Growing up, I learned about Phineas Gage, the railroad construction foreman who survived an incredible accident in 1848 that shot a large iron rod through his brain, destroying the frontal lobes. Although Gage survived for another decade, his personality changed profoundly. The brain science books I read in the late 1980's still used the over century-old example to introduce the idea that every function had a special location in the brain, and everything was hard-wired for life once you finished childhood. It turns out the hard-wired model of the brain was dead wrong, and academic opinion and dogma had led research down the wrong path for over 100 years.
Dr. Michael Merzenich, founder of Posit Science and one of the world's leading brain scientists helped disprove the old “what you have is what you get" brain theories. In the 1980's, Merzenich's team developed the cochlear implant, a device that stimulates nerves in the inner ear with electrical signals that correspond to sound. With the “bionic ear", people with profound deafness have learned to process the electrical signals and hear again. Merzenich went on to show that the brain can adapt and change based on all sorts of sensory input. How neurons wire together not only changes based on our experience with the world, but also based on our own thoughts. Posit Science applies this new knowledge of brain plasticity to brain training and brain fitness products that improve memory and processing speed to treat age-related cognitive decline.
I asked Dr. Merzenich: If I were to read just one book about the state of the art in brain science and better understand the background for Posit's brain fitness research, what would it be? He gave me a copy of “The Brain that Changes Itself" by Norman Doidge, M. D. With compelling cases studies ranging from recovery from brain injury and stroke to overcoming learning and physical disabilities, Doidge details the radical advances in the science of brain plasticity of the past couple of decades. Now that we can measure brain activity down to the firing of individual neurons, we can see without a doubt that the substance of our thoughts changes the wiring of our brain. The experience of the world around us-what we sense, what we do, what we concentrate on-can change the brain even into old age.
Dispelling the myth that we only stand to lose our minds over time is great news, especially to baby boomers worried about memory loss and cognitive decline as they get older. With rising health care costs , an aging population, and economic uncertainty, baby boomers will be looking for brain fitness and training to stay productive in a highly competitive information-based global economy.
My English teacher in 7th grade used to say-to much teasing-that the brain is just like a muscle: You need to exercise it every day. It turns out she was right. The other side of brain plasticity, however, is that our brains can get set in their ways by the same principles of brain plasticity: Neurons that fire together wire together.
Dr. Merzenich described neural connections as like cow paths in a pasture. When cows continually tread the same paths over and over, the paths become ruts and the cows grow ever more fearful of treading anywhere else. Unless someone kicks the cows off the path, the ruts can become deep and permanent. Our thoughts are like the cows. We need to learn something truly new to make sure that our neurons keep growing and strengthening new connections.
Merzenich showed that the biggest changes in our brains take place when we engage in “massed practice", or efforts that demand intense concentration over a period of time. It also helps to be unique, striking, dangerous, or emotional: When the brain sees a new idea or skill as important, the brain goes into building mode and generates millions of new connections.
What struck me most about the book was the extent to which the scientific community had impeded progress in an area so obviously vital to everyone. Rather than looking at examples like Phineas Gage as evidence that the brain can adapt and change, Gage was used as an example of the opposite. For over 100 years, the academic community refused to consider the idea of brain plasticity and refused to support, encourage, publish, or even give a fair hearing to the few scientists who challenged convention. The social network of academia was much like their outdated idea of the hard-wired brain: Set in its ways with the same cows treading the same ruts.
Luckily for us, Dr. Michael Merzenich and his peers defied their academic advisors and department heads and went on to quietly pursue brain plasticity research. Their breakthroughs and discoveries have spawned a new wave of brain research and brain training innovations that could improve the lives of millions of people for years to come.
Steve Brown is an entrepreneur and active board member in innovative software and Internet businesses. He is the founder and former CEO of Health Hero Network, a pioneer in ehealth and personal health monitoring, acquired by Bosch in 2007. Steve Brown blogs at http://brown2020.com