Mind and Memory
15 Strange Things That Can Literally Rewire Your Brain
The brain is a mysterious organ, and researchers are just beginning to understand all of its complexities. But their discoveries reveal all the strange things that can rewire your brain—like smartphones, avocados, and space travel, for starters.
Your brain never stops changing
“We know that when you learn something, the synapses in your brain get bigger,” says Matthew Dalva, PhD, a professor of neuroscience at The Vickie and Jack Farber Institute for Neuroscience and director of the Synaptic Biology Center at Jefferson in Philadelphia. In his latest research, Dr. Dalva used new microscopy technology to observe how tiny clumps of proteins move around in synapses; this is neuroplasticity—your brain’s ability to form new neural connections throughout life. Dr. Dalva points to findings that indicate that neuroplasticity can develop in beneficial ways when you’re learning a new language, for example—and harmful behaviors such as addiction can alter the brain in negative ways.
Alexa, Google, and smartphones
The more we rely on our devices to recall information, the more we need them—it’s called “cognitive offloading.” In one study, participants who previously used the Internet to gain information were significantly more likely to revert to Google for subsequent questions than those who tapped into their own memory. “Our research shows that as we use the Internet to support and extend our memory we become more reliant on it. Whereas before we might have tried to recall something on our own, now we don’t bother,” says study author Benjamin Storm, PhD an associate professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz in a news release.
What happens to the brains of astronauts after weeks or months of space travel? Researchers examined brains of astronauts before and after short and extended stays at the International Space Station and found that the brain shifted upward in the skull and visual centers in the brain were compromised—to the point where astronauts’ vision suffered after returning to Earth. But it only happened during extended missions; astronauts who spent only two weeks in space didn’t experience the same changes. Find out the 8 ordinary things you don’t realize are messing with your brain.
Wine, beer, and spirits
Scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder found that alcohol consumption may cause long-term changes to the structure of white matter and gray matter in the brain. Of note, marijuana did not cause such changes in the study.
There are many things psychologists wish we knew about depression, including the fact that depression is a disease of the brain just as arthritis is a disease of the joints. A study published in the journal Nature documented changes in the brain’s white matter among people with depression. Disruptions in the brain’s white matter have been linked to problems with emotional processing and thinking.
Fasting has been around for eons, and the intermittent fasting craze has many touting its phenomenal physical and mental benefits. “Fasting can change the brain in many ways,” says Benjamin Hardy, a PhD candidate at Clemson University in Clemson, SC, and author of the upcoming Willpower Doesn’t Work: Discover the Hidden Keys to Success. “It increases your number of brain cells and levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that interacts with neurons in the parts of the brain that regulate memory, learning, and higher cognitive function,” he says. Low levels of BDNF are linked to Alzheimer’s, memory loss, and cognitive impairment. Try these 8 healthy habits that your 80-year-old brain will thank you for.
Most parents are all too aware that Fortnite—the latest tween and teen gaming obsession—is seriously addictive. “Excessive gaming also can do some of the same things to the brain that caffeine or cocaine does,” Hardy says. “Playing causes the brain to release tons of [the brain chemical] dopamine—which is very rewarding,” he says. And fairly soon, the brain will become accustomed need more for the same effect, he warns.
However, the news on how gaming affects our brains isn’t all bad. A study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that playing video games can boost the efficiency of brain regions responsible for attention and visuospatial skills. And a new study indicates that people when people between the ages of 55 to 75 played 3D-platform video games such Super Mario 64 for 30 minutes a day, five days a week increased brain function and grey matter in the hippocampus. (Grey matter is responsible for memory, seeing, hearing, plus more.)
Trying new things
Thinking of taking a ballroom dancing class or even learning how to knit? “Learning new things, in general, rewires our brains which is why children’s brains are so adaptive,” Hardy says. “Adult brains are fluid and adaptive too, but adults don’t put themselves in new and novel situations as much as children.” Here are 10 more tips for keeping your brain sharp later in life.
Learning to speak in a foreign tongue will change your brain for the better, but how you learn matters: “Sitting at home with flashcards is different from being in Mexico and trying to speak Spanish to natives,” Hardy says. “The more immediate the feedback, the faster you will learn the language, and conversations provide immediate feedback.”
The foods we put in our bodies definitely rewire your brain. “Healthy, high-quality fats such as avocado are best for brain plasticity, while sugars and processed carbs create inflammation in the brain,” Hardy says. These five brain-boosting foods will make you smarter.
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The tragedy of child abuse is written in the brain: Naguib Mechawar, PhD, director of the Douglas-Bell Canada Brain Bank & Mood, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, studies the brains of people with mental illness—including those who have died by suicide. Dr. Mechawar also collects background information on the people in an attempt to identify the biological underpinnings of major depression and suicide. “We were able to show changes at the molecular level… in victims of child abuse and trauma decades after the abuse,” he says. He found a decrease in nerve insulation—called myelin—that helps protect neuron communication in the brain “There is a lasting consequence of child abuse on the state of myelination,” he explains. This may help explain why abuse survivors struggle with anxiety, aggression, impulse control, and psychiatric disorders like depression. This doesn’t mean child abuse is indelible. Research has shown that some people can overcome these challenges. Don’t miss these 30 other brain facts that will blow your mind.
In one study, men who watched a lot of porn had a decreased grey brain matter in areas related to reward and motivation. The more they watched, the smaller the volume. “This could mean that regular consumption of pornography dulls the reward system,” says Simone Kühn, PhD, study author of the study and scientist in the developmental psychology research area at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, in a news release. “We therefore assume that subjects with high pornography consumption require ever stronger stimuli to reach the same reward level.”
In a study of 100 people published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers compared brains scans of meditators and non-meditators and found that meditation seemed to preserve crucial gray matter in numerous brain regions—compared to the brains of non-meditators. Here are some other brain boosters to keep your mind sharp.
Brain optimization clubs, like the soon-to-launch Field in New York City, will offer up all sorts of services to create an “elite brain.” Doctors in these clinics run high-tech brain scans and then tap noninvasive technologies to tweak the circuits and improve mental prowess without drugs. Nootropics—sometimes called smart drugs—are compounds that enhance brain function and are becoming a popular way to give your mind an extra boost.
Regular exercise is good for your entire body—including your brain. One study found that regular aerobic exercise boosts the size of the brain’s hippocampus, which is involved in verbal memory and learning, among women who report mild memory problems. Next, don’t miss these 50 secrets your brain wishes you knew.