15 February 2010

A Distributed and Most Plastic Brain

TED Talk by Michael Merzenich

The brain is more plastic than most of us believe.  We need to believe in the brain's plasticity, because there are many ways in which we could help our brains to better help us -- by taking the effort to strengthen weak brain functions which may be holding us back.

Our brains help determine who we are, but your brain is not just inside your skull.  It is also below your belt. We are led by our guts more than we know.  Whenever we let our brains fall back into its "default state", when we are not thinking about anything in particular, we are led down many a subconscious path whose origin and destination may lie well outside our skulls.  This is why many approaches to the rehabilitation of malfunctioning brains also involve the rest of the body.

The reason why it is important to consider ways in which we may help our brains help us, is that it is likely that all of us have run into particular obstacles and blockages -- over and over again.  Like "strange attractors", our own particular weaknesses tend to pull us toward them repeatedly.  But what if we could learn to change our default brain circuits so that such weaknesses no longer held us back?

In fact, particular parts of our default brains inform us as to "who we are" and "what we can do."  That is fine when our brain is telling us accurately that we can indeed do what we need and want to do.  But when our default brain states are telling us that we are helpless to achieve our needs and valid wants, we have a problem.

Although many of the parameters of our default brain states are largely determined by genetic factors, that is not to say that we are helpless to alter these states.  Persons who are depressed may find changing dysfunctional defaults to be particularly difficult.   But the brain can change for the better, and along with it the person.  But not without work.

That is where it is particularly important to understand that the rest of the body contains a significant proportion of the human nervous system.  Your digestive system may be especially important, but also the musculoskeletal system, the endocrine system, and the cardiorespiratoryvascular system.  Or maybe it is better to just think of it as the body-brain, working alongside the head-brain.

We need to be better than the zombies, led their entire lives by forces outside of themselves.  In a world that has devolved to suit zombies rather than free individuals, it is hugely important that we make the most of who we are.   First we have to understand what is possible.

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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