March 26, 2021

Our brains are incredibly nimble pieces of machinery, and are actively being rewired and rewritten in response to experience. According to David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, the physical impact of this rewiring is so drastic that imaging is capable of distinguishing the motor cortex of a violinist from that of a pianist.

Eagleman is the author of the book Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain, and he walks us through how our daily habits – and forces including social feedback, shifting relevance, and curiosity – can reshape our phenomenally flexible and hardy brains.

Three Takeaways:

  • Humans arrive in the world uniquely unfinished, unlike zebras or alligators, who are born knowing how to swim or walk (or figure it out within hours), according to Eagleman. Rather than coming “pre-programmed,” human babies absorb the culture, language, and movements of the world they observe, allowing them to springboard off the knowledge of those who have come before them.
  • Eagleman has suggested the term “livewired” to describe the adaptability of the brain — a living system “rewriting its own circuitry every moment of your life.” He prefers this over brain plasticity, the term conventionally used to capture the brain’s flexibility, because he believes likening the brain’s adaptability to how plastic holds its shape mischaracterizes its dynamism.
  • The internet’s impact on how children learn encourages Eagleman, who says the brain learns best and is the most flexible when it's curious. Children’s ability to now ask search engines questions, whenever inspiration strikes, has empowered them to receive instantaneous answers “right in the context of their curiosity.”

Further Reading:

  • The father of Susan, Sofia, and Judit Polgar — sister chess prodigies — set out to raise “genius” children to demonstrate that excellence is not born, but made. We discussed the sisters (one of whom became the youngest chess grandmaster of all time) in a previous episode on specializing versus being a generalist.
  • The field of epigenetics, which Eagleman touches on, examines changes that can be passed on without altering an organism’s DNA. This article from Nature provides an approachable introduction to the field.
  • Interested in the nuns that Eagleman mentioned? Here’s more on the famous Alzheimer’s Nun experiment, which showed that living in a convent protected against the cognitive deficits associated with Alzheimer’s.
  • The removal of half of the brain — a hemispherectomy — is a perfectly survivable and often beneficial procedure used to treat certain forms of pediatric epilepsy. This article further details how this procedure is possible and its impact on patients.

brain, Cognitive Science, Body and Mind, cognition, evolution, David Eagleman, neuroscience

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