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The Electric YOU
Listen. Can you hear an aircraft passing overhead? A dog barking? The twittering of birds? In straining to listen, you have just sent a surge of electrical activity through millions of brain cells. In choosing to do this, you have changed your brain — you have made brain cells fire, at the side of your head, above the right eye.
As you come back to reading these words, a quite different part of the brain pulses with the electricity of you. At this precise moment, your brain is sending extra blood to the left side of your brain and to the back of your brain. This is fuel for the electricity needed for a different kind of mental effort — the act of transforming these squiggles on the paper into thought.
By the time you have read this far, you will have changed your brain permanently. These words will leave a faint trace in the woven electricity of you. For `you' exists in the trembling web of connected brain cells. This web is in flux, continually remoulded, sculpted by the restless energy of the world. That energy is transformed at your senses into that utterly unique weave of brain connections that is `you'.
Your brain takes up a fifth of all the energy generated by your body in its resting state. It is like a 20-watt lightbulb, continuously glowing. This energy is needed to drive activity in the vast trembling web of connected cells that is your brain. And you — the captain of this amazing ship — can direct this activity, as you have just done.
That you canread these strange, arbitrary lines on the page is because people have changed your brain. Just as I am moulding the electricity of your brain connections at the moment you read this, so your parents and teachers physically sculpted your brain by what they taught you. Without this mind sculpture you would be illiterate. You were taught to read because it isn't something your brain does naturally. Had you not been taught to read, you would not be `you'. For who `you' are arises from the restless murmuring and urging of the world at the gates of your senses.
Through your senses, and in the trembling weave of your brain, this energy is transmuted into the electricity of you. And you, in turn, give this energy back to the universe by what you choose to do and say. Thus you are locked into an intimate embrace with the universe, the universe transforming you and you changing it.
Escape from the shackles of biology
Your brain is changed physically by the conversations you have, the events you witness and the love you receive. This is true all through your life, not just when you are an infant. Until very recently, scientists were pessimistic about the possibility of sculpting the brain through experience. This is understandable because of a stark fact which has been known for over half a century: unlike almost all the other cells in the body, brain and spinal cord cells in the main do not replace themselves. Once dead, most brain cells stay dead, although recent research has found new brain cells being produced in adults, in a part of the brain known as the hippocampus. But assuming that cells mostly can't grow, how can our brains be sculpted and our abilities enhanced by experience? We will discover the answer to this question in this book.
It is often argued that the brain is `hard-wired', meaning that if the wiring is broken, or indeed if a brain never gets wired in the first place, then change is impossible. It is true that the brain is hard-wired to a great extent, but research over the last ten years has proved dramatically that in fact its wiring can be much less `hard' than was once thought.
With the sparkling advances in the science of genetics it has become widely accepted that much of what `you' are as a human being is preordained in your genes. Of course to a considerable extent this is true, but the pendulum has swung too far away from the idea of what `you' can become.
In human evolution, the last part of the brain to develop was the frontal lobes, right behind the forehead, above the eyes. These make up more than 40 per cent of the brain's volume. This is also the last area in the brain to connect up in the child — in fact, it really only wires up fully in the late teens or early twenties. It is this part of the brain that makes us truly human.
In the frontal lobes you hold an image of yourself, and it is according to this image that you go out to meet the world. How you behave in that world will depend on the frontal lobes regulating the older parts of the brain. In the frontal lobes you project yourself into a future and steer yourself through life by plans and goals set in that future. The electric `you', born of love and experience, soothes your inherited biology, trimming its sails for the soft winds of human relationships and civilization.
It is in the frontal lobes that you conceive of the minds of other people, with all that that entails for morals, trust, faith and love. Without the frontal lobes, you are no longer `you'. Without the frontal lobes, there can be no conscience, will or civilized humanity. Of all the parts of the brain, the frontal lobes are the least hard-wired, the most adaptable to the world's restless tugging and murmuring at our senses. The frontal lobes are evolution's gift to us — or its curse. Here reside our self-awareness and our loss of innocence. We were cast out of the Garden of Eden when this part of the brain became fully evolved, for with it came choice, will and conscience.
We are unique because evolution has endowed us with the ability to shape our own destinies — and to shape our own brains. As a species, we have succeeded because of this 40 per cent of the brain with its capacity for near-infinite adaptability. So let's cast off the notion that we are pre-programmed clusters of brain modules doomed to behave according to ancient plans while deluded by the notion that we act through free will! On the contrary: while much of our behaviour is genetically influenced, we can — through our civilization and culture — mould the human brain. In so doing we can have some escape from the shackles of biology.
|1 The Electric YOU||1|
|2 The Trembling Web||5|
|3 Pumping Iron in the Mental Gym||25|
|4 Ghosts and Phantoms||49|
|5 The Torn Web||66|
|6 Fixing the Torn Web||88|
|7 Use It or Lose It||111|
|8 Fingerprints on the Brain||131|
|9 Fear and Loathing in the Brain||167|
|10 Faith, Hope and Love in the Brain||199|
|11 Unlocking the Brain's Potential: Mind's Coming of Age||229|