Disneyland for Rats
The understanding that the brain continues to change as we age is a relatively new concept in neuroscience. Not long ago, the prevailing wisdom was that our brains grew and formed new connections during childhood and adolescence, but once we reached adulthood, we were pretty much locked into the brains we had. All that changed, however, in the 1960s with the research of Marian Diamond out of UC Berkeley. Today, we’ll review and analyze the results of Diamond’s groundbreaking brain research.
Diamond and her colleagues wanted to know what would happen to the brains of adult rats if they housed them in an “enriched environment.” Think of it as a sort of Disneyland for rats. Lots of fun rat toys to play with. Lots of space to run around. Lots of other rat buddies to talk to. It was a big old rat party.
So Diamond and her colleagues put a set of rats in an enriched environment. And then they had a control set of rats without toys or rat buddies.
What they found was monumental. After a period of time, when they examined the rats, they discovered that the Disneyland rats actually had brains that were physically larger than the rats that had little enrichment and stimulation. The neural connections within the rats’ brains had grown and expanded, meaning their neurons could receive and process larger amounts of information. And not only that—these rats had more synaptic connections, more blood vessels (which means better access to oxygen and nutrients), and higher levels of good brain chemicals that trigger other physical benefits.
Ultimately, what we’ve found since Diamond’s initial groundbreaking study is that brains, adult rat and adult human alike, are highly sensitive and reactive to all aspects of any given environment—physical, psychological, emotional, and cognitive. Stimulate the brain with new things to do or new individuals to interact with and it reacts by creating new connections that cause it to physically expand. But deprive our brains of new stimulations or bore it with doing the same thing day in and day out and our connections could wither away, shrinking our brains.
Tomorrow, we’ll explore six “brain hacks” to enrich your brain.
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