My Brain Doesn’t Work The Way I Thought It Did
You kill brain cells, they don’t grow back. That is what I learned growing up. Having taken my last biology class in the late 1990’s, I assumed that after enough hard nights of drinking and time spent in parking garages, my brain would just slow down like those of most old people. To make up for this, I would gray a little, acquire gravitas and weigh in on discussions strictly at a “high level”.
If you looked in my “Book Queue” last week, you may have noticed that I had a book at the top of the list titled “The Brain That Changes Itself”. This book will change the way you think about your mind, the way “The China Study” will change the way you think about what you eat. Through a series of case studies and personal experiences, Norman Doidge (a pyschiatrist), makes a very compelling argument for neuroplasticity – the idea that the brain (and its cells) can change dramatically in function, speed and growth throughout a person’s life. The story is told in a very accessible way and it is a quick read. The information in the book may be old hat for brain surgeons, but it was completely new to me.
I won’t do a book report here, since you should read this book and I don’t want to bore you. I will just focus on what I learned. I was under the impression that the brain always processes certain functions in the same place. This is not true. The processing location changes every day and it can change with age. While certain parts of your brain are better suited for certain types of processes than others, it ends there. Other than that loose constraint, your brain is totally malleable. The implications of this on how you think are tremendous. Through understanding the rules by which the brain changes itself, people who have had strokes and haven’t walked in decades can be brought to walk again – or even perform surgery. Amputees who have phantom limb syndrome not only can change their brain function to eliminate the sensation, but can also scratch itches on their phantom limb. On a less positive note, the brain’s dramatic ability to structurally orient itself to a task also leads to destructive obsessions and compulsions.
The section that most piqued my interest was the part about rejuvenating the brain (since I walk through a parking garage every morning). I would have thought that if you could gain new brain cells, it would happen when you learn a new language or meet new people or something along those lines. Living in an environment that stimulates your brain is extremely important for maintaining your existing brain cells alive. However, new cell generation occurs only when you exercise – or better said when you move through space, which requires your brain to constantly anticipate what new places will be like. On top of that, exercise also releases a neuronal growth factor – BDNF, which is the exact same chemical that is released in your brain in the first two years of your life. The chemical makes your brain more plastic, more able to pay attention and more able to store new information in an integrated, long-term sustainable way. What I can’t explain is that knowing all of this, I still can’t bring myself to do exercise in 2008. It’s getting late, so maybe tomorrow.