The mystery of the human brain recently took a step closer to being solved. This didn't happen through a single breakthrough or because of an Einstein moment. Instead, an old belief was overturned by many separate researches. The old belief held that the brain couldn't heal itself. Unlike almost every other organ, healing supposedly didn't exist in the brain, so that once wounded or impaired, the damage was permanent. Now we know that's not true.
The human brain not only can heal itself, but it turns out to be amazingly adaptable to trauma. The term for this is neural plasticity, and once discovered, it sprang up in many areas. Stroke victims have learned to regain function after paralysis. The blind have acquired new abilities in the visual cortex. Skills limited to the right or left side of the brain have jumped across to the other hemisphere. Thanks to neural plasticity, we've learned to see the human brain not as a fixed structure with brain cells dying every year -- the old view -- but as a fluid, constantly evolving process.
The brain has been so liberated, in fact, as to be barely recognizable. We now know that the aging brain can continue to develop new connections. Stem cells continue to give rise to new neurons throughout the human life cycle. Most important of all, the experiences you have at any time of life create new neural pathways, and it's these pathways that form complex patterns far more vital than new neurons. At this moment, your brain is adapting to everything you see, hear, touch, taste, and smell.
I don't want to go into technical details, simply to note that there's a next step that is even more liberating. A recent study by the Preventive Medicine Research Institute showed that people who adopt beneficial lifestyle changes, such as improved diet, exercise, and stress management, trigger changes in expression of over four hundred genes. Like the brain, your genes are tuned in to your experience, and when you decide to change your life, the millions of molecule signals that tell your genes what to make and when--the epigenome--respond accordingly. They must, for any new function in any cell requires translation into chemical reactions, and those are mediated by the gene.
Now put these two discoveries together, the changing brain and the changing epigenome, and the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Every thought, intention, wish, dream, insight, and memory you have is creating change at the genetic level. Your genome and epigenome together are nothing less than a quantum computer, making thousands of decisions per second in every cell. These decisions aren't mechanical or preprogrammed. They await your intentions; the quantum computer runs on behalf of your consciousness.
Since every cell contains the same strand of DNA, the quantum computer is in very cell, and it is coordinated with every other. This computing ability, by which a heart cell knows what a brain cell is doing, the liver communicates with the kidneys, the endocrine system eavesdrops on the emotions being triggered in the limbic centers of the brain, is infinite. What will finally liberate our brains is the realization that infinite intelligence, creativity, and organizing ability isn't a pipedream or spiritual wish fulfillment. It's the very basis of the human body.
I've left out dozens of discoveries that support this revolutionary contention (an excellent source for reading up on the breakthrough research is Sharon Begley's well-written book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain). As the title implies, it's by changing the mind first that the brain adapts, and there seems to be no limit to this adaptation. What is human evolution, after all, but neurons learning new skills over a very long period of time, and then passing those skills on through genes to new generations?
Unlike our evolutionary ancestors, we have the opportunity to consciously shape our brains, using this newfound knowledge of neural plasticity. Medicine has already made inroads, for example, as in the intensive recovery programs for stroke victims that teach their brains to use new, undamaged areas. Stroke recovery is therefore miles ahead of where it was twenty years ago. But medicine deals with trauma and disease. The liberated brain has enormous potential in everyday life, which will be the topic of my next post.
(To be cont.)
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