Experience and Your Brain - Neuroplasticity
Although we cannot regenerate limbs, we can reinvent our brains (and thereby ourselves) through neuroplasticity. Early theories depicted the human brain as a "machine," which could not physically change its makeup. Today, we know that our brains undergo daily renovations to adapt to our ever-changing world.
By the 20th century, genetics was widely accepted as the basis of human characteristics, displacing John Locke's 17th-century notion of the tabula rasa, which suggested that the mind started as a blank slate from which our competencies, including intelligence and personality, were developed. Locke and others argued that the environment indelibly etched its signature on each individual. The resulting "nature vs. nurture" binary dispute is collapsing today under the weight of a mounting body of evidence. Yes, we enter the world with some brain physiology already set, but each brain is reshaped into its own unique configuration.
Open architecture is a computer science term used to describe processing systems that can adapt to changes in user requirements. Similarly, in neuroscience, brain plasticity refers to the ability of the brain to modify its structures and neural mechanisms. Changes in brain function occur as the brain re-wires itself in response to new demands placed on it by the external environment. Our malleable brains help us thrive by crafting environmentally appropriate survival strategies. Brain plasticity underlies the brain's extraordinary capacity to learn, unlearn and relearn.
How Is The Brain Organized?Examining the brain at the macro level, the cerebral cortex is composed of four large lobes, each of which can be subdivided into as many as 200 functional areas. Damage to a particular cortical area can disrupt or destroy any given competency. With today's brain-mapping techniques, we can predict precisely which capacities will be diminished or lost through damage due to disease, stroke, injury or disuse. (Editor's Note: In the principles of Brainwave Optimization, trauma - emotional or physical - is another way in which brain capacity can be diminished or lost.)
Neurons Are The Brain's MessengersNeuroscientists are fond of saying, "Neurons that fire together, wire together" and "Neurons not in sync, do not link." Dendrites form tree-like extensions that put a neuron in touch with as many as 200,000 of its neighbors, resulting in what we call new thinking and learning. When the brain learns, new dendrites grow. Early brain theorists believed that with each new memory, a new neuron grew. Today, we know that newly learned information is encoded as new dendrites sprout to connect neurons to specific sites, producing a new pathway that represents the experience.
In order for us to move, feel and think, neurons relay messages to one another, using both electricity and chemistry. Once incoming stimuli reach a threshold point, a 270 mph electrical impulse "fires" down the axon. Once the electrical impulse reaches the end of the axon, a tiny pocket of chemicals bursts, sending neurotransmitters (the "chemical couriers") across the synapse, the microscopic space between neurons. As neurotransmitters cross the synaptic gap they lock into receptor sites on the postsynaptic neuron and convey their chemical message only if their molecular properties fit the precise configuration of the receptor sites on the postsynaptic neuron. Over one quadrillion (1,000 trillion, or 1015) synaptic connections can be established inside the human brain. We are born with many more connections than our adult brains will use.
Early Brain GrowthNeurogenesis is the rapid production of brain cells in utero, when neurons are produced at the incredible rate of 250,000 to one million per minute. The rapid growth of the young brain system begins 18 days after fertilization. The brain develops quickly through first-hand experiences. Computer simulations and early-learning videos are no substitute for the real world. A mere picture of an orange short-changes the learner, who cannot directly experience its smell, texture, taste and mass. Learners create meaning from what they do in their world, not from exposure to its representations.
Technology is extending the range of human information processing,
shattering the previous limitations of our sensory systems.
Author Joseph Epstein stated, "We are what we read." Neuroscientists would assert, "We are what we experience." Neural circuits are constantly reorganized and rerouted, based on the quantity, quality and timing of our experiences. This has profound implications for what we should do in every home and school.
In its early years, the brain goes on a connectivity binge. The immature brain quickly links hundreds of millions of neurons together, forming efficient brain circuits. During these stages, children make learning look easy. By adding, removing, or changing the strength of the connections among neurons, linking cells together or eliminating brain cells from existing neural pathways, neuronal activations change, making specific new learning possible. The word specific must be underscored here. All learning must be specific and transferable if it is to have any currency.
Creating new neural pathways is physically exhausting. The infant brain requires near-constant feeding to keep up with the energy consumption necessary for early brain development. Infants tax their energies when they are learning how to walk, talk, think, speak and remember, along with familiarizing themselves with all of the people, places and objects in their environment. Toddlers must also learn the complexities of language, and must master critical cultural and socialization skills. At its peak level, each neuron averages 15,000 connections. That number occurs in the early years of child development, when a toddler's brain consumes 225% of the energy of an adult brain.
Enrichment studies have-shown that a caring environment aids learning and development. But neuroplasticity also has a darker side. Impoverished environmental conditions, prenatal substance exposure, sensory deprivation, emotional trauma and nutritional deficiencies can cause plasticity to play, its unkind hand, wreaking havoc on the developing young brain.
The Future of the BrainWith each major advance in the human condition over the past 4.5 million years, our brain volume has increased to accommodate our behavioral improvisations. Is the human brain on the doorstep of another "brain spurt"? Our evolutionary history would suggest that we may be. The remarkable world of technology will likely be accommodated by an even more remarkable brain plasticity.
As we come to the close of the first decade in the 21st Century, we recognize that we are living in a unique, historic time. Neuroplasticity is shaping today's young brains for a future that is less like our recent past than any other time in human history. Technology is extending the range of human information processing, shattering the previous limitations of our sensory systems. Previously, the walls of time and place dictated the scope of the human experience. These barriers are falling rapidly.
- excerpt from Brain World Magazine, Summer 2010
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