Growing up, I learned about Phineas Gage, the railroad construction foreman who survived an incredible accident in 1848 that shot a large iron rod through his brain, destroying the frontal lobes. Although Gage survived for another decade, his personality changed profoundly. The brain science books I read in the late 1980’s still used the over century-old example to introduce the idea that every synapse xt function had a special location in the brain, and everything was hard-wired for life once you finished childhood. It turns out the hard-wired model of the brain was dead wrong, and academic opinion and dogma had led research down the wrong path for over 100 years.
Dr. Michael Merzenich, founder of Posit Science and one of the world’s leading brain scientists helped disprove the old “what you have is what you get” brain theories. In the 1980’s, Merzenich’s team developed the cochlear implant, a device that stimulates nerves in the inner ear with electrical signals that correspond to sound. With the “bionic ear”, people with profound deafness have learned to process the electrical signals and hear again. Merzenich went on to show that the brain can adapt and change based on all sorts of sensory input. How neurons wire together not only changes based on our experience with the world, but also based on our own thoughts. Posit Science applies this new knowledge of brain plasticity to brain training and brain fitness products that improve memory and processing speed to treat age-related cognitive decline.
I asked Dr. Merzenich: If I were to read just one book about the state of the art in brain science and better understand the background for Posit’s brain fitness research, what would it be? He gave me a copy of “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge, M.D. With compelling cases studies ranging from recovery from brain injury and stroke to overcoming learning and physical disabilities, Doidge details the radical advances in the science of brain plasticity of the past couple of decades. Now that we can measure brain activity down to the firing of individual neurons, we can see without a doubt that the substance of our thoughts changes the wiring of our brain. The experience of the world around us-what we sense, what we do, what we concentrate on-can change the brain even into old age.