Whilst the basic structure of the brain is formed by early childhood, this physical structure changes throughout life as a result of our experiences and learning.
A well known example of this is relates to a study of London taxi drivers (who undergo years of extensive training to learn their way around the London streets) ; it was found, through the use of brain scans, that as a result of this training the part of their brain that deals with spatial awareness actually increased in size.
Furthermore, many studies have demonstrated that musicians who have undertaken years of training show, as a result, both functional and structural changes to their brains.
This ability of the brain to physically change throughout life is due to a quality it possesses called neuroplasticity.
The main phases of brain development and change can be divided into 3 stages. I briefly describe each of these below:
1) The Precritical Phase: This occurs during early childhood. During this phase, the brain’s neurons (nerve cells) are formed, as are the connections between them.
These neurons communicate with each other by the process of electro-chemical signalling.
The brain consists of about 100 billion (100,000,000,000) neurons and each of these neurons may be connected up to 10,000 other neurons.
Mind-bogglingly, this means that our neurons communicate with one another via a network of about 1,000 trillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) connections (known as synaptic connections).
2) The second phase relates to the changes that occur to the brain after childhood as a result of our learning and the experiences (eg. see example of London taxi drivers above).
3) Later life : If the brain does not receive adequate stimulation, its processing ability may be adversely affected, as may memory. However, brain training exercises can help to prevent such deterioration.
BRAIN DAMAGE REVERSIBILITY:
We have seen, in other articles that I have published on this site, that severe childhood trauma can harm the way in which the brain develops.
However, such harm to the brain is frequently reversible, at least in part. Two ways in which the brain is able to repair itself are:
– by developing new connections between neurons
– redirecting specific brain functions to alternative brain regions.
Furthermore, studies now reveal that, in certain situations, the brain is actually capable of developing new neurons.
APPLICATIONS TO ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION:
Meditation, visualisation and repeated hypnosis/self-hypnosis that enhances relaxation has been found to alter the brain in a beneficial manner. These changes help to dampen down negative emotions such as depression, anxiety and anger; also, they help both the brain and the body to heal themselves.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).