How to Learn Better by Understanding Neuroplasticity

How to Learn Better by Understanding Neuroplasticity

Keep reading to learn about this essential brain function that gives life its flavor.

Imagine a world in which we are unable to learn from our mistakes, we never take up a new hobby or learn a new skill, and we can’t learn to navigate a new city. This is a world without neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is an amazing brain function and one that we are critically dependent on in our daily lives. Let’s talk more about what neuroplasticity is and how it works.

What Is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to adapt in response to experience. In other words, it’s our ability to learn new things or develop new skills. As we move through life, we have to develop behaviors that suit our context and help us survive and sometimes thrive. The brain accomplishes this by creating new connections between neurons, thus altering the way different parts of the brain talk to each other, which ultimately supports the new behavior or skill (Kleim & Jones, 2008).

Neuroplasticity might be one of the brain’s most important functions. If the neural circuitry that is created throughout our early development was fixed, we wouldn’t be able to adapt to new contexts or environments, the functional effects of brain damage would be permanent, and we wouldn’t be able to experience the joy of learning. We would be stuck as the person we were when our brains stopped developing. So essentially all humans would cognitively be 20-somethings forever.

“The beauty of neuroplasticity is that when you make changes to what you remember and how you remember it, what you do and how you do it, your brain overrides the old neural networks with new ones.”
― Jennifer Fraser

How Does Neuroplasticity Work?

There’s still much to be learned about neuroplasticity, but there are a few things that have been consistently observed in research experiments. Current research shows that neuroplasticity involves several types of changes that occur in the brain.

One kind of change is in the actual structure of brain cells. For example, a neuroimaging study found structural changes in brain areas associated with learning and memory after a task that engaged learning and memory processes (Sagi et al., 2012).

Another kind of structural change observed in brain cells is something called dendritic growth. Dendrites are branch-like projections that extend from one cell and connect to another one to allow for communication between them.

This communication comes in the form of a synapse, which is essentially just the flow of information from one neuron to another.

Neurons can have multiple dendrites that branch out in all directions and synapse on many other neighboring cells. More dendrites mean a single neuron can talk to more neurons at one time. Dendritic growth is the growth and branching of a neuron’s dendrites which leads to changes in the way different parts of the brain are able to communicate with each other. These changes in communication can lead to changes in neuronal networks—or an assembly of neurons that work together to support some function. And it’s these changes that we observe as neuroplasticity (Ploughman et al., 2015).

Principles of Neuroplasticity

Researchers have identified 10 different principles of neuroplasticity (Kleim & Jones, 2008). These include:

● Use It or Lose It

● Use It and Improve It

● Specificity

● Repetition Matters

● Intensity Matters

● Time Matters

● Salience Matters

● Age Matters

● Transference or Generalization

● Interference

Let’s explore what a few of these principles are.

Use It or Lose It

This is a phrase that you are likely already familiar with, but it is a good encapsulation of one aspect of neuroplasticity. As we saw in the examples of neuroplasticity in blind people and deaf people, the brain isn’t a fan of letting areas go unused. The use it or lose it principle refers to this same process. However, unlike in these examples, the neural networks that are not being used aren’t necessarily repurposed for something better. Luckily, even if we don’t use it and we subsequently lose it, we can get it back through dedicated training and consistency.

Intensity Matters

The intensity principle can be thought of as the dosage required to achieve a result. This will likely depend heavily on what you are trying to do and may not necessarily apply to your goals. For example, let’s say you are trying to quit a bad habit. There’s no way for you to intensely not do something. But if you are learning to play piano, sitting down for five minutes and playing one of those songs you can play with two fingers will not improve your piano-playing ability. Sitting down for an hour and challenging yourself with complicated pieces, on the other hand, will improve your ability to play the piano.

Age Matters

This principle refers to the fact that our brains are much more plastic (or adaptable) when we are young than when we are old. Though an aging brain is still more than capable of learning new things, it just might not come as quickly or as easily as it would to a younger person.

In Sum

Neuroplasticity is one brain function we can all appreciate. It is the basis for so much of what makes life rich and enjoyable. Researchers are still discovering the mechanisms that underlie how it works, but it is clear that neuroplasticity plays a huge role in our lives.


● Kleim, J. A., & Jones, T. A. (2008). Principles of experience-dependent neural plasticity: implications for rehabilitation after brain damage.

● Ploughman, M., Austin, M. W., Glynn, L., & Corbett, D. (2015). The effects of poststroke aerobic exercise on neuroplasticity: a systematic review of animal and clinical studies. Translational stroke research, 6, 13–28.

● Sagi, Y., Tavor, I., Hofstetter, S., Tzur-Moryosef, S., Blumenfeld-Katzir, T., & Assaf, Y. (2012). Learning in the fast lane: new insights into neuroplasticity. Neuron, 73(6), 1195-1203