Tag Archives: Neuroplasticity

Brainscaping

Imagine a future world with mind-boggling technology. In this far-distant Utopian world, the human brain is merely a matrix upon which we design our lives. If you wish to paint, for instance, your brain is imprinted with all it needs to become a painter. Your body, of course, would have to train to use that information, but in essence, it’s only a matter of time before you could produce amazing works of art.

Or what if you wished to become a surgeon? What if, we could imprint the mind with all the information necessary to be a surgeon. Like the Emergency Medical Hologram on Star Trek: Voyager, the medical experience of all humanity would be available to download onto our minds. It would take months, not years, to become a credible doctor.

This is the sort of conversation I have at lunch, on the phone, with my wife. The human brain is an enormous, underutilized facility right there inside our cranium. Einstein used, like, maybe 3% of his brain on a good day. Who’s to say that, eventually, we won’t find a way to use that space to our advantage?

What sort of world would this be if we could simply design ourselves like we format a Word document? Highlight here, italics there, a dab of enhanced spatial ability and an encyclopedic knowledge of medicinal herbs, all in the course of a common medical procedure?

Expanding the Infrastructure

There is a lot said about the programming of the human mind. All thoughts, ideas, and emotions are in essence energy paths shooting through our brains. The terrain is rough and bumpy, and these synapses are opportunistic.

We learn by repetition, by carving grooves in the landscape of our brains for the synapses to easily travel through. This is how we learn to type, or dance, or drum, or smoke. It’s how we develop good and bad habits. Early in life, it’s all pretty much fresh terrain. There are no deep canyons carved into the grey matter yet. That’s why early childhood development types are so keen on pushing Mozart and flash cards at small children. There’s still hope of growing a genius before the bad habits kick in.

But most of us old enough to read this blog have been doing this synapse-firing thing for quite some time, and some of our synapse trails look like the Grand Canyon. Actually, most of our brains look like an old country road after a rainfall, with deep ruts and potholes and very few remnants of the lovely blacktop remaining.

So are we doomed merely by the fact that we have lived too long, thought too much, and picked up too many bad habits? Is the adult brain an abandoned road heading toward a ghost town of stale ideas?

Or can we still do some restructuring? Can we fill in those ruts, reroute the path into a more stable and beneficial direction?

Clay or Silly Putty?

I suppose our level of hopefulness comes from whether we see the brain as a lump of clay or a lump of Silly Putty. If our brain is clay, eventually it will crumble and dry out, become overused and brittle.

But many people think the brain is more like Silly Putty, pliable, durable and if treated properly capable of a great deal of plasticity and flexibility. Silly Putty can capture an image and hold it, but it doesn’t become changed permanently. You never get stuck with Silly Putty, because all you have to do is smush it up and start over for a new image. Okay, sometimes you’ll retain colors or shadow images, but that’s okay. It only adds to the charm of a well-used Silly Putty ball.

Maybe that’s another thing to think about—clay or Silly Putty? One is a building tool. The other is a toy. Do we think of our brains as tools, machines, slaves that exist to regulate our body systems, store our knowledge, and work for our financial and social benefit?

Or is our brain a big old toy that we love to play with? Imagine the quickest, most adaptable computer you’ve ever used. Now, twist it up with 11,000 years of evolution, throw in the best sensory interface ever designed. Then set it on “Go.”

There’s no limit to the number of programs you can install, and the hard drive is fairly fierce. Unlike fixing a road, cleaning up a hard drive is less labor-intensive with fewer blisters, and you get to do it inside.

Norton’s for the Brain

When a computer hard drive gets messy, the easiest way to fix it is to run Norton’s and defrag that puppy. Defragging a human hard drive takes a bit more effort, but it is totally doable.

According to SharpBrains.com, the four essentials to good brain functioning are pretty much (forgive me) no-brainers.

1. Physical Exercise. The human brain, like any other organ, feeds on oxygen-rich blood. A hungry brain is not a happy brain. Regular cardiovascular exercise, even in modest amounts, can increase the overall health of your noggin.

2. Mental Exercise. Would you buy a computer for the sole purpose of playing Solitaire? Seriously? Of course not. What a waste! Our brains, like our bodies, are meant to be used. By encouraging curiosity, learning new things, trying different experiences, and discussing ideas that don’t merely parrot what we already believe, we stretch that old Silly Putty out and keep it soft and flexible.

3. Good Nutrition. The brain is a notorious gas-guzzler, consuming up to 20% of the body’s overall energy. According to Scientific American, two-thirds of the brain’s power usage is dedicated to fueling those neural synapses making tracks all over the place. The other third of the brain goes to housekeeping, i.e., maintaining cell health. Since the brain uses so much of the fuel we consume, it makes sense to use quality fuel.

4. Stress Management. Every once in a while, it’s just good sense to the turn off the computer and let it rest. Get one of those spray air things and blow the dust out of the keyboard. Make sure everything’s in proper running order. The brain is the same way. Meditation, relaxation, and a good night’s sleep go a long way to improve the daily functioning of the brain.

It’s Never Too Late

It’s tempting to look at all this and say, “No, I’m done. My brain is frozen in this pattern, and I’m too old to change.” At forty-five, I often find myself daunted by the idea that, perhaps, the best part of my intellectual life may be behind me. But research shows that even the elderly can benefit from brain fitness training. Sites like Senior Brains and Braingle offer games, puzzles, and trivia to help keep the mind active and limber. Facebook has an app called Meentos with games designed specifically to improve neuroplasticity.

Instead of watching television every night, we can take time to stretch our brains, just a wee bit outside our comfort zone. It may be as simple as talking to a stranger in the grocery store, or sampling the music or cuisine of another culture. It could be as elaborate as learning a new language or belly-dancing. My personal goal is to finally overcome my math phobia within the next year. I’ll start off small, playing math games, but eventually I hope to be able to actually understand the math behind the science I love so dearly.

The bottom line is that, while we’re still light years away from being able to program genius into our brains, we are not helpless against the march of time. Each of us has the ability to develop our mind in fun, interesting, and relatively inexpensive ways. Our brains are what we make of them, and I plan to use mine to the fullest for as long as possible.