Changing your brain

Dear colleagues,

Recent research shows that we can turn our brains into remarkably powerful instruments.

I've just read a book by Robert Restak: The New Brain: How the Modern Age is Rewiring Your Brain (US: Rodale Press, 2003). The book is a popularisation of research findings on brain imaging over the past decade. It covers how to develop superior performance, the effects on the brain of viewing violence, the disadvantages of multitasking, recovery from brain injury, and other topics.

Restak's basic point is that the brain is highly plastic throughout our lives, constantly being transformed, in structure and function, through use: "if you want to learn a new skill or make use of new knowledge, you must change your brain. You must engage in repetitive exercises that set up the relevant circuits and sharpen their expression. This holds true whatever your goal and whatever degree of mastery you seek." (p. 13). This insight accords with what I've read elsewhere.

This can be applied to research. If you want to develop a research-related skill, you need to practise it regularly, intensively and with concentration. For example, to become a better writer, you need to do lots of writing, constantly struggling to improve. Applying the same idea of teaching, we can expect that students will become good at whatever they practise regularly.

Another of Restak's conclusions: "If you want to accomplish something that demands determination and endurance, try to surround yourself with people possessing these qualities. And try to limit the time you spend with people given to pessimism and expressions of futility. Unfortunately, negative emotions exert a more powerful effect in social situations than positive ones, thanks to the phenomenon of emotional contagion." (pp. 36-37; emphasis in the original).

Brian Martin
13 May 2004

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