Understanding neuroplasticity

Children’s mindset towards learning and failure is determined by whether they believe that intelligence is a fixed trait or not. Neuroplasticity literally makes the brain become smarter as it learns.

Written by Lizette van Huyssteen (B.Soc.Sc), Founder of the Practica Programme: www.practica.co.za

Children’s mindset towards learning and failure is determined by whether they believe that intelligence is a fixed trait or not.

Dr Carol Dweck conducted extensive research about the benefits of having a “growth mindset”, as opposed to a “fixed mindset”. According to her research, children (and adults) are more likely to have a growth mindset when they understand the basic premise of neuroplasticity, which is that their brains become smarter when they learn – in other words, that intelligence is not “fixed”.

When people have a growth mindset, they love to learn. They also aren’t afraid of failing or making fools of themselves and they adopt a “let’s give it a go” attitude towards challenges and life in general.1

*Whether other people regard them as intelligent is unimportant to a person who understands the basics of neuroplasticity, because they know on a deep level that their brains are a work in progress at any age and that both their successes and their failures are stepping stones on their way to becoming the best version of themselves.

The brain contains billions of neurons (brain cells) that interconnect to form pathways that carry information.

Every experience that a person has sparks activity in a combination of these pathways. Why? Because brain cells need to communicate with each other to process incoming information and also control how the mind and body will respond.

Now, just like muscles grow stronger when they are exercised, pathways also grow stronger when they are used regularly.2

* Active pathways are hardwired into the brain and waxy coverings (myelin sheaths) develop around them to insulate them so that they can transmit signals faster and more effectively.

Our brain is naturally designed to adapt to the world that we create for it, like a radio that is tuned to receive a specific frequency.

Over time, large groups of neural circuits interconnect to form extensive “brain maps” for things we do often like walking, talking, reading, riding a bicycle or having good manners. As a result, these things become automatic behaviours for us.

Researchers say people regularly build new brain maps and change old ones at any age, although doing so is undoubtedly easier for children. This happens whenever we develop new habits, retain new information, master new skills or practise and refine existing skills.3

Brain maps are also built and adjusted when we learn in more abstract ways, like when we take on new roles, change our attitude towards things or change our lifestyle.

*This lifelong ability of the brain to reorganize itself based on experience is known as neuroplasticity. (Neuro refers to neurons and plasticity refers to the brain’s malleability.)  

Neuroplasticity also plays a role in how babies learn new things.

Some of what a baby learns may sound somewhat silly at first glance, like discovering where his or her own body ends and the world begins, experimenting with what different body parts do, and discovering that objects physically continue to exist when they are out of sight. Then, on the other hand, they also learn certain things that seem to be impossibly difficult to us, like mastering a whole new language while they’re not even able to dress themselves!

Either way, babies’ brains also change by building new pathways and reorganising brain maps as they experience new things and practise skills. In other words, neuroplasticity is a part of life at any age.

*As a sidenote, we’ve discussed in a previous post that the process of neuroplasticity gets a boost during the first 2 years of life when trillions of almost-complete brain cell connections develop spontaneously between billions of loose brain cells. Their presence makes learning a whole lot easier for babies and children as they literally hang around in the brain to possibly be used if needed. And then, those that are used regularly are retained, while the rest are eliminated slowly but surely, as children grow older.4

In the end, every experience counts to a greater or lesser degree.

The basic premise is that every experience that a person has at any age shapes the brain to a certain degree, albeit a sensory experience (including movement experiences), an emotion, a thought or something that the person does physically, like kicking a ball or drawing a picture. The brain always changes structurally, to a certain degree, whenever signals are received from the sensory organs, impulses travel between brain regions to form thoughts and memories, or messages travel from the brain to the body to control actions. 

What’s more, the impact of these experiences multiplies with repetition. In fact, repeated experiences always culminate in permanent structural changes in the brain, no matter how simple or complex.

As Bryan Kolb and Ian Wishaw explain in their book, Fundamentals of Neuropsychology:

“Even the simplest animals, such as the tiny worm Caenorhabditis elegans, which has only 302 neurons (brain cells), can learn to make associations between sensory events, such as smells, and consequences, such as mild shocks. Such changes are remarkably similar across phylogeny (a family of species). For any animal to learn by association, the nervous system must undergo some change that codes for it.” 4

Neuroplasticity literally makes the brain become smarter as it learns.

Our brains physically change whenever we get better at doing something with practice, whenever we end up knowing even just a little bit more about something, think differently about something, or even simply have a new appreciation or dislike that have a lasting effect on how we think, feel or act.

We know this because there would not have been a noticeable and lasting difference in our thinking, behaviour or attitude unless new brain cell connections have formed to build new pathways in our brains or existing pathways have been strengthened, and brain maps have been reorganised.

*In short, our brains change structurally in response to our experiences at any age. And, in terms of learning and athletic training, this means that the brain is physically more wired and ready, at every new level of mastery, to learn even more advanced things and apply itself in ways that would have previously been less possible.5

Bear in mind that, since babies and young children live in the moment, they learn in real time and on a concrete level – not via screens or by completing worksheets.

Their brain circuitry changes most readily as the result of interactive experiences with loving caregivers and real time exploration of their bodies and environment. In other words, they learn (and become smarter) through active participation: by spending time talking to adults, playing, exploring the world hands-on, experimenting with their own body movements and getting feedback in the moment from loving and engaging adults.

Babies come into the world without any idea of what is important, and what is not. Their brains are therefore programmed throughout childhood to pay attention to what is presented to them in either a social or a hands-on context, while largely ignoring the rest.

They need to be emotionally connected, socially engaged and physically able to do things and handle objects on a sensory level in order for them to make the discoveries that they need to make.

*This explains why babies and toddlers don’t learn language unless the conversation is directly aimed at them and they get to engage with the speaker. They also don’t learn how to kick a ball or to understand the attributes of an apple or a banana by watching somebody kick a ball or handle the fruit. 6


  1. Dweck, Carol S. Mindset. The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books (2008)
  • Kolb, Bryan and Gibb, Robbin. Brain Plasticity and Behaviour in the Developing Brain. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry vol. 20(4):265-276 (2011)
  • Chang, Yongmin. Reorganization and plastic changes of the human brain associated with skill learning and expertise. Frontiers in human neuroscience vol. 8:35 (2014)
  • Doidge, Norman. The brain that changes itself. Scribe Publications (2010)
  • DeLoache, Judy et al. Do Babies Learn from Baby Media? Psychological Science vol. 21(11):1570-4 (2010)