When you first sit down at the piano, or first hold a baseball, you are not automatically Beethoven writing symphonies, or Babe Ruth hitting home runs. Every skill takes time and practice, and most importantly, neuroplasticity, the brain’s remarkable ability to change from and adapt to each experience.
When you learn something new, the brain creates connections between various neurons. As you get better at the activity, sport, or hobby, the neuropathways are strengthened, the task becomes easier each time, and the brain is constantly changing as a result.
Neuroplasticity is in direct contrast to what Santiago Ramon y Cajal presented. His neuroscience expertise and research lead him to believe that the brain’s nerve pathways are fixed and permanent.
The science community used Cajal’s findings as truth for most of the 20th century, but we now know that the brain actually develops and evolves. Neuroplasticity explains the process and offers great hope in the improvement of cognitive functioning used in treating stroke victims, for example.
Impaired By Depression
Scientists have further discovered that neuroplasticity can be impaired by depression. The brains of 23 people with diagnosed depression were compared with the brains of 23 people who have never shown symptoms of depression. Following a brief magnetic stimulation, the non-depressed brains yielded the expected changes, but the depressed brains did not.
Depression is a mental illness characterized by persistent sadness, feelings of hopelessness, perpetuating irritability, unexplainable fatigue and decreased energy, loss of interest in activities that used to bring joy (hobbies, sports, sex, etc.), difficulty concentrating, overeating or appetite loss, insomnia or oversleeping, and thoughts of suicide.
People experiencing the symptoms of depression start to have issues at work when they possibly miss days and weeks entirely, or simply do not care to exert effort toward their job any longer. From there, other financial issues can ensue. Families are affected, friendships are destroyed, and sometimes people with depression are left to suffer alone.
The chemical composition of a depressed person’s brain is very different from that of a non-depressed person. Depression can develop gradually, so the person’s brain chemistry could have changed, and can continue to change, if left untreated.
Neuroplasticity is responsible for Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s remarkable recovery from a stroke several years ago. In her TED Talk, My Stroke of Insight, Dr. Taylor explains how you have the choice of which side of the brain you choose to function from because we are continuously in charge of selecting experiences that alter our brains.
With awareness and practice, we can control the neuroplasticity of our brains. What we choose to do each day guides how our brain is being altered. If depression is present, the choice is essentially being made for you. With proper treatment, tools like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can give you alternatives to thoughts, behaviors, and experiences that positively impact your brain’s neuroplasticity.
The discovery that depression physically alters your brain chemistry is great information. We can now develop better forms of therapy and treatment for depression based on the scientific findings.