“If you don’t use it you lose it.”
The brain changes in response to how we use it. Long gone is the old idea that the brain is like a giant computer made of meat which gradually disintegrates as we get older. In fact it is humming buzzing hive of potential connections, billions of conections, more like the internet than a single computer- so if one ‘centre’ goes down a new route is found to other areas of processing. I was in Cairo when all the phone cables under the Mediteranean were recently cut. The internet slowed to a crawl- but it still worked- messages finding their way out via the Far East and beyond.
The brain is a plastic organ- it changes remarkably in accordance with how you use it. Chess players have different structures to meditators to tennis players to people who watch a lot of television.
We know this now because of recent advances in brain scanning technology. It is possible now to actually monitor thought happening. To view the growth in neuronal activity in any area.
From the study of people with massive brain injury we have discovered how plastic the brain is. Previously it was thought a few functions could migrate to different brain areas. We now know they all can. People born with only one hemisphere are able to cope with a reduced abstract reasoning ability but a massively compensatory ability to recall concrete detail. Their peripheral vision is impaired on one side but their superhearing makes up for it.
The strangest case of neuroplasticity comes from sea gypsies of south east asia. They have rewired their brains to see underwater without goggles. Brain maps show that an enlarged area of the visual cortex is aiding this new skill. They also have a greater awareness of environmentally changes akin to dolphins and other super sensitive mammals. When the tsunami of 2006 struck no sea gypsies died – they had long ago heeded warnings to move inland or out to sea- unlike ordinary Burmese fisherman who were killed in their thousands.
Brainscans show that different areas of the brain are used when one is reading compared to listening. So comprehension is a moveable concept- not situated at one spot in the brain- each method of data input plasticly creates its own interpretation site.
When cochlear implants are inserted in the ear of previously deaf people the brain rewires itself to interpret the electrical output of the device.
(By the way- if you want to go more into this there is a superb book on it by Norman Doig entitled "Your everchanging brain" from which some of these examples are drawn.)
Learning is crucial to any human enterprise. It is central to Lifeshifting. Any new direction is a new learning experience. But what brain plasticity teaches us about learning is surprising. We discover that much of the brain’s learning effort goes into ‘learning how to learn’- re-wiring the brain so that a new task can be absorbed and remembered. It seems that while activating the pleasure centre, which was discovered in the 1950s, increases brain plasticity at that moment, through large releases of dopamine, actual increases in neuronal growth and connectivity is best achieved through very sustained and close attention to a subject. Obviously pleasure can be a motivator- but one side effect is we quickly get used to anything that provides pleasure and need to increase the stimulation. This is not the case with paying sustained attention- this is positive feedback loop- the closer we pay attention the more and quicker we learn.
Recovery from Strokes
A great deal about brain plasticity has been learnt from stroke victims. People who had been written off as crippled have, under intensive programs of exercise, regained the use of their limbs. The brain when mapped shows a shift in function from the damaged area to a new area.
Mice when raised for only 45 days in an enriched environment of toys and treadwheels showed a 15% growth in brain size and neuronal activity compared to mice raised in an empty cage.
Born with only half a brain- no left hemisphere developed- Michelle Mack’s capabilities all migrated to the single hemisphere so that she was able to learn to speak, walk and calculate at lightning speed. Though her peripheral vision is impaired on the right side brain plasticity has compensated with an extra powerful sense of hearing.
The Hidden Key- the Nucleus Basalis
The part of our brain that allows us to focus our attention and learn is called the nucleus basalis. It is switched on during a critical period, typically from 2-18 months and allows the child to remember everything, laying down all the important neuronal circuits. BTNF, the hormone that switches it on now disappears and the child learns at a more normal rate.
However research has shown that nucleus basalis can be switched on later in life by forced focussed concentration.
Dr Mike Merzenich, the world’s leading neuroscientist in the field of plasticity says, “Everything that you can see happen in a young brain can happen in an older brain…the changes can be every bit as great as the changes in a newborn.”
The problem is, as we hit middle age, the nucleus basalis gets used less and less. We are comfortable with what we know. We experiment less. Instead of adapting to fit the world we meet we now try and change the world to fit what we like.
Partly this is exacerbated by the roles we are supposed to be living: as parents, bosses, leaders we are supposed to know already. Our mental posture is one that tends to exclude inputting new data.
One source of stress in the middle aged is the conflict involved when the strategies that support the switching on of the nucleus basalis have totally atrophied or are seen as juvenile. For example on one TV program I watched an elderly football manager try to learn French. He couldn’t focus. He had to interrupt and have ‘his say’. He also rushed in to fill the gap with any words, even if they were wrong- because in his career he always had to have ‘an answer’.
When the nucleus basalis is starved of acetycholine it no longer works optimally. You find it hard to remember new skills and information. To generate a flow of acetylcholine to the nucleus basalis you need to pay forced, focussed attention- even if that means unlearning all the ‘superior’ boss type traits that you need in everyday life.
The stressed boss is one who has to learn new things to survive in this fascinating fast changing world we live in but cannot because he’s too busy acting in a way that inhibits learning. The result is rising anxiety- the same sort of anxiety you’d feel when confronted by the impossible task of running through a muddy field wearing a white suit you are forbidden to get dirty. And stress hormones actually kill brain cells in the hippocampus, thus further inhibiting rapid learning. Fortunately these are cells that can regenerate when in a calmer environment.
Mezernich also says, “We don’t want to kick a dead horse with training.” He means that an adult who has neglected learning shouldn’t be overwhelmed at first with too much to learn. They focus instead on building the tools for learning that may have atrophied. One of these Mezernich has discovered is the attention we pay to something we want to learn. We aren’t actually fully aware of it. By building awareness you are increasing the ability to focus which aids learning.
“The quality with which your brain see and hears has a direct relationship with how quickly you think, how much information you take in and how well you remember.”
Mike Metzernich runs a company PositScience which supplies brain training programs.
After the critical period of childhood is over the nucleus basalis can only be switched on by something important, novel, surprising or by paying close attention. But of the most important for plastic change is the last- paying full attention to something.
It is no accident that many ancient systems of learning everything from martial arts to calligraphy put so much emphasis on paying full attention to what you are doing. They put more emphasis on this than ‘getting it right’ which tends to be the focus of modern educational systems. Once the student ‘get’s it’ they move on to a higher level. But this neglects the consolidation necessary for real learning to take place, consolidation that can only occur when the full blast of attention is turned on a subject.
I witnessed this ancient method first hand when I studied Aikido in Japan full time for a year. Many times a lesson involved doing the same exercise over and over for an hour. The strange thing is that the more you concentrate on being aware of doing he exercise the less boring it becomes. This method of repetition aids what we know about plasticity- neurons that fire together a lot simplify and rationalise so that greater refinement can take place. Gradually fewer and fewer neurons are needed to do the basic movements and more are liberated to perform the subtler refinements of the movement. It is neuronal version of ‘chunking’ – when several pieces of data are remembered as a whole- for example, to remember a long number, memory experts give each digit a picture and then imagine a little story to connect the pictures- in other words reducing the multiplicity of information down to a single bit, the story. This enables them to remember great strings of information. Our brains do the same when we perform activity with the great concentration needed to open the nucleus basalis to aid plastic changes.
Another aikido training technique is ‘hajime’ which means ‘begin’. In this one is forced to do a technique, a lock, takedown or throw, with a partner again and again as fast as possible. The result is utter exhaustion- but total concentration is needed to perform at such speed so the technique seeps deep into the brain.
After studying aikido I found it easy to pick up dance steps and moves from one demonstration – something I had never been able to do before. I had grown more neurons and better connections in the realm of physical learning. The same thing happens when one learns a language- one simultaneously improves one’s ability to learn any language.
Dr Stanley Karansky, at ninety years old, describes himself as a lifelong self-educator. But rather than dabble, each new interest becomes an engaging passion. In an interview with Dr Norman Doidge he says, “I became interested in astronomy five years ago and became an amateur astronomer. I bought a telescope because we were living in Arizona at the time and the viewing conditions were so good… I’m willing to put pretty intense concentration and attention into something that interests me at the moment. Then after I feel I’ve gotten to a higher level at it, I don’t pay quite as much attention to that activity and I start sending tentacles to something else.”
This powerful focussed learning pays dividends in health. Though Dr Karansky has had two heartattacks- one at 65 and another at 83 he completely recovered. His parents who did not share his proclivities for learning died young- his mother in her 40s and his father in his 60s.
He also does exercise- a workout followed by using an exercise bike for half an hour three times a week. Exercise stimulates the production and release of the neuronal growth factor BDNF- so there is much wisdom in the traditional idea of balancing mind and body in harmony.
A lifeshift is by definition a massive learning experience. It is structured so you focus fully on it- this enables maxmimum learning and brain plasticity. You are therefore assured of the best chance of success. As former baker Alex Spanos, now the California billionaire property developer put it, “I didn’t know anything about the construction industry but I thought I can try and I can learn. It was a business I intended to master as quickly as humanly possible.” Years later he owned the biggest apartment building construction firm in the US.
The nucleus basalis holds the key to rapid learning. If you are forced to do a very intensive fulltime immersion course your chances of learning a language are very much higher than doing an hour a week for a year. The state department trains hundreds of linguists this way. John West, computer entrepeneur, studied at the celebrated Ars Technica college where a four year computer science course was taught in a year from 9am to 9pm. He reported it was actually ‘easier that way once I got over the shock.’ I studied an intensive martial arts course also for a year- with five hours training on the mats each day. I could see myself improving in a way that would have been impossible under more laid back circumstances. The key to massive rapid change is totally focussed intensive learning that switches on the nucleus basalis just as it was permanently switched on when you were a baby learning everything you perceived.