Health & Fitness

Exercise Your Neural Plasticity

Exercise Your Neural Plasticity

By Dr. Pete Pfeffer

When is the last time you did anything for the first time? As humans we crave a balance between new and routine. Too much change and we become overwhelmed, too much structure and we drop in to depression brought on by monotony. Some of us thrive in change while others thrive with routine but we all live on this spectrum.

Car with kayak on roof rack on map


When it comes to learning, neuro-scientists used to think we developed static learning patterns during childhood that persisted throughout our lives. They thought this permanently affected our ability to learn. Recently this thought process has been turned on its ear with research showing we create and destroy neural pathways as regularly as road construction during the Minnesota summer. This is called neural plasticity. What it means is we are constantly creating new links in our brains. The links used frequently become deeply entrenched, others are created then abandoned due to disuse.

I experienced this recently as a chaperone on a youth mission trip to San Francisco. As a van driver for five days, I effectively navigated the hilly one way tangled streets of the City by the Bay. Despite the ruckus of 12 teenagers in the van, each day I became better and more efficient at locating various sites and destinations. The interesting part, is now two weeks later, the street names that were second nature are fading. If I continued to use this new skill, San Francisco would be as second nature to me as the Lake Geneva Channel or the neck of my guitar. Sadly, I won’t use this skill for a while and the San Francisco pathways will be abandoned.

We all have friends who are constantly trying something new or cooking up a new dish. Or maybe that describes you. The trick is, this is how we challenge and develop the skill of learning not only when we are young but throughout our lives.

The good news is we all have this skill. When I asked, “When was the first time you did anything for the first time?” I was really challenging you to exercise your neural plasticity. So experience some assagiare, the Italian word for taste it. Taking a different route to work, changing up your coffee order or trying a new recipe challenges and develops our neural fitness and bolsters our life-long learning ability!

Peter Pfeffer is a doctor of chiropractic and functional neurologist with HealthSource Chiropractic and Progressive Rehab in Alexandria.

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