Life by Design

Learning, the brain, and plasticity!

Posted on: November 12, 2009

One of the most interesting discoveries that has come out of the past decade of research on the brain is the concept of plasticity.  Plasticity is the lifelong ability of the brain to reorganize its neural pathways based on new experiences and learning.  The ability of the brain to change with learning is called neuroplasticity.

I located several websites and references to some interesting approaches to plasticity.

The first reference comes from the journal, Experimental Brain Research (2009).   The study is entitled:  Neuronal plasticity:  historical roots and evolution of meaning. (Berlucchi & Buchtel, 2009).

In their paper, the authors outline some important milestones in the history of the term ‘plasticity’ in references to the nervous system and brain.    The earliest reference to plasticity is credited to William James for first adopting the term to denote changes in nervous paths associated with the establishment of habits.  Evidence is provided that in the first twenty years of the twentieth century the theory was generally accepted that learning is based on a reduced resistance at exercized synapses, and that neural processes becomes associated by coactivation. (Berlucchi & Buchtel, 2009).  I thought it interesting that this term has been known and referred to for a long time, even though it is now gaining much more coverage in the media and research.  Please see:



The second  website is a site suited for teaching the concept to children.  “Neuroscience for Kids” introduces the concept of plasticity, synaptic pruning, plasticity of learning and memory, and plasticity and brain repair.  It reinforces the fact that the brain is ever changing, adapting and building and deconstructing itself to optimally adapt to the learner’s environment.    I liked this quote from the site:  “The principal activities of brains are making changes in themselves”.  (Minksy, 1986).  While this site is designed for kids, I can see by adapting it for adults it would provide a good introduction to this topic  as this information can quickly get very technical and dry.    Please see:



The next  site of interest is a review of a book by Dr. Norman Doidge,  “The Brain That changes Itself:  Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science”. His research and claims disucss the importance of immersing ourselves in a completely new hobby every two years or so.  Just as our muscles adapt to lifting a heavy load over the span of a few weeks, continuing to do the same brain-taxing activites over a long period of time has diminishing returns when it comes to brain health.  The bottom line of this blog entry is:  “It’s one thing to learn out of curiosity.  It’s something else altogether to learn new skills because your mental health depends on it.”  Please see:



The last citation for this blog is a reference to a study conducted by The National Academy of Sciences in 2006.  The study entitled, “Memory enhancement in healthy older adults using a brain plasticity-based training program:  A randomized, controlled study”  (Mahncke et al, 2006), did find that intensive, plasticity-engaging training can result in an enhancement of cognitive function in normal mature adults.  Cognitive decline is a nearly universal aspect of the aging process.  Memory problems, for example, may begin as early as age 30 and, on the average, worse slowly but steadily thereafter. (Mahncke et al, 2006).  After reading this study, I began to think that as instructional designers this could become an intriguing niche for our work, combining neuroscience, learning theory and design skills to develop online training to minds sharp, agile and productive.  Please see:


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