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The human brain is incredibly adaptive. Our mental capacity is astonishingly large, and our ability to process widely varied information and complex new experiences with relative ease can often be surprising. The brain’s ability to act and react in ever-changing ways is known as “neuroplasticity.” This special characteristic allows the brain to constantly lay down new pathways for neural communication and to rearrange existing ones throughout life, thereby aiding the processes of learning, memory, recovery from damage and adaptation through experience.
How Does Neuroplasticity Work?
Neuroplasticity can work in two directions; it is responsible for deleting old connections as frequently as it enables the creation of new ones. Through this process, called “synaptic pruning,” connections that are inefficient or infrequently used are allowed to fade away, while neurons that are highly routed with information will be preserved, strengthened, made even more synaptically dense.
Neuroplasticity is the saving grace of the damaged or disabled brain; without it, lost functions could never be regained, nor could disabled processes ever hope to be improved. Plasticity allows the brain to rebuild the connections that, because of trauma, disease, or genetic misfortune, have resulted in decreased abilities. It also allows us to compensate for irreparably damaged or dysfunctional neural pathways by strengthening or rerouting our remaining ones.
Neuroplasticity Can’t Last Forever...Can It?
Contrary to widespread belief, the “garden” of the brain never ceases being pruned and newly planted. Though long believed by scientists to be the case, research over the past decade or so has proven that our neural connections do not ever reach, by some age, a fixed pattern that thereafter cannot change. Rather, the ongoing process of synaptic reformation and death is what gives the brain its plasticity – its ability to learn and remember, to adapt to its environment and all the challenges brought with it, to acquire new knowledge and learn from fresh experiences – throughout an individual’s lifetime.