
According to researchers, exposing yourself (or your child) to “enriched environments” can boost brain power. One study found that rats exposed to “enriched environments” had close to 25% more synapses than a control group .
For human beings, enriched environments may include an outdoor park with lots of trees and sports going on, a meet up with lively friends, good conversation and a yummy meal, a classroom environment where hands-on learning is the focus, or a trip to a part of the world (or your neighborhood) that you have never been.
Any environment that creates novelty, learning, positivity and fun will work to increase brain capacity and get synaptogenesis going.
#3 – Do something kind for someone else.
Research also shows that changing behavior creates more synapses in the brain. Why not get out of your comfort zone and do something outrageous (and kind) for someone else? Commit to doing a good deed for someone else at least once a week. Pay the toll for the car behind you. Compliment someone you don’t know. Help a neighbor carry their groceries out of their car. Volunteer at a shelter over the holidays. Or simply offer a smile to a stranger who looks down in the dumps.
There is another advantage to using acts of compassion as a behavior-changer. In a study with human participants at the University of Wisconsin, Madison , researchers showed that being kind and committing acts of compassion helped to increase activity in specific centers of the brain such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for rewarding emotions.
In turn, acts of love and compassion help to increase important healing hormones such as serotonin and dopamine. These feel-good neurotransmitters, in turn, lower stress responses, according to studies conducted at the State University of New York amongst others .
When it comes to brain health (just like the health of the rest of your body) neither your DNA nor your age controls your destiny. As it turns out, the brain is flexible and malleable. It can and does respond to external factors, and not just what you put in your mouth.
Why not commit to becoming a “wonder junkie.” Have fun, see new things, help others, and boost your brain power while you’re at it.