The Malleable Brain
Debate in the neuroscience community ranges across a slew of issues, but one thing is unanimous. The human brain is constantly changing. This chapter describes some of those changes and the opportunities that present themselves for maximizing the brain's potential. We have just been starting to understand the types of change and the mechanisms for change in the past few years. It now seems that humans change far more than ever believed as they grow from birth to maturity. The disadvantage to human infants being born helpless is their vulnerability to harm. Yet the advantage is their enormous receptivity to the new world they're born into. Their relatively delayed rate of brain development makes humans highly susceptible to the longer influence of postnatal experiences. This susceptibility can be described in a couple of ways:
- Malleability refers to our brain's broad capacity to change as a result of general long-term experiences that are happening to it. Malleability could explain, for example, the brain changing with exposure to stress, repeated trauma, or even nutrition. We can say our brains are highly malleable; if we expose an infant to abuse or neglect, the child's emotional systems may be changed semipermanently.1 This malleability means we can either develop our emotional world properly or not develop it and risk serious consequences. Researcher Dr. Stanley Greenspan understands the role of emotions in the developing child's cognitive and social world.2 Although many treat the growing-up time as a three-part world of motor skills, language, and cognition, Greenspan focuses on the power of the emotional brain. As a generalization, malleability means the ability to change over a longer period of time and with greater passivity than other types of change.
- Neuroplasticity refers to use-dependent cortical reorganization—changes that result from what the organism in question does. This process occurs when the brain changes as a response to a specific experience. When we learn to tie our shoe, ride a bike, speak a language, play a sport, build a boat, type, or play an instrument, the brain will change. It is a measurable and often significant remapping of the brain's topological real estate. In a way, it's like suburban sprawl—land once used for farming is sold and now it is used for housing. This is a revolutionary concept; it says not just that the brain changes from experience, but that it "buys, sells, and homesteads neural real estate" based on what you actually do on a daily basis. As a result, people today are being less shocked by ground-breaking books such as Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, which shows how lifestyle, nutrition, relationships, and exercise can make significant changes in your emotional and behavioral world.3 Your three-pound brain is bustling with change at this time (Figure 4.1).
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