03/21/2013 09:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Your Diabolically Lazy Brain

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Your brain is pretty darn incredible. It grasps quantum physics and converts cow manure into biofuel with the same alacrity that it overeats, skips out on spin class, and hits the snooze button on the alarm, particularly, especially, when it knows it shouldn't. Joshua Foer finds himself the winner of a memory contest without any prior claims to an exceptional memory. He found that all he had to do was train the brain.

In other words, what your grandma told you was true: Habits are first cobwebs, then cables. If we keep doing something, the involved brain circuits become very strong. Which is why it is best not to take up midnight ice cream raids in the first place. The night call of the refrigerator siren is irresistible once the neurologic cables that heed her call are laid.

Edward Taub burst onto the rehabilitation scene in 2001 with an amazing revelation: Take a stroke patient with a paralyzed arm. Restrain his healthy arm with something as simple as a sling. Within two weeks, the paralyzed arm regains functioning. I remember reading this back then and getting goose bumps. Taub advocated the concept of "learned non-use" with regard to the brain -- in other words the brain finds rehabilitating the injured side so onerous that it lets the healthy side take over. In non-science speak, our brains can be pretty lazy unless forced into action, even when our own well-being is at stake. Newer concepts such as targeted brain stimulation of the injured side of the brain employ the same concept, prodding our damaged neural circuitry into action, hastening recovery. Unless you have watched someone drink a glass of water using a hand useless for over a decade, you don't quite believe how powerful the concept of learned non-use is.

Before scribes and written language, griots or oral historians recorded information. Enrich a memory by imbuing it with other senses. -- Gayatri Devi, M.D.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. (Although, these days, a viral YouTube hit will likely get you there a lot faster). With practice, the number of cells and the circuits connecting these cells grow, like a tree in springtime. These changes are apparent on brain imaging after even just a weekend spent practicing the violin, say. Here, recruiting and using circuits improves connections, just as not using circuits prunes these same connections.

So is it any wonder, with regard to memory, that few of us remember telephone numbers anymore? Why should we when we can outsource it to our cell phones? Our brains, honed to remember key people in our lives, cannot possibly remember the myriad numbers of celebrities and acquaintances we meet, which is why we call in Google. Why remember our multiplication tables when we have a calculator? These are questions that your brain asks for, and decides on for you, despite your best intentions. Your brain is your sensei on this zen-like path of least resistance.

Before the printed page, scribes recorded information. Before scribes and written language, griots or oral historians recorded information. Enrich a memory by imbuing it with other senses. Hearing the word "Madeleine" and conjuring up a past world of taste, smell, sight, and above all, emotion, speaks to the wide memory net that this word cast in Proust's brain, all 4215 pages worth. "Madeleine" to most may simply be a name, and only a small part of the brain is then activated.

To remember a name or a fact, sprinkle liberally with all your senses and douse with emotion, so that much of your brain is recruited for this task. Else, forget it. If you don't, your lazy brain will, on your behalf.

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