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How to Build the Brain You Want

This article was based on the TEDxVancouver Talk, “After Watching This, Your Brain Will Not Be the Same,” by Lara Boyd.


After watching this, your brain will not be the same | Lara Boyd | TEDxVancouver


Lara Boyd is a brain researcher at the University of British Columbia. She studies how we learn and why some people learn more easily than others.  Brain research is one of the great frontiers in the understanding of human physiology, and in consideration of what makes us who we are.


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What we know about the brain is constantly changing. Advances in technology, such as the MRI, have allowed us to make many important discoveries. Perhaps the most interesting and transformative of these discoveries is that every time you learn a new fact or skill, you change your brain. This is what is known as neuroplasticity.

As little as 25 years ago, we thought that after puberty the only changes that took place in the brain were negative. Newer studies began to show remarkable amounts of reorganisation in the adult brain. In fact, our brains are changing all the time. Most importantly, it was discovered that brain reorganisation helps to support recovery after the brain has been damaged.


The key to each of these changes is neuroplasticity. Your brain can change in three very basic ways to support learning. The first change is chemical. The brain functions by transferring chemical signals between brain cells to trigger actions and reactions. To support learning, your brain can increase the concentrations of the chemical signals.  This kind of change can happen rapidly and supports short-term memory and the short-term improvement in the performance of a motor skill.

The second way that the brain can change to support learning is by altering its structure. During learning, the brain can change the connections between neurons. Here, the physical structure of the brain is changing, which takes more time. These types of changes are related to the long-term memory and the long-term improvement in a motor skill.

The last way that your brain can change to support learning is by altering its function. As you use a brain region it becomes more and more excitable and easier to use again. The brain shifts how and when these areas of excitability are activated. With learning, whole networks of brain activity are shifting and changing.

Neuroplasticity is supported by chemical, by structural, and by functional changes. These are happening across the whole brain and can occur in isolation from one another, but most often they take place in concert. Together they support learning and they are taking place all the time.


The lessons learned from Boyd’s research studying the brain after stroke are very valuable in other areas. The first lesson is that the primary driver of change in your brain is your behaviour. Nothing is more effective than practice at helping you learn. The more difficult the practice is, the greater structural change that occurs in the brain. The second lesson is that there is no standard approach to learning. The shaping of our plastic brain is far too unique for there to be any single intervention that could work for everyone.

Understanding these differences can help us to learn better. Repeat the behaviours that are healthy for your brain, and break those behaviours and habits that are not. Learning is about doing the work that your brain requires. You and your plastic brain are constantly being shaped by the world around you. Understand that everything you do, everything you encounter, and everything you experience is changing your brain. That can be for better, but it can also be for worse. So, go out and build the brain you want.


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