Re-Designing the Brain: Sharpening Perception and Memory, and Increasing Speed of Thought

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In “A Study in Scarlet“, Sherlock Holmes told Watson that the brain is like an attic and it can only store so many things in it. For this reason, Holmes always made it a point to choose carefully what he wanted to keep in his attic and discard whatever else that he considered to be rubbish or unnecessary. In keeping with this analogy, our goal is to renovate our brain attics to make it larger and capable of storing more.

Memory, Perception, and the Speed of Thought

There is a rather fascinating book called, “The Brain That Changes Itself“, by Norman Doidge. I would encourage you to read it in its entirety. For the purpose of this post, however, we will be looking at Chapter 3 which talks about the work of Michael Merzenich, a scientist who changes brains to sharpen perception and memory, increase speed of thought, and heal learning problems. He does this by training specific processing areas of the brain that he refers to as “brain maps”. Through his work in neuroplasticity, he has helped congenitally deaf children to hear, learning-disabled students to improve their cognition and perception, and improved the cognitive difficulties that Austistic children face.

Merzenich believes that “brain exercises may be as useful as drugs to treat diseases as severe as schizophrenia; that plasticity exists from the cradle to the grave; and that radical improvements in cognitive functioning — how we learn, think, perceive, and remember — are possible even in the elderly.”

The Brain that Changes Itself

These are radical claims, but inspiring ones if you think of the significance this has for our children and ourselves. By changing the structure of our brains, we can increase its capacity to learn so that even adults can develop new skills, such as a second language “effortlessly”. The brain is not that empty attic that we fill but a living organism that is continuously learning how to learn and how to perform functions more efficiently.

In one basic experiment they mapped a monkey’s sensory cortex. Then they trained it to touch a spinning disk with its fingertip, with just the right amount of pressure for ten seconds to get a banana-pellet reward. This required the monkey to pay close attention, learning to touch the disk very lightly and judge time accurately. After thousands of trials, Merzenich and Jenkins remapped the monkey’s brain and saw that the area mapping the monkey’s fingertip had enlarged as the monkey had learned how to touch the disk with the right amount of pressure. The experiment showed that when an animal is motivated to learn, the brain responds plastically.

The experiment also showed that as brain maps get bigger, the individual neurons get more efficient in two stages. At first, as the monkey trained, the map for the fingertip grew to take up more space. But after a while individual neurons within the map became more efficient, and eventually fewer neurons were required to perform the task.

The Brain that Changes Itself

The more we practice a skill, the more proficient we become. We also require less neurons to perform that skill because our neurons become more efficient and specialised. This frees other neurons so they can add or practice new skills. As neurons are trained, they become more efficient and faster, and the signals they send become clearer. With proper brain training, we can increase the speed of our thoughts.

What does this look like in the real world? Think of a concert pianist who plays music seemingly without thinking or the professional tennis player who seems to play on instinct. They have honed their specific skills so well that the thoughts related to these actions appear to be non-existent. The reality is that they happen a lot faster than they do for regular individuals without the training or practice.

The Relevance to Right Brain Education

Perhaps this is why Right Brain Education Speed Play helps children to remember bulk information more easily. Could the activities in right brain education be the kind of brain training Merzenich referred to? One of the benefits of Right Brain Education for child is to sharpen perception and memory and increase the speed of thought in the children who receive it.

Why is it important to start Right Brain Education early? So we can take advantage of the critical period in early childhood. At this young age, your child’s brain doesn’t question what information is necessary, it absorbs everything. As the brain matures, it becomes more selective about what it takes in. It requires more effort and rewards to make the change.

During the critical period, all that’s required to drive changes in the brain is exposure to the physical world. With that exposure, the brain competitively sorts information coming in, and refines its responses to it by creating selective, coordinated networks of neurons. Such neuronal organization enables the brain to respond efficiently and effectively to the environmental stimuli it encounters. Once that organization is achieved, the brain releases growth factors and other compounds that cause a complex series of changes that bring the brain out of the critical period.

After the closure of the critical period, the older brain is still plastic and remains plastic to the end of life, but it is not plastically remodeled continuously and automatically in response to environmental stimuli as it was during the critical period. So-called “adult plasticity” – which actually begins in early childhood — only occurs when the brain is excited in particular, specific behavioral contexts. Rather marvelously, the older brain only permits change when it judges that change to be important, rewarding or good for it.

Michael Merzenich

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Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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