Your brain has the innate ability to physically change itself when faced with new, challenging experiences. This ability is called neuroplasticity. Your brain's billions of neurons —its cellular building blocks—interact with each other in complex ways. Signals travel from one neuron to another down intricate neural pathways whose structures determine your thoughts, impulses, emotions, insights, and more. As our brains age through childhood, these neural pathways change: less-used pathways are pruned away while pathways that you use regularly grow stronger. Each task relies on a different neural pathway.
Neuroplasticity is your brain's ability to create neural pathways and reshape existing ones—even as an adult. Your brain makes these small changes naturally throughout your lifetime. But when neuroplasticity's potential is thoughtfully and methodically explored, this physical reorganization can make your brain faster and more efficient at performing all manner of tasks—no matter how large or small they may be.
The nervous system controls behavior, and we have all witnessed the changes in behavior of children as they learn to talk and walk, and later on to ride a bicycle and to read and write. These changes occur because of the plastic properties of the brain: new contacts are formed, the properties of existing synapses and neurons change, and lately we have evidence that new neurons are born and added to the circuitry. Much of this learning occurs according to a pre-programmed, but still requires the appropriate experience: human children can learn to speak any first language, but their learning is much faster if they hear that language spoken to them and used around them during the first two years of life.
Similarly, bees are pre-programmed to learn where the hive is when the leave it the first time in the morning, and to learn where each flower patch is as they leave it to go on to another. Each of the different forms of learning and memory result from some change in the nervous system, and the study of the those changes is one of the most active areas of neuroscience today.
A Rich Body of Neuroplasticity Research
Neuroplasticity suggests that anyone can improve their brain, no matter what their age or background. A growing body of research adds more credence to this concept every day.
Recently, Dr. Susanne Jaeggi from the University of Michigan found that young adults improved fluid intelligence performance after training with a working memory task called dual n-back (Jaeggi, et al., 2008). Fluid intelligence is the type of dynamic problem-solving that you use when encountering new challenges—it's what most people mean by "intelligence".
A study of over 2,000 elderly adults in 2002 suggests that even older brains have plenty of room to improve and learn. (Ball, et al., 2002). After 10 hours of training over the course of six weeks, elderly participants gained skills that transferred to real-world abilities —they experienced fewer declines in their ability to perform basic daily activities.
And finally, Lumos Labs collaborated with Stanford and San Francisco State University researchers to publish a groundbreaking study showing that healthy adults benefit from web-based cognitive training (Hardy et al., 2011). Participants in this peer-reviewed controlled trial saw 20% improvements in visual attention and 10% improvements in working memory. The body of evidence for neuroplasticity and brain training is constantly growing. For a full picture of HCP research on these topics, see the Research Behind Lumosity.
How You Can Harness Your Brain's Abilities
You, too, could achieve amazing improvements. But not every experience can rewire your brain for the better: in order to fully harness the power of neuroplasticity, you need to challenge your brain with training that's novel, adaptive, and complete. This complex formula explains why some popular games such as Sudoku and crosswords don't increase intelligence—the more you play these games, the more you retrace overlearned pathways in your brain. You need carefully calibrated challenges to really strengthen and stretch your brain.
Novelty Forces Your Brain to Change
Novel challenges present unexpected obstacles, forcing your brain to work in new ways. When your brain encounters these new challenges, it must remodel its existing circuitry and find new pathways for information processing. That's because the brain assigns special neural pathways or each type of task. Just as you use different muscle groups for running and swimming, so you use different neural circuitry for reading and watching a movie. Familiar tasks simply reactivate existing circuitry—which can keep your brain active, but won't change or improve it in fundamental ways.
Adaptivity Keeps Your Brain Challenged
You have a unique set of cognitive strengths and weaknesses. A task that's easy for someone else may be a challenge to you, and vice versa. In order to improve, you need tasks appropriate for your brain's ever-changing ability levels. As your brain becomes stronger, it's able to handle tougher challenges. This response to challenges is a key part of neural growth, and you need challenges that adapt quickly enough to push you.