Neurogenesis 101: What is an enriched environment in psychology?

Let’s discuss enriched environment and try to understand their works. I have been increasingly fascinated by neuroplasticity to the point that I decided to develop this course neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s essential ability to change and by change I mean that the brain can grow new connections within itself. Back in the 60s and 70s it was known that our brains were changing and growing extensively from infancy to adulthood.

However, it was believed that once we hit adulthood that process stopped. In other words, adult’s brains were unable to grow or change. We were stuck with whatever got wired during childhood and adolescence. You know the proverbial you can’t learn an old dog new tricks. Well, turns out you can. There was a milestone study done with rats where they put some of them in a normal cage without toys and with few other rats and then a second group they put in these fancy cages with lots of colorful toys to play with, lots of space to run around, and a whole bunch of buddies, other rats, to interact with. Long story short what they found is that the brains of the rats who had been in the enriched environment, the one looking like a five-star rat resort, were bigger than the ones who had been in the impoverished environment.

Enriched Environments

What happened is that in the enriched environment dendritic branches actually grow and expand. You know that part at the end of the neurons that look like tree branches? When they grow and expand, It allows the cells to receive and process larger amounts of information and not only were there more dendritic branches, there were also more synaptic connections, more blood vessels moving around oxygen and nutrients, and higher levels of certain neurotransmitters. That was a game-changer.

What is an enriched environment in psychology
What is an enriched environment in psychology?

It meant that the size and function of a brain are highly sensitive and reactive to all aspects of any given environment be it physical, psychological, emotional, or cognitive. So what this means is that stimulating the brain with new things to do, or new individuals to interact with will lead to new connections that cause the brain to actually expand in size. However equally important deprive the brain of new stimulation or bore it with doing the same thing day after day after day. And the connections will wither away and our brain will actually shrink. Our brain is constantly responding to the way we interact with the world. The more diverse and complicated our interactions, the more neural connections our brain will make the less enriched our environment and experience, the fewer neural connections our brain will make.

Now to be clear kids do have a higher brain plasticity than adults. That is due to the fact that their brains haven’t gone through the myelination process yet. Myelin is a substance that will serve as a coating that speeds up connections but lowers the capacity to change and adapt. This process of myelination happens during adolescence and basically upgrades the existing connections. What we lose in flexibility we gain in speed.

I will give you exercises in order to stimulate an enriched environment. Don’t worry I won’t have you spinning wheels like rats do or put you in a cage with other fellow human beings.

We had the Big Brother series for that and we all know what type of geniuses came out of there. However by all means do exercise that’s always good for the brain. The exercises that will follow are based on developing cognitive flexibility. I’ll ask you to step outside of your comfort zone. Do things you’re not used to do. Some will be fun. Some will be uncomfortable. Whatever resistance you feel inside. Take it as proof that the exercise will be useful.

Remember that whenever we stay stuck in our little habits doing the things we do the way we’ve always done them, well that’s how we’re creating impoverished environments for ourselves. I’m about to challenge you. The more exercise you’ll actually do the better. In an ideal world, you will do one exercise a day. There is no specific order to perform them. It’s doing them that counts. So what follows are over 30 exercises. So you’ll be busy for the next 30 days creating for yourself a new enriched environment. Keep the ones you liked, the ones you enjoyed most, and don’t forget to continue doing them on a regular basis.

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