Earlier today I was emailing a Brain Training 101 reader, and the subject of rewiring the brain came up. Just like when my dog Zoey looks up at me with her puppy dog eyes or when I see the perfect sunset over gorgeous purple mountains – it’s the kind of thing that makes me incredibly happy.
There was a time when most of us thought our brains were only capable of limited growth and change. The fact that we now know differently has fueled an excitement and feeling of genuine hope.
Dr. Michael Merzenich is a leading pioneer in brain plasticity research and is Co-Founder of Posit Science – a highly regarded brain fitness company.
A few years back, he gave a short talk (23 min) about plasticity and offered specific examples of how the brain rewires itself.
You can watch the video here.
If you can not see the video, you can view it here at Ted.com.
Below is a brief outline:
Dr. Merzenrich talks about the very limited cognitive ability in infants. So limited that he suggests, “there is not really much of an indication in fact that there is a person on board.”
Fast forward to young children who can store, record and retrieve the meanings of tens of thousands of objects, actions and their relationship in the world.
He mentions that our skill set is greatly influenced by our environment and this contributes to our uniqueness.
Points out two epochs of the plastic history of the brain:
1) Critical Period – the brain sets up its basic processing machinery
2) Late in the first year of life to death – the brain begins to operate in a selective way. It defines the significance of input based on whether a goal in a behavior is achieved.
Children with learning impairments:
“We now have a large body of literature that demonstrates that the fundamental problem that occurs in the majority of children that have early language impairments, and that are going to struggle to learn to read, is that their language processor is created in a defective form. And the reason that it rises in a defective form is because early in the baby’s brain’s life the machine process is noisy. It’s that simple. It’s a signal to noise problem.”
Dr. Merzenich talks about how children who were born with cleft palates decades ago were thought to be born with mental retardation. They struggled to read and develop language. Then 35 years ago, a Dutch surgeon discovered that if the problem was fixed early enough through an operation, there was no mental retardation.
The operation opens up the tubes that drain fluid from the middle ears.The child no longer hears degraded, muffled sounds and is able to develop normal cognitive abilities.
He asks the audience to think of a noisy brain – the machinery is deteriorating.
“Just as the brain came out of chaos at the beginning, it’s going back into chaos in the end.”
Aging brings a decline in memory, agility and cognition, but Dr. Merzenich declares that intensive training results in improvement of immediate memory, delayed memory, attention, language and visual-spatial abilities.
He goes on to say that most people who are at risk for senility, more or less immediately, are now in a protected position.
In my opinion, the talk ends on an inspiring note so I will quote his last few thoughts.
“…also in your future is brain aerobics. Get ready for it.
It’s going to be a part of every life, not too far in the future. Just like physical exercise is a part of every well organized life in the contemporary period.
The other way that we will ultimately come to consider this literature and the science that is important to you is in a consideration of how to nurture yourself. Now that you know, now that science is telling us that you are in charge, that it’s under your control, that your happiness, your well-being, your abilities, your capacities, are capable of continuous modification, continuous improvement, and you’re the responsible agent and party.
Of course a lot of people will ignore this advice. It will be a long time before they really understand it.”
Video note: There is a full transcript of the talk here. Look to the right hand column and you will see a red link that says, “Open interactive transcript.”