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PROFESSIONAL CORNER • Last updated October 6, 2017

We have all heard different versions of the old adage "use it or lose it". When it comes to the brain, researchers tell us we only use a small portion of it, so how does this apply? How can we get more out of what we have? Richard Restak shows how to enrich your life and enhance your brain capacity. Interesting reading.

Practical Advice From Brain Scientist Richard Restak

Bottom Line Personal

Richard Restak, MD
George Washington University Medical School

Everyone has heard some variation of the theory that, over the course of our lives, we actually use only a small percentage of our total brain capacity. That theory raises the tantalizing possibility that there might be something we can do to utilize more of our brains.

By choosing to enhance your mental ability, you’ve already taken an important first step. The brain is not a computer, but it has certain computer-like qualities. And when you decide to do something new, it’s almost like creating a program for that activity-which may in time be able to run on its own.

The surprising truth

Although medical experts agree that no one uses 100% of the brain, no one can state precisely what percentage of the brain we do use. Even coming up with an estimate would be a very complex task.

Everyone starts out with about 100 billion nerve cells linked by thousands of connections for each nerve cell-and these connections are forming and reforming all the time. The cells and linkages function as parts of many different processes, often simultaneously. So it’s really impossible to determine how much of the brain is being used for what purpose at any one time.

The significant lesson to draw from these rough statistics is that the brain is a dynamic organ. It alters from millisecond to millisecond-yours is changing as you’re reading these words.

Exciting news: It is possible to use the natural dynamism of the brain intentionally to alter the way in which it is organized and in which is makes connections.

Some experts describe the brain as the signature of one’s wishes, desires and actions. According to the Dhammapada, an ancient Buddhist text, all we are is the sum of all we have thought.

One fascinating thing about the brain is that, while it is certainly the mysterious entity we call the mind -- a collection of thoughts, memories and feelings -- it is also a physical organ. And, like any other organ, the more you exercise it, the more it develop.

When you choose to develop certain kinds of abilities or areas of expertise, the brain is immediately altered by those choices. And by learning about and participating in different activities, you physically alter the configuration of your brain. A musician’s brain, for example, is physically organized very differently from that of a scientist.

Age, ability, and the brain

It is generally assumed that certain kinds of abilities-mastering a second language, for example, or learning to play a musical instrument-must be acquired at a very early age. But the concept of you can’t teach an old dog new ticks is hardly a credible scientific theory.

While it is true that the brain of a young person differs from that of an older individual, the difference is not a simple matter of ability or receptivity. Creativity and speed of response tend to be associated with youth, but wisdom, judgment and a richer contextual base are the benefits of age. Older people may lack the speed of information retrieval of younger people, but they have access to years of personal and professional experiences that produce the kind of critical thinking necessary for high-level problems-solving abilities in such fields as law, medicine and diplomacy.

Right brain / left brain

The concept of specific right brain/left brain activities is an oversimplified, somewhat "pop" notion. The brain is not some kind of computer with two main components called the right side and the left side.

It is, rather, an organic entity with sides, a top and a bottom, and all the areas work together. There is, however, some evidence of preferential abilities that may be associated with one side of the brain or the other.

For example, the left hemisphere appears to be better adapted to dealing with matters of language and reading, while the right hemisphere seems to be more strongly linked with art and imagination. But the effects of a slight dominance of one hemisphere over the other emerge as variations in style of expression, rather than as differences in ability or intelligence.

Example: If you ask two people for street directions, one may draw a map, while the other may give verbal instructions. Either way, the necessary information is retrieved and communicated.

Increasing your brain power

It seems too simple, even somehow illogical, but enriching your brain comes down to "just do it". The instant that you decide to take on a new subject, you have actually begun to expand your neuronal network, to change the configuration of your brain...and to enhance your brain power.

You don’t need special tapes or seminars to teach you how to keep your mind fresh or receptive. Studies of the effects of sensory deprivation in prisoners of war and political hostages indicate that those individuals who kept mentally engaged-who consciously decided to test their memories and exercise their evaluative powers-emerged from their captivity in much better shape than individuals who permitted the sterile environment to dull their higher-order thought processes.

One such study describes a prisoner who managed to maintain a necessary level of brain function by constantly reviewing the battles of the Civil War, remembering the number of troops, brigade by brigade, reconstructing the battle plans, etc.

You can even create models for physical activities in your brain. The more you practice a golf of tennis swing or a dance step, the deeper the activity is "etched" into the brain.

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Last modified: October 6, 2017