Neuroplasticity – An In-Depth Guide to How it Works and How to Transform Your Brain

By on May 29, 2015

I’ve talked a lot on this website about using nootropics to try and improve focus, enhance creativity and generally to upgrade your intellect. Generally, I’ve been disappointed unfortunately as most nootropics either enhance some abilities at the expense of others (with unwanted side effects) or just have so miniscule an impact as to be not worth the hassle.

The exception, I have found, is with ‘cognitive metabolic enhancers’ (creatine, vasodilators, coconut oil) which focus on increasing the amount of energy and blood to the brain and with general nutrition (amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals) and sleep. These are great but they’re really only going to help you to perform like ‘you on your best day’. This isn’t exactly Limitless stuff is it? And it’s not exactly going to change your life. How about some real change?

The Possibilities of Neuroplasticity

brain plasticity

Fortunately, our brains do have the capacity to give us superpowers, it’s just that some of these methods may be barking up the wrong tree. Enter: brain plasticity, AKA neuroplasticity. This is the brain’s innate ability to change shape and even get bigger in response to training and learning. Until relatively recently, it was thought that our brains were only capable of neurogenesis (growing new neurons) and large-scale reorganization during childhood. In fact though, it turns out that we’re more than capable of growing and changing the shapes of our brain at any age.

Did you know that taxi drivers actually have more hippocampal grey matter which corresponds to them learning more routes around their given city (1)? Brail readers have larger areas of their motor cortex corresponding with their fingertips.

Now you’re probably thinking: great, so I can learn stuff. Whoopdy-doo.

Hear me out though: brain plasticity is actually much more exciting than that. Plasticity during development is responsible for the entire way we see the world. Our brains are nothing more than an adaptation brought about through operant conditioning. When something goes ‘right’ our brain ‘saves’ the behavior. When we practice something, it strengthens that connection. We are born, pretty much, as blank slates.

So in theory, if you were able to tap into the full potential of brain plasticity, you could accomplish nothing less than to change your entire subjective experience of reality. Where would you even being with that? Well how about learning echolocation, AKA sonar (it’s possible!). How about learning synesthesia (2) and using it to see grids of numbers as you perform maths? What about perfect pitch? Or eidetic memory? Ambidexterity? Thinking with two simultaneous internal monologs (not proven but wouldn’t that be cool)?

How about training your central nervous system to give yourself perfect balance? Better muscle fiber recruitment (yup, super strength)? Or how about instantaneous blocking for insane self-defense skills?

Maybe we could just focus on thickening our corpus callosi (callosums?) in order to improve the communication between our left and right brain hemispheres (ala Einstein) and thus increase our global brain connectivity. Einstein also had particularly large inferior parietal lobes with a reduced sylvian fissure. Aaaand his were symmetrical whereas they are normally significantly reduced on the left side. It’s likely that this unusual brain ‘geography’ is what gave him the ability to visualize his ideas so well (and his descriptions of how he came up with his ideas reinforce this). In other words, we know what Einstein’s brain looks like and we know that our brains have the ability to change shape… So if we want Einstein’s skills, we should aim to train our brains specifically for that shape. Just as a bodybuilder (hello!) might choose to try and mimic the physique of say, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And yes, if you could ‘improve’ your plasticity then you could also learn stuff… but superfast. New languages, new instruments, whole new subjects…

I once had this idea that we could replace our language with a more efficient one. If we could think in a language that had fewer syllables, or that even used pictographic representations, we could in theory think faster. That would take some effort to accomplish – but with enhanced neuroplasticity it would be possible.

How Neuroplasticity Works

So maybe I’m getting a little carried away here. I’m not saying that half of those ideas are possible in practice, only in theory.

So let’s get real: what precisely is neuroplasticity and how exactly does it work?

The basic principle behind this is that ‘cells that fire together, wire together’. In other words, your brain is a massive ‘web’ of neurons (brain cells) which are interconnected by long dendrites (tail-like structures) that have multiple branches and end with bulbous ‘axons’. These axons connect to other axons via synapses – small gaps that allow for the exchange of electrical impulses and neurotransmitters – and the resulting web is what we call a ‘connectome’. For all extents and purposes, you are your connectome as that is what stores all your experiences, memories, abilities, opinions and more. (Though you could argue that your hormone balance and neurotransmitters also house your personality.)

A beautiful drawing I did of synaptic transmissions...

A beautiful drawing I did of synaptic transmissions…

So if you have two separate neurons and they both fire at the same time regularly, you will eventually form a connection between their two axons. This is how we form memories and it’s how our muscle memory works too. It’s also why you never forget how to ride a bike and how I remembered how to tie a ‘figure of eight’ knot the other day from years of rock climbing at University.

Likewise, using a particular neural network also encourages that connection to strengthen. That’s why rote learning works so well and it’s why someone who uses their fingers all the time to play a cello will eventually develop a larger neural representation of their finger-tips. Practice literally makes perfect. This is technically known as ‘long term potentiation’ or ‘LTP’.

Now onto the hard science. How does all this actually work? Well, it’s all a little murky but we do know some things.

One mechanism appears to be the increase in BDNF – brain derived neurotrophic factor (4). BDNF also works as a neurotransmitter, meaning it is generally involved in the communication between neurons across the synapses. Like other neurotransmitters it binds to receptors, those being TrkB (‘Track B’) and LGNFR (low-affinity nerve growth factor receptor).

Other neurotransmitters also seem important for brain plasticity. In particular, the catecholamine neurotransmitters. These are the neurotransmitters associated with stress, focus and attention like dopamine and epinephrine. So any two neurons firing are likely to connect, but if the correct flood of hormones tells us that what’s happening is important then they will be even more likely to connect. And that is where ‘flashbulb memories’ come from – memories of shocking events that we remember in precise detail (like where I was when Michael Jackson died – I was in my fiancé’s kitchen when Goof texted me, we had tickets). Dopamine is also our ‘reward’ chemical and it increases our production of BDNF (5). Likewise, serotonin also seems to play a role in modulating neuroplasticity – one possible reason that depressed patients also suffer from memory impairments in many cases (6).

Neurotransmitters like dopamine also work to ‘reward’ our successful attempts at things. When you attempt to hit a golf ball, you play it through your mind first. Then, when you hit it and it goes right, your brain celebrates by releasing dopamine. Thus the neural pathways that led to that perfect swing are cemented. Watching other people can help us to create more effective mental models of our performance, so it may be that there’s a lot of merit to just watching the pros do what they do.

Then you have nerve growth factor, which is also a member of the ‘neurotrophin family’. Nerve growth factor is essentially a chemical that increases the growth of our axons (the nerve branches) and that also protects them from damage. It seems perhaps then that nerve growth factor helps the neurons to reach out, whereas BDNF is more useful for getting them to hold hands… That was a beautiful metaphor.

How to Improve Neuroplasticity

So now we know some of what makes the brain plastic, the question is how we can leverage that in order to learn faster, to pick up new skills and to fundamentally reorganize our brains…

One seemingly obvious method would be to increase BDNF, which you can do in a number of ways. One straightforward one is to exercise, which increases BDNF and particularly in the hippocampus (7). Exercise has been shown to elicit neurogenesis and it also increases serotonin.

Diet is also very important. All our neurotransmitters require a healthy diet and are largely made from amino acids. Studies also show that nutrients like omega 3 fatty acid (8), milk lipids (9) and many others. Sleep is also important for memory consolidation and seems to support

But every article tells you to ‘eat well, sleep and exercise’. What if we wanted to go further? Here are some more biohack-y ways you could potentially try and take plasticity to the next level.

tDCS

tDCS is ‘transcranial Direct Current Stimulation’. Essentially, it is the process of running very low currents through specific brain regions via pads attached to the skull. More specifically, you have an anode and a cathode and it’s the anode you use to stimulate specific regions, while the cathode can have a suppressant effect. A particular set-up for your pads is called a ‘montage’ and for instance, placing your anode on the right temporal lobe and cathode on the left may potentially help to increase ‘insight’ and even encourage ‘savant-like’ abilities (10). The effects also seem to last for about half an hour following the actual process.

transcranial direct current stimulation

The idea here is not to cause the neurons to fire but rather to ‘excite’ them which appears to increase plasticity via BDNF (11) and this can facilitate learning (on top of the immediate effects). tDCS has been shown in a laboratory setting to be pretty reliable in providing slight improvements in motor learning, memory (12) and other tasks and is also becoming popular as a potential treatment for depression. For brain plasticity, the general idea is that you would use it while learning a new subject or practicing a new motor skill. I’m wondering whether you could use it during overcoming isometrics to improve muscle fiber recruitment and to strengthen your ‘mind-muscle connection’.

Meanwhile, biohackers, grinders and transhumanists have also had partial success creating tDCS devices of their own in their garages and applying weak currents that way. There’s a pretty buzzing subreddit on the subject if you want to find out more.

In the future this sort of thing could have even more potential, as future technologies could use electrical brain stimulation to cause specific neurons to fire in tandem, thus forcing them to connect. Theoretically this could result in ‘Matrix learning’ where you simply strap on a device to learn things like new motor skills. Plug in, learn kung fu. Qualitative knowledge would be harder but either way, we’re probably a good hundred years away from this technology (a number I just entirely made up by the way).

matrix learning

Nootropics

Of course the nootropics scene is also ripe for a bit of neuroplasticity. The ‘CILTeP stack’ for instance, which began life on Longecity and is now being sold by Natural Stacks in supplement form, is designed entirely around the idea of increasing long term potentiation by increasing cAMP.

While there is some anecdotal evidence for CILTeP being effective though, there are also a number of criticisms to be levelled at it on a conceptual level and I can’t say I was really blown away by it in my own experiments (you can read my full review here).

Then there are substances like Lion’s Mane. Lion’s Mane is a mushroom that really does look like a lion’s mane and which is able to increase nerve growth factor and thus encourage nerve growth (13) and myelination ((14) the myelin sheet is the protective coating around the dendrite). It seems to be promising as a dementia treatment, which is always encouraging (15).

I haven’t actually used Lion’s Mane myself but the anecdotal reports are pretty good. As with many nootropics though, it seems the results are hardly a drastic. As in, in a controlled laboratory experiment you might be slightly better at learning lists of items… But you’re not going to become a genius overnight. All these things give you a ‘little edge’. If you combined tDCS, Lion’s Mane and CILTeP? You might have… a little bit more of an edge. I’d still recommend fixing your sleep and exercising more first though!

Valproate

You know what may provide benefits an order of magnitude above the norm though? Valproate. Valproate has been said to ‘reopen the critical learning period’, giving the brain back some of its plasticity from early in life. In one study, it was used to help train adults to identify notes accurately (as you could if you had perfect pitch). In the study, adults were able to significantly improve their ability to correctly identify notes after just 15 days of training as compared with a control group (16).

Valproate works as a HDAC inhibitor, while HDAC appears to limit neural plasticity. Before you rush out and start gobbling down all of the valproate though, bear in mind that it is harsh on the liver and can cause a number of unwanted side effects.

It’s also worth noting that there’s a reason our adult brains produce HDAC and generally inhibit plasticity. While a highly plastic brain is awesome for learning new skills and topics you see, it also leaves us vulnerable to picking up bad habits and damaging psychological traits. This is a double edged sword to be sure…

So the conclusion when looking at ways to boost brain plasticity? Most methods give you a minor advantage at best… and the one method that might do more is ill-advised. In other words? We’re actually more than plastic enough!

There is a study where a guy wore goggles that turned the world upside down and after a while his brain adapted and he began to see the upside down world as normal. That is an insane level of adaptability that we all have already (you can read about it here).

Tapping Into Your Plasticity

We’re plastic enough yes but the problem is: most of us aren’t using it enough and aren’t ambitious enough with what it can do.

Brain training games in theory are a great tool for training specific skills. Unfortunately, they are also often not that much fun and appear to provide us with largely only ‘non-transferrable’ abilities. Proper scientists have devised brain training games that do result in more ‘real world’ benefits such as improved blood flow, memory and strategizing (the Dual N-Back test is particularly useful for increasing working memory) but don’t expect to become a genius using Nintendo Brain Age. The same goes for something like Sudoku – it’s great if you want to be… amazing at Sudoku.

I think brain training programs like those from Brain HQ have some merit but ultimately they still pale somewhat in comparison to Sonic the Hedgehog.

Yup, you heard me: Sonic the Hedgehog. Or Halo. Or Call of Duty. But I prefer Sonic the Hedgehog.

I’ve talked in the past about how computer games can improve visual acuity, special awareness and all that (17) but did you know that they also increase your grey matter generally throughout your brain? They increase global brain connectivity, meaning that the disparate areas of the brain become more interconnected and the brain becomes thicker overall (18) – something which correlates highly with intelligence.

Why is that? It’s because you’re using multiple brain areas at once – you’re listening out for sounds, you’re scanning the horizon, you’re using fine motor controls with the thumbsticks, you’re reacting to enemies and you’re solving puzzles/making fast decisions. All of this working together is what really gets the brain going.

And sports may be even better – as they also involve the body and many more of the senses. When you’re playing sports you need to be aware of the ball, of all your teammates and of the opposition – all while balancing, running, jumping and moving through space. We’ve already seen that exercise stimulates

Well-constructed brain training games like Brain HQ are good because they specific target desirable traits such as brain speed, memory and maths (Sonic sadly will not make you better at maths). Sports and computer games are good because they incorporate multiple different senses and skills. Learning new skills – like languages and instruments – is particularly good for your brain’s overall plasticity. Keep learning and keep trying new things and your brain will be more adaptable and more plastic. Rely on the same old routine however and you’ll gradually lose plasticity and grey matter.

This is another reason being a gamer is particular good for plasticity – because each time you pick up a new game, you’re forced to learn entirely new rules and gameplay mechanics. I actually devised a little puzzle game entirely around this idea that continuously introduces new rules and controls to keep you in that uncomfortable ‘brain ache’ feeling. It’s called Debugger: Brain Untraining and you can get it for Android here.

brain untraining

In the future, I believe that virtual reality will have incredible implications for our ability to evolve our brains. Imagine a game like Call of Duty where you were actually running around through a virtual environment? Or imagine spending significant time in a reality with rules entirely different to those of our world – how would the brain adapt?

Imagine a virtual reality that was our world… but sped up. Could that increase the processing speed of our brain?

oculus rift brain training

I’d also like to point out the potential usefulness of CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This is a psychotherapeutic technique that’s all about training yourself to think in certain disciplined manners. Remember: reality is subjective and it’s our interpretation of events that affects our brain more than the events themselves. Using mindfulness, affirmations and cognitive restructuring (breaking down negative beliefs and replacing them) we can become more present (thus heightening the feedback loop to further improve plasticity), we can overcome nervous ticks and we can challenge ourselves to think in new ways. As mentioned before, plasticity is often controlled by operant conditioning – if the brain feels rewarded for a certain behavior or thought pattern, that neural network is reinforced. You can reward yourself by the way you think about what just happened.

You can change the shape of your brain simply by changing the way you think.

Get Ambitious

So what’s the takeaway from all this rambling?

The message I want to put forward is simple: the state of our brain is entirely arbitrary. The way you think is the way you think because your brain adapted that way. This is possibly true all the way down to the speed of your thinking and the way you use your senses.

I’ve talked about synaesthesia and echolocation in the past. These are things you can learn and I for one find that fascinating.

Think as well about the brain areas that you really want to improve – don’t go randomly and haphazardly into brain training. If you want to be a better physicist, train that corpus callosum and those inferior parietal lobes. Want to become a savant? Look at the right temporal lobe. Looking for enhanced motor skills? Take a stab at the cerebellum (don’t actually stab it though).

Ask yourself as well, what improvements in your brain would result in the most noticeable ‘overall’ upgrade to your thinking? Personally, I’m practicing reading aloud to improve my enunciation and am working on my corpus callosum via ambidexterity training. The corpus callosum is thicker in ambidextrous individuals (19) and this correlates with intelligence (20). It’s just a bit more interesting than just trying to get a ‘slightly better memory’, isn’t it? This seems to be what everyone is so focused on… but is your memory really what’s holding you back? I’d wager not for most people…

As a programmer, it might make sense for me to train the language processing, working memory and attention areas of my brain, as these are the ones used when coding (21). Interestingly, coding has more in common with language than maths – but that’s another story for another day.

Also in the future, I’ll be looking into tDCS and nerve growth factor in more depth. I’ll also be looking at more useful ways to use CBT for brain plasticity. Stay tuned for that!

Also: look out for the future. A virtual reality, X-Men style ‘War Room’ might be just around the corner that would provide the most awesome simultaneous brain and body training imaginable. And also would be really fun…

Subscribe Below to Stay Up to Date!

Mailing List

About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.