You would think we know everything about the brain at this point. I used to think that. Until doctors told me there was really no treatment and no cure for the oh-so-common concussions my son experienced.
Many of us think that one area of the brain controls one area of our functioning. It’s nice and mechanical- straightforward. And it’s kind of true - but like most things brain-related, it’s more complicated and nuanced than that.
Even simple tasks involve multiple regions of the brain, and traumatic, difficult or challenging experiences can excite nearly the entire organ. The PET scans below show the activity increase and change between resting, walking, seeing, hearing, thinking and remembering.
Back in the 1920s Karl Lashley, the neuroscientist, determined that facts, skills and other things we ‘know’ are not stored in individual neurons or in the connections between them. Instead, they exist in what he called “cumulative electrical wave patterns” (CEWP). It’s what we think of as ‘brain waves’, and what is measured in an EEG test.
Neurons involved in a specific activity are firing together and wiring together, creating pathways or connections in the brain that tell the nervous system what to do (like ‘move my right hand’).
If you’re a rock climber, every time you chalk up, touch a rock face and start moving your body, the thousands (10s or 100s of thousands- we don’t know) of neurons involved in that activity start firing together so you can climb. By continued repetition of the activity, the rock climber creates stronger and stronger neural pathways, recruiting more neurons to carry out the activity which creates an even stronger electrical pattern that is recognized as ‘rock climbing’. Later, when the rock climber sits down to watch a movie, ‘rock climbing’ is not activated in the brain because ‘rock climbing’ is not a solid, physical structure that exists in the brain. It is a CEWP that USES the solid, physical structures in the brain. Enacting the skill depends on a solid physical structure (neurons, axons, synapses, etc.), but the act itself is an electrical reality.
This is why the brain heals the way it does, which is amazing. It’s why the brain is so flexible. It’s why if you lose the capacity to read because of a head injury, you can probably learn to read again by asking the brain to recruit new neurons, sometimes even from the opposite, undamaged area, to carry out the activity. Research over the last 20 years is showing substantial evidence of cell regeneration, particularly in those under 40 year of age. Even without regeneration, the recovery process continues as a result of brain plasticity.
Plasticity describes the process where other parts of the brain compensate for damaged or destroyed brain matter. Through plasticity, the brain forms new synaptic connections to reroute information around the damaged areas. What this means is if a certain set of cells are there to do one action, and those cells are damaged, other sets of cells may have to take over that action which is part of will brain heal itself.
Doesn’t sound much like any machine I know! The brain is part of an organism - us. It’s an amazing biological organ. Columbia University neuroscientist, Erik Kandel, said it will take 100 years to actually understand the human brain! So don’t stress if it feels hard to grasp - it is.