In spite of being the focus of attention for centuries, the human brain continues to be enshrouded in mystery. One major discovery, however, has begun peeling back the veil and allowing scientists to see your brain’s inner workings with new eyes.
Contrary to previously held beliefs, your brain is highly adaptive and seems to operate in a perpetual state of change.
This adaptability, termed neuroplasticity, is explored in the documentary “The Brain That Changes Itself,” featuring psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Norman Doidge,1 author of the book by the same name.
The concept of neuroplasticity was largely developed by neuroscientist Paul Bach-Y-Rita, who was the first to introduce sensory substitution as a tool for treating patients suffering from neurological disorders.2
For four centuries, it was believed your brain worked much like a computer with its functions set as firmly in place as any machine. Today’s neuroscientists are proving your brain is continuously morphing in response to your needs.
The perception that the human brain is hard-wired is not only wrong but “spectacularly wrong,” according to Dr. Doidge.
Your brain’s neurons evolve in response to environmental stimuli, thoughts, emotions, illness, and injury. Ongoing studies reaffirm that when your brain cells become damaged, healthy ones are recruited to take over lost function.
Neuroplasticity explains your brain’s stunning capacity to overcome even the most severe challenges. In fact, this discovery is so profound it may revolutionize our understanding of human nature itself.
Mysteries of the Mind
Your brain contains somewhere in the ballpark of 86 billion neurons. About halfof those neurons are located in your cerebellum, which coordinates muscular activity.
Production of neurons begins in your third week of development at a rate of 250,000 per minute and continues through your early years of life.3
The interaction between all of these neurons — amounting to trillions of connections — is incredibly complex, and there are still more questions than answers. Some of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the mind include:
• Consciousness: You are aware of your surroundings, capable of self-evaluation, thoughts, emotions, and other experiences. How consciousness works remains a mystery, in particular how the brain leads to subjective experiences that are unique to each of us.
• Personality: How does personality develop? Is it a result of your environment or are you born with it? Personalities can be drastically altered by brain surgery or trauma, but the brain’s role in personality is still poorly understood.
• Memories: How your brain creates, stores, and retrieves memories is largely a mystery, particularly how you’re able to recall a memory at will. Scientists have learned that your memories are not fixed — they can be weakened or strengthened by later events.
Emotional experiences may strengthen or preserve memories of things that seem mundane at the time, and help you recall them at a later date.
• Intelligence: How your neurons work together to solve problems, styles of learning, and factors influencing intelligence remain poorly understood.
Sleep and dreams: Your brain’s activities during sleep and the purpose of dreaming are not well understood. During sleep, your brain cells actually shrink by about 60 percent, which allows for more efficient waste removal.
Sleep loss results in loss of neurons, and proper sleep is important for brain detoxification. Sleep and sleep loss modify the expression of several genes and gene products that may be important for synaptic plasticity and memory, as evidenced by the study of animals in hibernation.