A while back I read a book called “Train Your Mind Change Your Brain” by Sharon Begley that discusses how we can shape our lives through an understanding of neuroscience. There was a small section on enriched environment that I found especially interesting.
Fred Gage, who has studied extensively how environment changes the brain, is referred to in this part of the book. Scientists from Berkeley performed experiments with rats where one group was given toys and mazes to run around with. These rats were often handled and played with by the researchers. As it turned out, the rats that lived in the enriched environment had larger brains and were more adept at solving mazes. Their brains had more synapses and dendritic branches. This all means that rats who ran up ladders, played in wheels, and interacted with other rats had more complicated brain structures.
I can’t help but wonder how much of this applies to people. I had previously though of an enriched environment as providing us with “the big picture”. More data, basically. But here they are finding that an enriched environment actually produces more brain power.
The book explains that neurogenesis has been identified in humans as well. Gage later went on to determine what exactly in the enriched environment was producing more neurons in the brain.
- Mice that exercised produced twice as many brain cells as mice that were sedentary.
- Animals that exist in an enriched environment maintain these new brain cells and integrate them with the rest of the brain. In the absence of an enriched environment, these new brain cells will die off at a greater rate.
I appears that exercise must be voluntary for neurogenesis to occur. Apparently, exercise which is stressful releases stress hormones which can kill neurons and destroy synapses. I found this very interesting as well, for the implications reach far beyond exercise. Bullying, violence, and life-threatening environments certainly produce large amounts of stress.
Does the bully kill neurons and destroy synapses in their victims?