If I’d known when I was in therapy how our precious brains work, how we should take the reins and ride through the landscape of our minds, fertilizing the land to grow healthy brain cells, would I have reached this state of inner peace sooner?
In this story I shared ways to rewire our brains; to keep them growing with the language and images by which we communicate with that powerhouse inside our skulls. I also shared some neurobic exercises to keep our brains fit.
I was awestruck and grateful that you, dear readers, loved that story. Your interest has motivated me to write more about the plasticity of our brains — a fascination that has helped me stay out of depression for almost 19 years.
Understanding how this universe in my head works has been instrumental in coping with episodes of “down” time. I know I’m the conductor; it’s up to me to produce the symphony. I can step back and observe the various members of this Infinite Orchestra.
“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you really are.” Carl Jung (1875–1961)
Let’s head back to when this scientific knowledge first emerged.
The Discovery of Neurogenesis
Until the early 1970’s scientific circles widely accepted that once you reached adulthood, the brain cells (nerve cells or neurons) you possess are finite. That’s it. That’s your ration.
In addition, the belief was that our brains are divided into departments, staffed by neurons appointed for their expertise in a particular function, and who may not transfer to another department.
A leading pioneer in neuroplasticity in the 1970’s is Professor Michael Merzenich PhD, author of “Soft Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life” (2013). He was conducting experiments to demonstrate that the hypothesis in the previous paragraph was correct.
“He was trying to prove that if there was damage to one part of the brain, because it had a fixed function, that skill could not be relearned. His neuroplasticity discovery proved the exact opposite. The brain is one big learning tissue. The skills previously learned by damaged tissue can be relearned in other parts of the brain.” — Gemm Learninghttps://youtu.be/o98crZWauPI
Your brain has a cortical map for your feet, hands, and every other part of the body. Dr. Merzenich found that if one cortical map is deprived of its input, this situation wasn’t permanent. Later, it could become active once again if something stimulated other nearby cortical maps. This process occurs because of neuroplasticity; Brain’s ability to adapt to change.
Here’s an example of what someone can achieve.
In 1972, more than a decade before I met him, my husband and soulmate was a victim of a serious car accident, thanks to a drunken teenager. He couldn’t talk and he couldn’t walk. Broken and burnt below the knees.
He spent 18 months in hospital during which he taught himself to talk. And he walked again despite one leg being shortened with pins and the other having all toes except the big one amputated because of gangrene.
He’d been trying to convey to the medical staff that there was something wrong under the plaster cast on his leg using hand and facial gestures. By the time they caught on, they wanted to amputate the lower leg; he refused but let them take his toes.
Despite being told the damage to his brain was irreversible, he didn’t believe them. Losing who he was before motivated him to learn to talk and walk again. This is the power we have over our minds!
(PS He gave me permission to share this story.)
“Algorithms have done better than brain plasticity at enabling paralyzed people to send a cursor to a target using thought alone.” — The Economist, Technology Quarterly, January 2018.
The advances in neuroscience and technology create possibilities we would have relegated to the realm of science fiction four decades ago. For instance, we wouldn’t be researching and developing
- bionic eyes
- brain-controlled prosthetic limbs
- BCI (Brain Computer Interface) development such as the cochlear implant, a hearing device which Michael Merzenich helped develop.
- NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) was created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in California (where else?) in the 1970s; an approach to personal development, communication and psychotherapy which identifies patterns of thoughts and behaviors.
I’m excited about the family of health benefits that this marriage creates!
More Brain Exercises
Am I neurotic about neurobics? Well, yes, I’m obsessed with good emotional, physical and spiritual health for all of us.
Babies’ brains adjust to listening to a language, even if they never learn it.
Lost languages leave traces on the brainBabies’ brains adjust to listening to a language, even if they never learn it.
by Cathleen O’Grady Nov 21 2014, 10:45pm CET
29Flickr user Prayitno
Our brains start soaking in details from the languages around us from the moment we can hear them. One of the first things infants learn of their native languages is the system of consonants and vowels, as well as other speech sound characteristics, like pitch. In the first year of life, a baby’s ear tunes in to the particular set of sounds being spoken in its environment, and the brain starts developing the ability to tell subtle differences among them—a foundation that will make a difference in meaning down the line, allowing the child to learn words and grammar.
But what happens if that child gets shifted into a different culture after laying the foundations of its first native language? Does it forget everything about that first language, or are there some remnants that remain buried in the brain?
According to a recent PNAS paper, the effects of very early language learning are permanently etched into the brain, even if input from that language stops and it’s replaced by another language. To identify this lasting influence, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on children who had been adopted to see what neural patterns could be identified years after adoption.
Because not all linguistic features have easily identifiable effects on the brain, the researchers decided to focus on lexical tone. This is a feature found in some languages that allows a single arrangement of consonants and vowels to have different meanings that are distinguished by a change in pitch. For example, in Mandarin Chinese, the word “ma” with a rising tone means “hemp”—the same syllable with a falling tone means “scold.”
People who speak tone languages have differences in brain activity in a certain region of the brain’s left hemisphere. This region activates in response to pitch differences that are used to convey a difference in linguistic meaning; non-linguistic pitch is processed in the right hemisphere. Tone information is learned very early in life: infants learning Chinese languages (including Mandarin and Cantonese) show signs of recognizing tonal contrasts as early as four months.
The researchers focused on 21 Chinese children who had been adopted early in life. The average age of the children at adoption was 12.8 months, which meant that they were likely to have learned to recognize tone before being adopted. Since adoption, the children had been exposed exclusively to French, had grown up as French monolingual speakers, and had no remaining conscious knowledge of Chinese.
As controls, the researchers used 11 children who spoke only French, as well as a third group of 12 children who spoke both Chinese and French. The children, all between 9 and 17 years old, completed a task involving tone discrimination while in the fMRI scanner. They heard pairs of phrases made up of nonsense words using Chinese speech sounds (like “brillig” or “strint” in English), or hummed phrases with nothing but tone information. Each pair of terms was either identical or had a difference in tone on the last syllable. The children were asked to press a button to show whether the final syllable was different or the same.
All of the children were able to answer with very high accuracy, and there were no differences between the groups on either accuracy or reaction times. However, their fMRI scans showed a difference in how they processed the information.
Chinese-French bilingual children used the specialized left-hemisphere brain region found in speakers of tone languages, while French monolingual speakers used only their right hemispheres, as they would for processing any complex sound. Adopted ex-Chinese speaking children showed the same pattern as the Chinese-speaking bilinguals—their brains showed activation in the specialized tone region in the left hemisphere.
There was also a stronger activation among children who had been older when they were adopted. The researchers suggest that this indicates that the representation of lexical tone in the brain gets strengthened with more exposure to it. However, the length of time since the children had been adopted made no difference to the amount of activation in the brain, possibly indicating that, once the representation of tone in the brain has been established, time doesn’t weaken or erase it.
What makes this study particularly useful, says Dr Cristina Dye, a researcher who studies childhood language acquisition, is that lexical tone is very well suited to probing this question. Previous studies tackling the same question used tasks that required more complex linguistic knowledge, which children are less likely to have learned at a very young age. Lexical tone also has the benefit of being very difficult for adults to learn, meaning that traces of it are most likely from early childhood.
As with many fMRI studies, the sample sizes are small. This is due to the expense of the technology, as well as the stringent criteria for participants. Nevertheless, the results corroborate behavioral studies that have shown similar traces of lost languages, says Dye.
The next thing to determine, write the researchers, is whether the neural traces of the first forgotten language can affect how subsequent languages are learned or processed by the brain. There may also be implications for learning the lost languages: people with forgotten exposure to languages may be able to learn that language faster, or more completely, than people with no exposure at all.