Plasticity of the Brain
Research has subsequently proved that the human brain has the remarkable ability to rewire itself, even as we age. The process, called “Plasticity”, was initially recognized when older people who had suffered strokes – the sudden death of brain cells due to a lack of oxygen usually due to a blood clot, or thrombus, which blocks blood flow to the brain – were able to regain lost functions like speech or movement. We have since learned that, in addition to responding to damage, the brain rewires itself as a result of learning, experience and memory.
Parts of the brain can even grow with increased use or decrease when they are not used. For example, a now famous study by researchers of London taxi and bus drivers showed that the taxi drivers had larger mid-posterior hippocampi in their brains than average people so that, as one taxi driver said, “It’s almost like you somehow somewhere up in your brain, you’ve created enough space to slip this map [London street map] in, a little bit of software.” Studies by Texas A&M neuroscientist Bill Klemm subsequently suggested that new neurons are constantly being produced, but must be nurtured in order to survive. In other words, we either use them or lose them.
Why are these findings important? According to neurobiologist Howard Eichenbaum of Boston University, “It shows you can produce profound changes in the brain with training. That’s a big deal.” This research proves that humans have the ability to change their patterns of thought, to learn how to be more positive, more open to new experiences, to recover when negative events – physical or emotional – occur in their lives. By understanding the science, you can use it to your advantage. Studies prove over and over that few things are fixed in place about how we feel or behave.
While we are complicated pieces of biological remnants, most scientists agree that the two primary motivations shared by all humans are the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. We consciously seek joy and happiness just as we avoid hurt and misery. Yet neither happiness nor pain is dependent upon outside stimuli; they are not the consequence of external conditions, but are the product of our attitude. Abraham Lincoln said, “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”