It is a commonly held belief that once we reach adulthood our brains are ‘hard-wired’ and incapable of dramatic change. However, research in recent years has led neuroscientists to believe that our brains are in fact much more malleable, flexible and able to shift physically and psychologically than we first thought.
Throughout our childhood and teenage years, our brains grow and change naturally, undergoing drastic changes. Once we reach adulthood at around 25 our brain stops naturally forming new neural pathways and our habits, biases and attitudes become more set in stone and much harder to change.
Nevertheless, it isn’t impossible to train our brains to changing later in life and throughout adulthood. There are some practical ways you can incorporate new habits into your daily routine, which will help keep your brain flexible beyond your youth and throughout your life.
1. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change itself constantly by creating new neural pathways and losing those which are no longer used. Encouraging the brain’s neuroplasticity is the key to sustained adult learning and emotional intelligence, which will help the brain remain open-minded, intuitive and able to overcome biases throughout adulthood.
Unfortunately, keeping your brain plastic and flexible isn’t as easy as simply doing a daily sudoku or crossword. For the brain to rewire itself it requires sustained practice of a new behavior which will sufficiently challenge the brain to think in a new way. Imagine how difficult it is to learn a new language or take up a new instrument – this is how hard your brain needs to work to stimulate growth and forge new neural pathways.
2. Brain agility
Reframing your current approach to situations and developing the brain functions which you currently underutilize can help maximize the brain’s performance across diverse and unfamiliar tasks.
Most people are wired to avoid losses over acquiring gains, for example, most people would prefer not to lose $50 than to find $50. However, putting your brain outside its comfort zone and developing the skills you know you struggle with can help the brain become more flexible and resilient to switching tasks and focus.
We have all developed particular skills based on the everyday demands placed on our brains at work and at home, however with the world of work constantly changing our brains will need to continually renew our skills and be adaptable to new situations and ways of thinking.
Developing an agile brain could be more important than you think - as we see automation replace more jobs associated with systematic thinking, as individuals and collectively more of us will need to hone their abilities to think creatively, intuitively and empathetically in order to thrive in a changing jobs markets.
3. Mindset mastery
Recent theory developed by Stanford professor Carol Dweck has suggested that most people’s brains can be described as having a fixed or a growth mindset. Someone with a fixed mindset avoids new challenges out of fear of failure, whilst someone with a growth mindset sees new everyday problems as opportunities to be seized and embraced as part of a wider learning experience. Those with a fixed mindset claim that skills and abilities are innate, however Dweck argues that most successful people tend to have a growth mindset and an ongoing desire to learn and develop personally throughout their life.
As we get older it can seem harder and more fruitless to try new things we believe we will not be successful at, however by becoming aware of our resistance to change it is possible train ourselves to overcome this resistance and expose ourselves to new activities.
Instead of avoiding taking up a new hobby or interest you have always been interested in for fear of failure, put yourself out of your comfort zone and give it a go. You will be surprised at how you will develop new ways of thinking through trial and error and how this will improve your resilience and flexibility.
Pressing the pause button on our hectic daily lives and helping simplify our brain’s work can have a surprising impact on its ability to grow and change.
Focusing all of our attention on the present moment and our own breathing in the act of mindfulness can have both long and short term physical benefits on the brain. Short term it will decrease our stress by reducing our levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood.
Longer term, if it is practiced regularly (around three times a week), it will lead to increased gyrification – the formation of more folds in the prefrontal cortex. This is important because the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain associated with our higher executive functions, namely our abilities to think flexibly and creatively, switch between tasks and make reasonable decisions. Try and work some type of mindfulness into your daily routine, whether by using an app such as Headspace or doing some yoga before bed.
Better understanding how your brain works can help you realize the importance of keeping your brain flexible throughout your life. Constantly changing how you think and approach situations might not seem natural, but working on our ability to stay emotionally intelligent, intuitive and flexible will benefit us as we grow older.