How Enriched Environments Benefit The Brain
Animal studies have found that enriched environments can induce important changes in the brain, including enhanced functioning and development in areas related to cognitive capacity, learning, memory, and resilience. Depending on the design of the study, the results might include more neurons, longer dendrites, more connections, heavier brains, greater brain mass, more intra- and intercortex connectivity, and enlarged capillaries. Changed brains can be contrasted with a control group and measured in many ways.
To understand, measure, and validate these changes, researchers use a variety of both "old school" methods and very smart new ones. These include
- Behavioral tasks such as running a radial arm maze or swimming in a Morris water maze
- Brain scans such as an MRI to measure changes in tissue volume
- Use of marker dyes such as a green fluorescent protein that glows when a cell divides to show increased new cell generation
- Autopsies, which can reveal precise measurements of brain weight, cell-to-cell connectivity, or even the density of synapses
Enhanced environmental stimulation can affect the brain in many ways. To simplify the discussion here, I'll focus on six fundamentally different effects. They are consistent—and for every study I describe, there are many others with similar findings.
- Metabolic allostasis: Changes in blood flow, baseline chemical levels, and metabolic functioning
- Enhanced anatomical structures: Larger neurons and more developed cell structures
- Increased connectivity: Increased circuitry and branching from one neuron to another
- Responsiveness and learning efficiency: Enhanced electrical signaling, cell efficiency, and neural processing
- Increased neurogenesis and growth factors: Production of new brain cells as well as special proteins important for the brain's survival
- Recovery from trauma and system disorders: Protection from stress and greater capacity to heal when damaged
It is true that any of these changes can (and sometimes do) happen without efforts to enhance the environment. But it is the degree, the rate, and the complexity of change that differentiate efforts at environmental enrichment from other, more basic, learning or maturational processes. The studies reliably show that changes do occur from enhanced environmental efforts.13 In many cases, they can facilitate what seem like miracles. For the moment, suffice it to say that there are many verifiable and enticing benefits to the enrichment process. When taken as a whole, they really do seem remarkable.
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