Pointing at brain scans

Nature vs nurture debate is ‘totally dead in science,’ says neuroscientist

Unlike smartphones, our mental hardware is tremendously changeable. Here’s how our remarkably nimble brains rewire themselves.

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Our brains are incredibly nimble pieces of machinery, and are actively being rewired and rewritten in response to gathered experience. According to David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, the physical impact of this rewiring is so drastic that imaging is capable of distinguishing the motor cortex of a violinist from that of a pianist.

Eagleman is the author of the book Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain, and he walks us through how our daily habits — and forces including social feedback, shifting relevance and curiosity — can reshape our phenomenally-flexible and hardy brains.

Three Takeaways:

  • Humans arrive in the world uniquely unfinished, unlike zebras or alligators, who are born knowing how to swim or walk (or figure it out within hours), according to Eagleman. Rather than coming “pre-programmed,” human babies absorb the culture, language, and movements of the world they observe, allowing them to springboard off the knowledge of those who have come before them.
  • Eagleman has suggested the term “livewired” to describe the adaptability of the brain — a living system “rewriting its own circuitry every moment of your life.” He prefers this over brain plasticity, the term conventionally used to capture the brain’s flexibility, because he believes likening the brain’s adaptability to how plastic holds its shape mischaracterizes its dynamism.
  • The internet’s impact on how children learn encourages Eagleman, who says the brain learns best and is the most flexible when it’s curious. Children’s ability to now ask search engines questions, whenever inspiration strikes, has empowered them to receive instantaneous answers “right in the context of their curiosity.”
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