The rules that we think govern the brain are as fickle and malleable as the brain itself. As our ability to observe the brain in action increases, new discoveries shed light on how so-called brain miracles are possible.
Most people view the brain as unchanging, like a computer that can never be upgraded or replaced. This is not surprising since we have all been taught from an early age that the brain does not produce new cells – what you are born with is what you will have when you die, provided you don’t waste your cells by drinking alcohol or sneezing too often 🙂
Recoveries from strokes and severe head injuries are often labeled as miracles. If you have been keeping up on the news lately, you might have heard about journalist Bob Woodruff, who was injured while reporting in Iraq. One of the doctors commented “You have no business speaking right now”, referring to Woodruff’s seemingly miraculous recovery.
The reason these miracles are possible is because the brain DOES produce new cells. In fact, it produces them all the time, as long as you live. There will never be a time in your life when your mind is not ready to change or grow.
The Scientific American blog “Mind Matters” recently explored this topic: http://blog.sciam.com/index.php?title=where_new_neurons_go_to_work_1&more=1&c=1&tb=1&pb=1
Here is an excerpt:
Neurogenesis, as this neuron creation is known, has ignited interest in all kinds of latent stem cells in the adult brain, and it comes as an enormous relief to aging baby boomers mourning neurons lost during overexuberant college days. The latest news even shows that the crop of new neurons increases after physical exercise! What a relief to know that you can repent and repair simply by jogging around the block if you wanted to.
The Plasticity of the brain, or it’s ability to “rewire” itself, has also been studied for some time. When a part of the brain is injured, other parts of the brain can compensate. One amazing example of this is the case of Sarah Scantlin who was in a vegetative state for 20 years before she miraculously began to speak in 2005.
One very intriguing (and controversial) example of brain plasticity is an experiment involving monkeys and joysticks. The brains of the monkeys were wired up and recorded as they used a joystick to control a virtual display. Eventually, the monkeys realized that they didn’t even need to use the joystick. The brain had literally rewired itself to control their virtual arm as well as the real one! This is called a Brain Machine Interface, and you can see this particular experiment in action by viewing the video I posted here.
An example of this in humans would be the use of the tongue’s nerves to transfer visual information, giving sight to the visually impaired. The tongue is actually one of the best information pathways to the brain. Here is an article on this neurotechnology breakthrough: http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20010901/bob14.asp