2.6 What is Neuroplasticity? – Definition & Examples
Your brain is amazing and complex! Think about how the famous railroad worker Phineas Gage was still able to walk and talk minutes after an iron rod was accidentally shot straight through his head! Even though Phineas Gage suffered severe damage to the left side of his brain, he was able to recover and go on to work as a stagecoach driver and farmhand for more than a decade.
Approximately one million Americans have brain damage that affects their ability to talk. This kind of impairment is known as aphasia. Just to put this in perspective, imagine if the entire city of Philadelphia had trouble speaking! One of the most common causes for this kind of brain damage is stroke. When someone has a stroke, the blood doesn’t reach part of their brain, causing the brain cells to die. The resulting brain damage can lead to a disorder, such as Broca’s aphasia. People with Broca’s aphasia have damage to the Broca’s area in their frontal lobe, which is one of the parts of the brain that processes our ability to speak. People with this kind of damage can usually understand what other people are saying but have trouble speaking themselves. A trick to remember this is to say that people with Broca’s aphasia have a broken speech center in their brain.
Sometimes we say that the brain is like a computer, but it can do things no computer can do. If you have brain damage, then other parts of your brain can start performing the missing functions and allow you to recover your ability to speak. We say the brain is plastic, or shaped by its experiences. Neuroplasticity is a fancy word for the brain’s ability to adjust to damage or new experiences.
With treatment, rehabilitation and time for the brain to reorganize and access its other language centers, people with Broca’s aphasia can recover some of their ability to communicate.
Neuroplasticity isn’t always about bad news. Damage isn’t the only thing that changes our brain, and changes aren’t only functional. The structure of your brain can change, too. When you ‘flex’ your ‘mental muscles’ you can actually grow a larger temporal lobe for processing sound! One way to do this is to play an instrument every day. And if you learn a second language, your parietal lobe actually becomes denser. So learning things isn’t just like storing information in a computer; parts of the brain grow denser and grow larger in response to our experiences.
Your brain can reorganize its parts to perform different functions after damage and change shape to contain new types of knowledge. The ability of your brain to adjust to both new experiences and injury is called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity gives us hope for improving our brains!