The neural pathways in the brain begin to solidify by age 25; however, new neural pathways can be created with a bit of effort. By challenging yourself and taking on new habits, you can grow more neurons and create new pathways.
For the most part, ways of thinking become set after age 25
“It turns out that we, as human beings, develop neural pathways, and the more we use those neural pathways over years and years and years, they become very stuck and deeply embedded, moving into deeper portions of the brain,” said Deborah Ancona, a professor of management and organizational studies at MIT. “By the time we get to the age of 25, we just have so many existing pathways that our brain relies on, it’s hard to break free of them.”
Tara Swart, a senior lecturer at MIT and author of Neuroscience for Leadership, explains one hypothesis for this is that the brain always tends to “choose the most energy efficient path.”
Ways to keep your brain agile
“Simply put, when the brain is young and not yet fully formed, there’s a lot of flexibility and plasticity, which explains why kids learn so quickly,” said Ancona.
Even though you may no longer learn or alter your ways of thinking as easily as in your younger days, it can still be done with some effort. Consider the following factors that are important in changing your brain pathways.
1. Focus on energy intensive challenges
As Swart recommends, you need to try any “energy intensive” challenge that requires “conscious processing of inputs, conscious decision-making, complex problem solving, memorizing complex concepts, planning, strategizing, self-reflection, regulating our emotions and channeling energy from them, exercising self-control and willpower.”
A big part of keeping your brain agile is forcing yourself to use areas you don’t normally activate. You can do this by taking on new challenges that push you to mental and physical exhaustion, because this forces your brain to change the way it works. This is the way in which new neurons are grown and strengthened to connect to existing pathways. Excellent challenges of this nature would be learning how to play a musical instrument or taking on a new language.
2. Repeat new challenges or progress will be lost
If you push yourself once and then never again, your progress will be lost. Newly formed neural pathways are delicate and need repetition to reinforce them. Only with practice can they become default ways of thinking.
As Swart explains, “Depending on the complexity of the activity, [experiments have required] four and a half months, 144 days, or even three months for a new brain map, equal in complexity to an old one, to be created in the motor cortex.”
3. Adopt a healthy living, low-stress lifestyle
The best way to develop those neural pathways and keep your brain in top shape is to take good care of your health. Stress, poor nutrition, too little sleep, and the use of tobacco or alcohol will all be detrimental to your brain’s development. They will also keep your brain using the same old pathways.
“Your brain will send its resources through the blood supply to areas that it can tell that you’re focusing attention and concentration on,” said Swart, “or areas that you have a desire to put more energy into.”
—The Alternative Daily