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:
- They become comfortable with their existing functioning limb
- It takes a LOT of effort to move the bad limb
- 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:
- We become comfortable with our existing knowledge and experience
- It takes a lot of effort to gain new knowledge
- 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:
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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