I remember looking in the rear-view mirror and seeing her little hands waving above her messy blond ponytail, which sprouted straight up, presumably near where the words were exiting. I laughed and said, “I know exactly what you mean!”
I think of this story often, not just because it’s adorable but also because it reminds me how magical the human brain is. Why, without remembering any detail before or after, can I see that moment as clearly as if it’s on Netflix? Why did I know what she meant when I know damn well that words don’t come out of tops of heads? Why did I laugh without even thinking? How did a toddler manage to reference a concept from Cartesian dualism—the notion that thoughts can happen outside the body?
We now have answers to—or at least theories on—some of these questions as a new generation of neuroscience writers makes the profound realm of the brain more understandable to the rest of us.
As a professionally trained journalist, I am skeptical of popular science writing—especially when it comes to brain science. For all the responsible applications of this field of study to other domains, such as leadership, people management, and parenting, there’s even more “brain porn” out there—endless studies that cite fMRI scans to build pseudo-causal explanations for everything from why money is like cocaine to why people love iPhones in the same way they love their mothers.
Jon Lieff, the neuropsychiatrist and author of the Searching for the Mind blog, provides a worthy example of applied neuroscience. While others falsely claimed that you could identify good leaders by looking at blood flow in the brain, he was boldly saying things like, “Current science has no explanation for subjective experience. There isn’t even an adequate definition of consciousness.”
Armed with the latest research, a new crop of writers is following his lead, bringing brain science to the masses in a thoughtful, measured way. Take David Eagleman, head of the Center for Science and Law, an adjunct professor at Stanford, CEO of Neosensory, and author of Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain. He gets the science right and makes it accessible to those of us who’d rather not delve into hemodynamic response functions, completely upending our basic sense of what the brain is in the process. Departing from most popular conceptualizations of brain function such as left and right (so 1990s), fast and slow, and upstairs and downstairs, he tells us:
The brain is like citizens of a country establishing friendships, marriages, neighborhoods, political parties, vendettas, and social networks. Think of the brain as a living community of trillions of intertwining organisms…a cryptic kind of computational material, a living three-dimensional textile that shifts, reacts, and adjusts itself to maximize its efficiency.
The genius of this organ, he says, is its ability to profoundly change, unlike, say, a bicep, which can mostly just grow or shrink. This lovely idea—of our brains not as slaves to structure or impulse but as a community, dynamic and adaptable—is exciting. Eagleman avoids the term “neuroplasticity” (which suggests morphing into a single new pattern, something the brain never does) to instead emphasize constant rewiring and remolding. Such rewiring is happening all the time, with shocking speed, and can cause physiological change. For example, Eagleman notes that violinist Itzhak Perlman has an omega-shaped bump on his brain that you don’t (unless you’re also a musical maestro). In animals deprived of stimulation, neurons shrink to sad twigs compared with the lush thicket of nerves in animals given enriching environments.
In Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn, authors Sanjay Sarma (head of Open Learning at MIT) and Luke Yoquinto (a science writer) share this optimistic view of the brain and use it to argue for a different approach to learning. Now that neuroscience research is revealing why we “forget” things, for example, we can adjust educational models to make that less likely. Now that we understand just how much brains can change, we can stop focusing on knowledge transfer and instead teach people how to think. Perhaps most important, we can stop labeling some kids as smart and others as slow and give all of them the same chance to grow their neurons into those lush thickets.
“Once you realize how education systems are set up not just to nurture but also to cull,” Sarma and Yoquinto write, “you begin to see it everywhere. We winnow in how we test, and we winnow in how we teach.” It’s hard to square such a system with a brain so adaptable that if you remove half of it, the remaining half will reconfigure itself to compensate and allow a person to live a reasonably normal life. (That really happened.)
Today’s brain-focused writers are also adding scientific legitimacy to practices we already suspected were good for us. You won’t see the word “neuroscience” anywhere near his Amazon page, but when influencer and podcaster Jay Shetty implores you to Think Like a Monk to “train your mind for peace and purpose every day,” there is evidence to back him. Only a few decades ago his book would have been “new agey.” Today research confirms the value of age-old approaches: meditation, mindfulness, prayer, daydreaming—all these things work, and now we know how and why.
As research unlocks ever more knowledge about the brain, new applications will emerge, whether it’s discovering how to be more creative or finding ways to manage stress, trauma, and recovery. But that doesn’t mean we’ll be anywhere close to fully understanding our central nervous system. As the cliché goes, the more we learn, the more we learn how much we don’t know. In his new book, The Secret Language of Cells, Jon Lieff hammers on that theme, defining the brain as not just a wired system but also a “wireless” one in which cells transmit signals to the rest of the body. “The whole body is really one enormous brain circuit,” he tells us, with implications for everything from understanding memory and bias to treating depression and cancer.
If that’s not mind-bending enough, he adds this: “If the mind is considered to be either determined by the brain, or related to activity of the brain, then the definition of the mind must be enlarged to include the constant communication of all cells throughout the body.”
In other words, the mind is the body, and the body is the mind. Let those words come out of the top of your head for a while.
by Scott Berinato
From the November–December 2020 Issue