How flexible is your brain?


Gears turning in 2 people's heads
Youst/Digital Vision Vectors/Getty Images

As it turns out, your brain is likely more flexible than it was ever believed to be. Researchers once thought that after a certain age, your brain was set in its ways, never to change, other than to grow old and decay. Science is now demonstrating more and more how flexible and changeable our brains actually are.


The term "neuroplasticity" is a combination of the word "neuron" and "plastic," referring to the approximately hundred billion nerve cells in our brains and their changeable nature.

As it turns out, you can teach an old dog new tricks, as brains can and do change in positive ways even past our childhood years.

Brain changes from experiences in relationships with others

An entire field of science has been developed known as "interpersonal neurobiology," which explores and understands how our brains change based on our experiences of relationships with others. Interpersonal neurobiology posits that we are much more social than we realize, and our brains literally develop and change into our adult years based on the connections we have with others.

One fascinating study on romantic relationships demonstrates how strengthening relationships between couples literally changes the way a partner's brain responds to fear and pain.

Brain changes from experiences in life

Brains also adapt, change and grow based on new knowledge that is acquired. Certainly, our brains are the most impressionable as children, but even into our adult years, new experiences and learning shape our brains.

A famous study of London taxi drivers is a fine example of how the human brain can and does change with experience. London taxi drivers have to pass a rigorous test that proves they know all of the ins and outs of the intricate city. These taxi drivers were therefore a perfect sample of people for researchers to test the effects that learning the map of a city would have on the drivers' brains.

Researchers found that taxi drivers who successfully passed the city's rigorous test to become a driver indeed had greater volumes of gray matter in their brains' hippocampi than those who failed the test and were not practicing taxi drivers. The hippocampus in the brain, named as such after the Greek word for "seahorse" as it structurally resembles a seahorse, is implied in short and long-term memory, learning, and spatial recognition.

Even as adults, when we acquire new skills, our brains can structurally change, as this study of these taxi drivers demonstrates.

Brain changes to compensate for damage

Neuroplasticity is also evidenced when one part of the brain is damaged in some way and it reorganizes itself to compensate for the loss of function. Sometimes, as one study points out, circuitry of the brain far from the injured area begins to compensate for the damage.

There is a great deal that researchers do not know about how the amazing brain works. One thing known for sure, however, is that your brain is probably a lot more flexible than you think.



Woollett, K & Maguire, E A (2011). Acquiring ‘‘the Knowledge’’ of London’s Layout Drives Structural Brain ChangesCurrent Biology, 21: 2109-2114.

Zelikowsky, M, Bissiere, S, Hast, T A, Bennett, R Z, Abdipranoto, A, Vissel, B & Fanselow, M S (2013). Prefrontal microcircuit underlies contextual learning after hippocampal loss, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100(24): 9938-9943.

Continue Reading