I’ve been noticing more birdsong recently as the mornings are getting a bit lighter. I always find that this lifts my heart as it seems like a glimmer of spring.
Studies show there are seasonal changes in the brain structure of songbirds linked to breeding patterns. There is an increase in the number of neurons in late summer compared to early spring due to changes in song behaviour.
The human brain shows similar flexibility (or ‘plasticity’) with structural and functional changes over the lifespan. During childhood the brain changes and recalibrates as a developmental process and our brains continue changing throughout adulthood, a capacity known as ‘experience dependent’ plasticity. For these reasons, neuroscientists suggest that our brains are more like ‘playdoh than porcelain’.
A wealth of recent research has shown how the brain changes in response to the environment and the actions we take. For example, when we master a new skill, such as learning a musical instrument, we forge new neural pathways. There is a well-known example of the enlarged hippocampus brain region of London Hackney cab drivers due to the 3-4 years they spend learning ‘the knowledge’. These research insights are proving useful in the search for treatments of neurological diseases such as Alzheimers.*
For these reasons, neuroscientists suggest that our brains are more like ‘playdoh than porcelain’. Yet the changes that occur in the brain can sometimes be negative, in response to what is going on in our external environment. When chronically stressed, for example, we literally devote more brain space to the focus of our worries.
A fascinating study by Professor Pascal Leone demonstrates the power of positive mental rehearsal. He conducted a study with two groups of participants, each learning to play a piano piece over a week-long program and studied how the brain changed during this process. One group practiced the piece physically each day and another group mentally visualized the practice each day. The surprising finding was that both groups demonstrated expansion in the same brain region (the motor cortex area that is associated with finger movement).
Such insights are empowering for clients as they see the possibilities for achieving positive change through positive visualization and mental rehearsal. Hypnotherapy can support clients in harnessing the capability of the brain to over-ride unhelpful patterns of thought and achieve positive change.
Begley, S (2007) The Brain: How The Brain Rewires Itself: Not only can the brain learn new tricks, but it can also change its structure and function–even in old age. Time Magazine.
Bentley, GE. Van’t Hof, TJ. Ball, GF (1999) Seasonal neuroplasticity in the songbird telencephalon: A role for melatonin Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 96 (8) , pp. 4674-4679.
Free, C (2021) London cabbies’ brains are being studied for their navigating skills. It could help Alzheimer’s research. Washington Post