The evidence is in – you can significantly increase your brain capacity at virtually any age. If you actively work on how you concentrate, you can become much more focused, productive and effective. And you can even upgrade your brain by juggling!
A 2018 Columbia University study examined the brains of 28 people between the ages of 14 and 79, all of whom had died suddenly. According to Maura Boldrini, Associate Professor of Neurobiology at Columbia and the lead author of the study, “We found that older people have similar ability to make thousands of hippocampal new neurons from progenitor cells as younger people do.”
In other words, the 70-year-olds produced virtually as many new brain cells as the teenagers. And while the brain does shrink slightly as we age (about 5% per decade after age 40), and other factors such as fewer blood vessels and fewer neural connections can impact cognitive function in older people, the evidence gets stronger by the day that if you take a proactive approach to your brain (and your overall health), you'll not only minimize cognitive decline as you age, but actually improve your mental abilities.
Why Neuroplasticity is the New “Wonder Drug”
To understand how monumental this is to your ability to focus better and enhance your quality of life, we need to back up and understand how science’s understanding of our brains has done a 180 over the last few decades. Neuroplasticity is the term that neuroscientists use to describe this 180, and it is a brain process that is potentially more powerful than any drug could ever be.
If like me, you’re no longer 25, then you likely learned in your high school biology class (or even in a medical school class) that the brain is hardwired at birth, doesn't generate any new cells once we reach adulthood, we gradually lose brain cells as we age, and there is nothing we can do about it. Unlike the rest of the body, which can heal and become stronger by generating new cells, we were told science "knew" that when it came to the brain, we were out of luck. Despite some evidence to the contrary even in the early 20th century, the idea that the brain was fixed held sway well into the late 20th century.
The view that the brain can’t change, but can only decline, was well summed up by pioneer neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal in 1928: “In adult centres the nerve paths are something fixed, ended, immutable. Everything may die, nothing may be regenerated. It is for the science of the future to change, if possible, this harsh decree.”
Fortunately, his last sentence proved prophetic. Research beginning largely in the 1960s and extending to the present day has shown us that the brain can create new neural connections and to a great extent rewire itself, and even more impressive, can actually grow new neurons (this last ability of the brain is specifically called neurogenesis, but for the sake of simplicity, I am using neuroplasticity to describe all of the ways the brain can change and grow).
Compare the previous statement of Santiago Ramon y Cajal in 1928 to that of Ian Robertson, a psychologist and neuroplasticity researcher whose research began in the late 1980s. According to Robertson, “What we do know is that almost everything we do, all our behavior, thoughts and emotions, physically change our brains in a way that is underpinned by changes in brain chemistry or function. Neuroplasticity is a constant feature of the very essence of human behavior.”
In other words, the idea that the brain can’t change has been turned on its head.
We now know that we not only can change our brains – we can do so dramatically. If the brain were fixed, it would be pointless to try and improve your ability to focus, master new skills or learn to work better and faster – because if the brain can’t change, then nothing you do to change it is going to matter.
But we now know that everything you do to improve your brain matters. With the right exercises and approach, you can learn to focus far better than you ever thought possible. In fact, you can learn to do anything far better than you ever thought possible. We are only just beginning to understand the frontiers of our mental abilities, and they are massively beyond anything we ever imagined.
Making Neuroplasticity Work For You
There are countless ways you can improve your focus, your abilities and your overall brain function. In fact, that’s what this blog, and my work with individuals and organizations, is all about. One of my previous posts describes five go-to resources to jumpstart your focus, productivity, learning and creativity. The links to the resources in that article, along with the other articles in this blog, will give you everything you need to live a focused life and to boast a constantly improving brain.
But if you’re not sure where to start, or what to do to begin making significant improvements in your focus and overall mental abilities, here are three suggestions you can implement right away:
Learn something – learn anything. You will be creating new neurons and new neural pathways in your brain. Although as adults, we are not wired to learn as quickly as children, we can continue to learn, even into advanced age. Study a language. Pick up an instrument. Choose a subject you’ve always wanted to know more about.
If you engage in continuous, sustained learning – even 20 minutes a day as long as you do it regularly – you will be making improvements in your brain that can have a positive impact on every area of your life. The key though is to be as focused as you can whenever you learn. The brain responds to focus, and 20 minutes of very active learning will do more for you than an hour of going over material mindlessly.
A study led by Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Sara Lazar a decade ago showed that just eight weeks of meditation strengthened areas of the brain related to learning, memory, emotional regulation and empathy, and shrank parts of the brain related to fear and anxiety. Although the subjects of Lazar’s study meditated for about a half hour daily, just 15 to 20 minutes a day may be sufficient to change your brain significantly according to more recent studies. If someone told you that an investment of just 15 to 20 minutes a day could make your brain and your life better, and even make your brain younger, wouldn’t you jump at the opportunity? Well, now you can.
3. Learn to Juggle
Not into meditation and not excited about hunkering down at a desk to tackle a new subject? It turns out you can improve your brain just by juggling. A University of Oxford study showed that people who practiced juggling for 30 minutes a day for 6 weeks increased their brain’s white matter, while a previous study linked juggling with an increase in grey matter. White matter is associated with communication between various regions of the brain, while grey matter is associated with numerous brain functions such as memory, speech, the ability to make decisions, and emotional regulation. The impact on the brain was not dependent on the level of juggling skill the participants attained, and the positive effects remained even a month after the participants stopped juggling.
The days of saying, “I just can’t focus” or “I’m just not smart enough” are over. The research is in – you can focus, you can get smarter, you can improve. Now all that’s left for you to do is get to work.
Try one of the three suggestions listed above and notice the impact it has on you after a few weeks. Let me know how it goes – in the comments below or on the Change Your Focus – Change Your Life Facebook page.