Neuroplasticity, trivia and a sprinkling of Twitter

Without really trying to be, turns out I’m kind of wired for trivia. My brain seems to reserve lots of little nooks and crannies for bits of information that are probably entirely useless to my day-to-day life or career, but man, are they fun to pull out at parties. I can’t tell you why it’s easier for me to remember that horses are largely physiologically incapable of throwing up than it is to recall some of the names of my childhood friends, I just know that’s the way it is. I’ve learned to embrace it. But is trivia useful, or just a waste of gray matter? Turns out, absorption of trivia is a potential tool to engender positive brain plasticity (neuroplasticity), especially as we age and fight the good fight against dementia and memory loss.

But let’s back up a second.

“Neuroplasticity” could be a trivia question in itself for those of us who aren’t neuroscientists, but it boils down to the brain’s ability, throughout our lives, to reorganize neural pathways and actually function differently based on new experiences and new knowledge. And it does this both in situations of high drama and fairly mundane daily function.

On the high drama end, it may do this as a result of a traumatic injury or illness that actually destroys brain matter. There have been repeated cases where parts of the brain not originally wired or mapped to be responsible for certain functions “learn” to do those functions after a severe trauma. One example I found was where a stroke destroyed the entire left hemisphere of a patient’s brain, leaving her unable to use her right hand or speak. She later regained the use of that hand and her ability to speak. Though processes entirely mysterious to me, the right hemisphere basically came in, had a few late-night cram sessions on Left Hemisphere Brain Function 101 and said, “No worries, I’ve got this.”

On the more mundane end of the scale are the changes in brain function seen when we learn new things, like a new language, or a dance step, or how to play a musical instrument. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that musical training as short as two weeks in duration caused visible differences in the students’ auditory motor cortices. And this is apparently a phenomenon unique to neuronal cells — no other organ in our body has this same capability to rewire itself to take on new or different functions it wasn’t originally designed to do.

The moral of the story? Our brains are rock stars AND I probably owe mine a big apology for any wasted structural work it did when I learned The Macarena back in college.

But, back to trivia. Now knowing about the magic of neuroplasticity, I can buy into the idea that learning trivia, or playing trivia-based games like Family Feud, Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit, can help exercise the brain against the ravages of dementia. But that’s not specifically why I like it. I like it because it sparks my curiosity and makes me want to learn more about the subject of the trivia. In other words, it leads me straight down the golden path of neuroplasticity without me even realizing it. Yay for sneaky learnin’ and brain exercise!

One of my favorite sources lately for trivia has been a Twitter feed from a site called OMG Facts (@OMGFacts). It seems I learn something new just about every day, sucked in by a beguiling 140 characters of trivia. I can feel the synapses firing now. Maybe I’ll get my brain to forgive me for The Macarena after all.

If you enjoy trivia like I do, and have a Twitter account, I’d recommend you follow them, too. Here’s a sampling of some of their latest science-oriented facts, any one of which I figure could make a good blog post somewhere down the road.

References

ResearchBlogging.orgLappe, C., Herholz, S., Trainor, L., & Pantev, C. (2008). Cortical Plasticity Induced by Short-Term Unimodal and Multimodal Musical Training Journal of Neuroscience, 28 (39), 9632-9639 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2254-08.2008

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Caroline Sober

Senior Software Developer at Promega Corporation
Caroline is a senior software developer at Promega. She’s not a scientist, so if you hear her talking about DNA purification or pipetting or current issues in bioprivacy, she’s totally faking it and you should tell her to hush. She is, however, passionate about building useful software, the interactions between people and technology in general, and how social media is changing the conversation between companies and customers. She lives in Madison with her husband, daughter, and 110-pound dog.

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