Using the mind to think about the brain

The health of our brain is vital to our quality of life, yet when most of us ask, “How are you?” we are usually asking after general health and emotional well being rather than brain function. That’s understandable. There is something intrinsically private about this motor of our being. But it does rather overlook that the health of our brain will dramatically determine how we experience the world and even our sense of self.

Mind and brain is not the same thing, of course.  Nor is “mind” necessarily limited to cognitive function. But “mind”, too, with all its mysteries of thinking, feeling, directing, storing memories and retrieving them, is also fundamentally dependent on brain health. Perhaps more surprisingly, brain health may be as powerfully influenced by how we use the mind, feed and stimulate it – or abuse it.

It is truly startling to think that in our own lifetime changes in how the brain is viewed and understood have been at least as dramatic as the technological changes that let me send a text message from my garden in Sydney to a friend in her house in London that she will receive before I have had time to go back inside.  How could that be? I am in awe of modern technology, and in love with the magic of sending texts. I am, however, much more in awe of that “grey matter” inside my skull that probably weighs less than two per cent of my overall bodyweight (as yours does), yet has potentials way beyond our powers to invent or imagine.

One of the most far-reaching discoveries over the last few decades is that the brain is much more “plastic” or modifiable than was previously believed. Far from being fixed in its capacities by the time childhood ends, it can retrieve losses, build new strengths and in quite awesome ways repair itself. With stimulation, it will literally grow “weightier”. This is great news for people whose brains have been damaged through illness or accidents, as well as for those struggling with learning and motor skill difficulties or cognitive deficits. It may in time be good news for people who suffer from psychiatric illnesses. And it is certainly good news for anyone who fears that getting older means quietly closing down. Brain anatomy and behaviour are open to positive change: that’s a powerful message.

Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself is a new book on the pioneering science of neuroplasticity. It explains how the brain functions like a series of maps. This makes more sense if you look at the common belief that it’s much more difficult to learn a second or third language in adulthood than when you “picked it up” as a child. That remains true – but not because the brain has become too rigid, as was previously thought, but rather because the “map” for language learning has come to be dominated by the person’s increasing control of their primary language.  By contrast, when a child learns two or more languages simultaneously, that particular “map” within the brain shares those languages and the library of sounds and meaning that deliver language. This affirms early learning, but doesn’t lead to a fixed scenario. Artificial stimulation of the part of the brain known as the nucleus basalis may eventually lead to adults learning languages and all kinds of other information as relatively effortlessly as children do, or re-learning how to read and write after accidents or illness. In the meantime, intensively learning something stimulating and difficult does much more than give you extra skills. It also improves your thinking and brain health more generally, driving healthy “plastic change”. This optimistic view creates an irresistible imperative: use the mind to grow the brain, taking it not to the old limits only, but to the dazzling frontiers of the new.

First published in Good Weekend.  Do not use without permission.