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Our brains are our most important asset. Whether we are in a professional setting, learning in the classroom, talking to friends, leading a project or playing a sport, our brains are responsible for all of our thoughts and actions. 

Yet despite the importance of the brain, the vast majority of people are not aware that the brain can change. When we take a proactive approach to learning that leverages neuroplasticity, we are able to improve our cognitive ability and, as a result, achieve improved educational, vocational and social outcomes.

That’s why, in this blog, we share the five key principles of neuroplasticity and how, through their implementation, we can help both students and professionals strengthen areas of weakness in their cognitive ability.

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What is neuroplasticity? 

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change itself constantly by creating new neural pathways and losing those which are no longer used. The brain is able to change its physical structure and its functional organization in response to training and new experiences. 

As a result of neuroplasticity, the brain’s capacity to learn and function changes over time. This happens across our entire lifetime, and neuroplasticity is happening continuously within our brains

This represents a huge opportunity. Through the sustained practice of a new behaviour and cognitive programming, we are able to use the power of neuroplasticity to challenge the brain to think in new ways. This allows us to strengthen cognitive functions within our brain, ultimately enhancing our capacity to learn and strengthening our emotional intelligence. 

The key principles of neuroplasticity 

Our brains work in networks of areas to help us perform day-to-day tasks. The capabilities of our cognitive functions have a huge impact on tasks such as memory, executive functioning, language, math, decision making, art, socializing and so much more. 

We can improve our performance within these tasks, by harnessing the power of neuroplasticity to enhance our brain’s capabilities and strengthen how the cognitive functions within our brain perform. 

To do this, there are five key principles of neuroplasticity that allow us to fundamentally change the cognitive functions that allow learning and skill acquisition to occur. 

The principles that promote neuroplastic change of cognitive function are:

1 - Differentiated stimulation

The capability of our brain to perform certain tasks comes down to the strength and weaknesses of our cognitive functions. Cognitive functions refer to the characteristic job of a region, or network of regions, of the brain. Any task that we do, whether it is reading, writing, math or problem solving, relies on the various cognitive functions within our brains.

Yet each one of our cognitive functions operates across a continuum of capacity, from a superior level of functioning to a severe level of challenge. Some people may have superior object recognition, for example, but weak symbol recognition.This means they excel at remembering the visual details of the physical world but struggle remembering the visual details of symbols necessary for reading.

To harness neuroplasticity and strengthen areas of weakness, it’s critical to expose the brain to differentiated stimulation. Through specific tasks that target and exercise our weaker cognitive functions, we are able to strengthen them over time. 

2 - Attention

To achieve neuroplasticity and strengthen our weaker cognitive functions, it’s crucial that those undergoing cognitive programming focus on the demands of the specific task. The brain must focus if neuroplastic change is to occur, and not fully concentrating on the task at hand can delay, or even prevent, neuroplastic change from occurring. 

Active engagement is critical. You must be fully engaged in an activity, meaning you can't be thinking about something else while completing the task.

3 - Sustained engagement

This leads us onto our next principle of neuroplasticity, which is sustained engagement. Neuroplastic change happens slowly, over an extended period of time. One cannot simply perform a task and expect their brain to have changed in any meaningful way. 

Just like a bodybuilder who works out at a gym will slowly grow more muscle and become stronger, a person undergoing cognitive programming must spend sufficient time with exposure to the cognitive task before profound changes occur that improve their ability to perform specific tasks. 

4 - Effortful processing

The fourth principle of neuroplastic change is that it requires effortful process. Cognitive programs must have a level of complexity that requires a specific level of effort on behalf of the learner. Tasks must be challenging so that they require effort to accomplish, but not so difficult that failure will happen. 

Here at Arrowsmith, our exercises start at a level that is just above the current level of functioning of the student so that the task requires effort but is achievable. As a student works on an exercise and becomes a master at a certain task or level, the exercise will incrementally increase in complexity in order to maintain a level of demand on the cognitive function, but will never be so difficult that the student cannot complete the task.

5 - Novelty and complexity 

Last but not least, we have novelty and complexity. To continuously strengthen cognitive functions through neuroplasticity, tasks must involve new learning with an appropriate level of complexity. Each exercise  should have a level of difficulty that always just slightly exceedsthe students' ability level - so while they must be challenged, with effort, each goal is an achievable one.

This also means that supports or compensations should not be used. Any compensation can jeopardize the process of neuroplastic change as it means the exercise is not directly targeting the area to be strengthened. Students should work independently, and without accommodations or modifications - so that they feel empowered and accountable and so the exercise is working the cognitive function as designed.

Are you interested in learning more about how Arrowsmith leverages neuroplasticity to make sustained cognitive changes over time ? Get in touch with the Arrowsmith team of neuroplasticity experts today

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Barbara Arrowsmith-Young
Post by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young
January 13, 2023
Barbara Arrowsmith-Young is the international best-selling author of The Woman Who Changed her Brain, and a pioneer in using neuroplasticity to change the brain, cognition, learning and social-emotional well-being of learners worldwide. Though she began life with severe learning disabilities, she built herself a better brain and developed the Arrowsmith Program, which has helped thousands to increase their capacity to learn.