The Brain: A Work in Progress

Cognitive science is the study of the brain mechanisms responsible for an individual’s thoughts, moods, decisions, and actions. Cognition refers to everything that takes place in an individual’s brain that helps him understand the world around him. To accomplish such an understanding involves mental processes such as concentration, memory, conceptualization, creativity, and emotions.

In his book The New Brain, Dr. Richard Restak uses the term “plasticity of the new brain” to refer to the capacity of the brain to transform itself. This is an incredibly exciting notion, and one that has endless positive ramifications.

Until recently, it was generally believed that the brain’s plasticity peaked out at young adulthood, if not earlier. But researchers now believe the brain is subject to transformation throughout life, which is why Restak appropriately refers to it as a “lifetime work in progress.”

Now that I’ve become a born-again behavioral modificationist, this makes perfect sense to me. When I was a Freudian laymanologist, I assumed that genetics and childhood experiences set everything in stone. It wasn’t until the headmaster at my son’s school told me that he had based his entire career on his belief in behavioral modification that I allowed myself to consider its merits.

That led me to read Reality Therapy, which I wrote about in Message #1552. The essence of that book, and of my article, is that no matter what happened to you in your childhood, no amount of rehashing the past can ever change it. On the other hand, by focusing on being a responsible adult today, you can change the way you feel about yourself, and about life, in the present.

Thus, whether you want to learn a foreign language, how to play tennis, or the techniques for writing good ad copy, you first have to make changes in your brain. And the key to making such changes is repetition.

Repetition makes repeated impressions on your brain, but there’s a catch: If the repetitions are wrong (e.g., swinging a golf club incorrectly), you are not going to excel at the skill you have targeted. From whence comes the worn-out but true observation that only an insane person would continue to repeat the same thing over and over again and expect to achieve different results.

Which brings yet another question to the fore: If you continue to get negative results, should you invoke persistence … or is it more sane just to give up and move on to something else? The answer is that you definitely should be persistent, but, based on what you have learned through your experiences, you should try a different methodology.

Restak’s main point is that regardless of how much of success is due to genetics and how much is due to practice, the level of success one achieves is based on the plasticity of the brain. My take on this can be summed up in what I call the “C” Student/”A” Student Theory, which simplistically states: In a majority of cases, a student with “C” intelligence who is willing to put forth the required effort can achieve “A” results.

I know this from firsthand experience, because I went from a 0.8 average in college to a 4.0 after a stint in the army. My military experience was so unpleasant that it made an indelible impression on my brain – and highly motivated me to get good grades.

In other words, my brain’s plasticity made it possible for me to transform my view of the world. It was a cerebral transformation that made it possible for me to recognize that there is more to life than girls, booze, and playing poker. Once I redirected my energy from such trivial pursuits to studying every waking moment that I wasn’t in class, I was able to achieve “A’s” in such difficult subjects as physics and organic chemistry.

The plasticity of the brain is why you can accomplish great things without being born with superior intelligence or natural talent. Dr. Restak maintains that a transformation of the brain can be achieved by sheer determination.

Fair enough, but begs the question: What if your brain isn’t wired to be determined? That’s where one’s experiences and environment come into play.

For example, notwithstanding imbecilic arguments to the contrary, what you see and hear around you (such as in movies and on television) has a huge impact on how and what you think about all day long. When people – children in particular – see violence, “alternative lifestyles,” and explicit sex on the screen, or hear it by listening to rap-crap, the power of suggestion is planted with each repetition.

So-called intelligence is plastic, because scientific research has shown that experiences cause neuronal circuits to form and become denser. Therefore, no matter what your age, the more you exercise your brain, the higher the density of the neurons in your frontal cortex – which makes you more “intelligent.” (“General intelligence” is believed to be directly related to the amount of gray matter in the frontal lobes of the brain.)

You have heard this phrased in laymen’s terms as “Use it or lose it.” The less I write, the more difficult I find it to write. The more I write, the more easily the words fly off the keyboard. Which is why every writer should make the words of Michael Masterson’s father his/her mantra: “A writer is someone who writes. Not now and then, but every day.” The substance of this philosophy is true whatever your profession may be.

The corollary to the “C” Student/”A” Student Theory might well be stated as: In a majority of cases, a student with “A” intelligence who is unwilling to put forth a reasonable amount of effort is likely to achieve “C” results. To me, then, intelligence has more to do with how close you come to performing at your maximum capacity than it does with IQ.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that native intelligence is not nearly as important as such traits as social skills, the ability to persuade, and the willingness to take action. Our universities are overflowing with top-heavy frontal-cortex types who would surely be lost in the real world (i.e., the world beyond the ivy-covered gates guarding a weird mixture of academic pinheads and illiterate semi-pro athletes).

There’s no question that whoever came up with the term “personal best” definitely was onto something. It’s not what you have, but what you do with what you have. No matter how old you are, no matter what your financial condition may be, and no matter how many bad experiences you may have had in your past, it’s never too late to become “smarter.”

Consciously and continuously make it a point to push your plastic brain to the limit – and beyond – until the day you breathe your last breath. The human brain is the most powerful collection of atoms on earth, but it requires constant exercise.

And what if you’re not motivated to exercise your brain? I’ll say it again: You have free will! Force yourself to take action. That will get those atoms in your plastic brain vibrating at ever-higher rates of speed. And that, in turn, will produce motivation. I guarantee it.

“If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.” – Emerson M. Pugh

  • Nicky De Villiers

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