Saturday, April 24, 2010

Our Brains Are Made of Plastic?

Perhaps the greatest discovery of the last decade is that our brains are plastic. Neurologists call it ‘the phenomenon of brain plasticity’. Yes, our brains are made of plastic! Okay, of course not, but brain plasticity is the ability of our brains to change in response to learning and acquiring new skills and experience. So our brains are not actually a complicated super computer, but a complicated…brain! There’s nothing in the world closer to it. Unlike computer hardware which does what it does, stores memory and stuff, when a task given is overwhelming or over its maximum hardware capacity, we need to get a new hardware, or a new computer. Our brains, on the other hand, responds to the overwhelming challenge and grows accordingly.

Did you know that the brain of life-time video gamers is 13% larger than the average population?

Yes! They are larger, but…they are EMPTY. Okay, not good example. That was supposed to make you laugh. Anyway, here’s another:

Did you know that the brains of London Taxi drivers are 15% larger than London Bus drivers?

Yes, they are larger, especially at the brain area called the ‘hippocampus' where the awareness of space is processed. Scientists believe this is so because they spend much more time each day thinking of the best route to go by, compared to the bus drivers who follow a set of routine routes every day. This process of thinking and memorizing routes and places causes the brain to grow.

It has long been known that Einstein’s brain is larger than most of us, but the greatest mistake scientists of the past made is to postulate that he was born with it. Only recently, with the discovery of neuroplasticity, we know Einstein grew his brain throughout his lifetime of study and experience.

This ability of the brain to grow is remarkable, especially in the field of education and medicine. In medicine, it gives hope to those who acquired disabilities after a stroke attack. Stroke, which causes the death of a patch of brain cells, can cause paralysis of a part of the body. It has long been thought that it is permanent. But in a new rehabilitation technique, the patient's normally functioning limb is tied up (so it can’t be used). After awhile, the patient slowly gains control over the other limb which once thought to be permanently paralyzed. This hasn’t been discovered until recently because of the prior doctrine that brain cells can’t grow and most patients give up even before trying because:
  1. They become comfortable with their existing functioning limb
  2. It takes a LOT of effort to move the bad limb
  3. It takes a LONG time before we can see improvements

Perhaps the most amazing case is with the child patient known as ‘Jodi’ who underwent a ‘hemispherectomy’ at The John Hopkins Hospital in the US as a last-resort treatment for her seizure. HALF of her brain was removed. Common logic is that she would lose HALF of her brain function, paralyzed at one side, and is unable to speak. The neurosurgeon that did the operation, Dr. Benjamin Carson, also had thought of it and warned the parents of the complications. However, an amazing thing happened. She begins to speak again after a few days, and began walking after a few weeks…with half of her brain! Today, she scores straight A’s in her exams and living a relatively normal life. On brain scans, it was found out that all the functions on the part of her brain that has been removed is now transferred to the existing part of the brain, and that part of the brain grows. Isn’t that amazing? If a child with half of her brain can grow and learn normally, how about us with fully functioning brains?

Taking paralysis and the ‘bad limb’ as a metaphor, here’s what preventing us from growing our brains:
  1. We become comfortable with our existing knowledge and experience
  2. It takes a lot of effort to gain new knowledge
  3. It takes a long time to see improvements

Here’s something I found on a lecture about neuroplasticity by Dr Mark Barnes & Janae Adamson. These are the optimum environment for our brain to grow when learning:
  1. Attention / Focus – You know you’re focusing on your studies when you lose track of time, or when you don’t checkout Facebook notifications every 30 seconds
  2. Intensity – Learning which involve intense emotions are most effective. Like studying the subject you feel deeply about, for example studying heart failures because a loved one suffers from it creates an intense emotion.
  3. Timing – It takes a night’s sleep to properly organize what we have learnt. The most important ones are stored in long-term memories during this time
  4. Constraint – Like regaining control of a bad limb, we learn more effectively when going the hard way, like without using aide such as calculators, checking the answers at the back every 10 seconds. We need to struggle to grow our brains
  5. Visualization – Our unconscious brain can’t really distinguish between a memory of real experience and a vividly imagined situation. So if we visualize a skill (especially clinical skills, OSCE, for medical students), we would actually activate the part of the brain involved in actually doing the real thing
  6. Imitation – Watching a person do something activates the observer’s part of the brain involved in doing the same thing. That’s why children dance along when they see adults dancing. As we grow up, our conscious functions in the frontal area of the brain inhibits this


Yuci said...

Nice one lutfie...
I really learned alot here...

mimiqt said...
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mimiqt said...
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mimiqt said...

*i made a few obvious typos in the previous comments. Sorry to bombard your inbox. Here's the final one*

16% vs 4% .i wonder if anyone has broke einstein's record, if the statistics is correct.

"Attention / Focus – You know you’re focusing on your studies when you lose track of time, or when you don’t checkout Facebook notifications every 30 seconds "

the passage that makes me laugh.


"It takes a night’s sleep to properly organize what we have learnt."

this reminds me of how i'd prefer to study late at night and sleep afterwards. Rather not studying upon awakening from sleep. i'll sleep even easily then.

my motto is: study, then sleep! lol
somehow now it makes even more sense. albeit you don't really mean it that way. lol. nice post btw. :D

Lutfi Fadil said...

Okay bro, glad to be of help! =)


Haha, ces mimi, baru bangge byk notifications. rupenye 2/3 komen ko yg salah =P

Yep, think einstein started learning since he was a baby. or maybe he does this gene that accelerates learning, but not saying that we all can accelerate in studying too

yep, study then sleep. when I was in IB I was so not practicing what I written here in my blogs. tak tido mlm kot mase nk exam final. suke sgt tangguh blaja. kn dah kne...nape laa aku x sedar awal2. haha

radiating-lampالسِّرَاجِ يَزْهَرُ said...

Great!!! motivates me to intensify my effort. Some say our brain is similar to muscle, getting stronger when trained.Never paid any attention to it.huhuhu.
thanks for the tips.

Lutfi Fadil said...

yep2, it's true! now its proven medically...that's why now we have many 'brain workouts' like sudoku and crossword puzzles and keep your brain healthy =)

mimiqt said...

ehehe... sori la lutfi..

ni komen betul nie..

komen mintak maap. haha.

Sakinah Omar said...
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Sakinah Omar said...

I just want to share something about 'Visualisation'.
As a small girl my father sometimes took me swimming pools for swimming.But I never did know how to swim relying on *pelampung on my arms to keep me afloat.
Many,many years after,maybe more than 30 years after I found that I could swim!
How did I do it?
My family and I went for holiday at PD.We rented a room at a resort that had a swimming pool(most obviously).
So I went inside the water,visualized in my head that I was swimming (with the help of some faint images of swimming techinques I once read)and without much effort
I was actually swimming across the swimming pool!
I was shocked myself at the beginning.But it was true.
Since then,I always swim at any chance I have.

Lutfi Fadil said...

Sakinah omar: wow, that was great! i read that winter olympic athletes doing the mountain skiing practiced by visualizations too, bcoz they can't really practice all the time, especially when its not winter, and which hill are they supposed to ski?

btw, amazing experience u had, swimming across the pool by just reading the techniques. congrats!

Melor said...

the same goes to me when i learn how to drive-the visualization. it works!
well-elaborated lutfie,in attractive way,cool!

Brain Training Advocate said...

Yup. And the brain is the only part of the body that has DNA which is different from the rest! Our brains can actually turn on and off genetic switches in response to our environment and external stimuli. Pretty remarkable stuff.

There's a confluence of new science regarding the kinds of things that affect our brains, and demonstrating this effect.


Uzma said...

Am reading up on neuro plasticity these days as my brother had a brain injury and had memory loss. Would like your help. Do u know any good exercises that explain how to build memory in case of short term memory loss and also build other cognitive functions. Do let me know please. Thanks a lot.

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