In three posts we published earlier this year, we looked at some of Sigmund Freud’s pioneering work in the field of brain plasticity. The posts where we explored this were:
- Freud and the ‘law of association by simultaneity’
- Neuroscience and the Freudian Revolution
- Free Association
Against the prevailing view of his day, Freud understood that the brain is not static, but that the cells that make up brain structures are malleable. Only recently has this been proven by neuroscience, creating the exciting new field of brain plasticity.
However, even the genius Freud failed to appreciate to appreciate the full implications of mid-life and neuroplasticity – just how plastic the brain is. In his 1905 paper ‘On Psychotherapy’ Sigmund Freud noted that ‘About the age of fifty, the elasticity of the mental processes on which treatment depends is, as a rule, lacking. Old people are no longer educable.’
We know that this was wrong. In an earlier post we shared about brain exercises people can do to increase cognitive fitness. What we didn’t explain is that elderly people who have done these exercises have been able to set back the clock on their cognitive decline by as much as twenty-five years. (Norman Doidge discusses this in The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.)
This is possible because of how the human brain works. As mentioned earlier, in the human brain, neurons don’t communicate directly with each other because they don’t actually touch. Instead they secrete chemical molecules (called neurotransmitters) which travel across the gaps (called synapses). Neurotransmitters can link neurons in an almost infinite amount of ways. (Read more about this at ‘The Brain 101’.) It is in these gaps—the spaces between neurons—that the really important activity of the brain happens, because it is here that the connections between different parts of the brain occurs. But those connections aren’t static. They’re constantly changing based on new experiences, how we use our brain and what we learn. And that happens in your brain whether you are 23 years old or 74.
Bottom line: if we continue to stretch our brain even when we are old, if we treat our brain as a mussel that requires exercise and attention, then we can remain mentally sharp even as we age.