It’s no secret that behind every beautiful garden is regular maintenance including pruning. One very important area of our body is also constantly undergoing pruning and that is our brains. This is known as neural pruning.
So why do our brains need pruning?
The answer to this is fairly straight forward. Efficiency. Our brains store and process an immense amount of information and to function at their best they need to be organised. Any circuits in our brain that we don’t use get pruned to make way for new learning and those pathways that get used frequently.
Pruning is a good healthy process that demonstrates that our brains are constantly changing and adapting to our lives and environment. Just as pruning a plant will enhance its growth if done in the right way, healthy neural pruning gets rid of any damaged cells to allow for regeneration.
However research into brain function shows that too much of a “good thing” may be one of the mechanisms behind the development of conditions such as Alzheimers disease. While much is known about the formation of plaques in the brain associated with Alzheimers, it appears that pruning problems often precede the development of these plaques and may be a useful early indicator of dysfunction.
Imagine you are driving to your local shopping centre. Most of us know multiple routes that we can take to get there in case we encounter road closures or traffic problems. This is similar to the way a normal healthy brain works where there are multiple available options. When neural pruning is abnormal, our other options are taken away. When we need an alternative route, it takes us a lot longer as we need to find a map and start from scratch. In some cases we even prune our main option leaving us completely disoriented.
While science is looking at ways to promote healthy neural pruning, there are a few key things that we can do to foster a healthy brain. There is a common saying in neuroscience that “neurons that fire together, wire together”. The more we reinforce patterns and behaviours, the more likely we are to keep them.
The other important way to keep our brains thriving is to constantly challenge them. With our brains constantly striving to be efficient, they often bias familiarity. Here are a few suggestions to overcome this:
- Rather than doing the same types of puzzles, try new and different types of puzzles that you aren’t familiar at or haven’t tried before
- Try to focus on learning something new about the people you see or listen to rather than reinforcing what you already know about them
- Try to focus on learning new skills; be it new exercises, languages or musical instruments
We would love to hear your comments on how you keep your brain thriving!