Brain plasticity is a relatively new discovery in brain science that has amazing implications on the way we think and on the way our brain works. Essentially, brain plasticity refers to the fact that the brain appears to be ‘plastic’ in that it is adaptable and can change shape in order to deal with a new scenario. Our brain in this sense is much like a muscle in that it can reshape itself as a response to stress or strain. In other words – the more you use an area of your brain the more it will increase in size and computational power, and the more you leave it without using it at all, the more it will ‘wither’ and will disappear. The brain can be trained and theoretically it could be drastically different in it appearance and the way it works to the way that we classically tend to use it.
The most famous example of brain plasticity is seen in blind people. Here their occipital lobe – the part of the brain that deals with sight also known a ‘visual area 1’ – will deteriorate and those neurons will die or migrate to other areas. This ‘frees up’ some processing power in the brain, and some of those neurons will move over to the hearing areas of the brain. As blind people will also focus more on sound in order to compensate for their lack of vision, this will also cause the brain area to further develop. The result is that blind people’s brains are a slightly different shape, and that they can hear much more acutely than most of us. This is taken to the absolute extreme in some cases, such as the case of Daniel Kitsch and other practitioners of ‘echo-location’ who can make clicking noises and then listen to the sound of the echo in order to navigate just like sonar. This truly incredible ability allows them to play football and engage in other ordinary behaviors with no need for a cane.
Training Your Brain
You don’t need to have an underdeveloped brain area to develop another one more however, and it is possible to cause your brain to start changing shape right now. For example in one study of cello players it was found that the parts of their brain responsible for controlling and receiving signals from the tips of their fingers were comparatively very enlarged. In another study, participants were asked to spend a few minutes each day tapping their little fingers together and focusing on the sensation. This then caused those areas of the brain to enlarge and gave them more sensitivity in that area.
It’s possible then for anyone to change the shape of their brain just as we can change the shape of our muscles, and this demonstrates how little of our brain potential we are using by not purposefully setting out to train it. It could be that the size of our brains when compared to what they could be, are the equivalent of the size of our biceps when compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
This also suggests that we could adapt to huge changes in the way we think and the way we use our bodies. Already it’s likely that the widespread use of the internet has somewhat changed the shapes of our brains and the way we think. However it seems that future developments could further rely on our brain’s ability to adapt and trigger concrete changes.
One example of this is being explored in a military context where pilots are going to be given the equipment necessary to be able to see 360 degrees around their fighter jets at all times. This would allow them to pull off more spectacular maneuvers and to dodge missiles but it would of course result in hugely increased amounts of information bombarding the brain at all times. Brain plasticity suggests that we would be able to adapt to this and that our brain would be able to cope with all the extra information.
Something similar in fact has already been tested on animals, and in particular monkeys. Here the monkey was given a robotic arm that was wired up to its brain so that it could control it. Rather than struggling to deal with this extra information, the monkey soon adapted to be able to use the extra arm simultaneously while using its ‘real’ arms so that it could peel bananas and hold objects while it worked on other things.
The potential for this in terms of technology, but also in terms of our own training, is incredible. Very few people have made use of all this potential. It’s possible for example to multi-task to the point where you can write with both hands simultaneously, and even where you can write with both hands and both feet simultaneously – writing four different narratives all at the same time. Imagine the amount of productivity this could add to your day; in theory you could quadruple your salary. We are far then from using anywhere near the potential of our brain, and as this area is explored further we might begin to see these super human feats pulled off more often.