When Albert Einstein died in 1955 at the age of seventy- six, there was tremendous curiosity about the most famous brain of the twentieth century. Assuming that something physical must have created such genius, an autopsy was performed on Einstein's brain. Defying expectations that big thoughts required a big brain, Einstein’s brain actually weighed 10 percent less than the average brain. That era was just on the verge of exploring genes, and advanced theories about how new synaptic connections are formed lay decades in the future. Both represent dramatic advances in knowledge. You can't see genes at work, but you can observe neurons growing new axons and dendrites, the threadlike extensions that allow one brain cell to connect with another. It's now known that the brain can form new axons and dendrites up to the last years of life, which gives us tremendous hope for preventing senility, for example, and preserving our mental capacity indefi nitely. (So astounding is the brain’s ability to make new connections that a fetus on the verge of being born is forming 250,000 new brain cells per minute, leading to millions of new synaptic connections per minute.)
Yet in so saying, we are as naïve as newspaper reporters waiting eagerly to tell the world that Einstein possessed a freakish brain—we still emphasize the physical. Not enough weight is given to how a person relates to the brain. We feel that without a new relationship, the brain cannot be asked to do new, unexpected things. Consider discouraged children in school. Such students existed in every classroom that all of us attended, usually sitting in the back row. Their behavior follows a sad pattern.
First the child attempts to keep up with other children. When these efforts fail, for whatever reason, discouragement sets in. The child stops trying as hard as the children who meet with success and encouragement. The next phase is acting out, making disruptive noises or pranks to attract attention. Every child needs attention, even if it is negative. The disruptions can be aggressive, but eventually the child realizes that nothing good is happening. Acting out leads to disapproval and punishment. So he enters the final phase, which is sullen silence. He makes no more effort to keep up in class. Other children mark him as slow or stupid, an outsider. School has turned into a stifl ing prison rather than an enriching place.
It's not hard to see how this cycle of behavior affects the brain. We now know that babies are born with 90 percent of their brains formed and millions of connections that are surplus. So the fi rst years of life are spent winnowing out the unused connections and growing the ones that will lead to new skills. A discouraged child, we can surmise, aborts this process. Useful skills are not developed, and the parts of the brain that fall into disuse atrophy. Discouragement is holistic, encompassing brain, psyche, emotions, behavior, and opportunities later in life.
For any brain to operate well, it needs stimulation. But clearly stimulation is secondary to how the child feels, which is mental and psychological. A discouraged child relates to his brain differently than an encouraged child, and their brains must respond differently, too. Super brain rests on the credo of connecting the mind and brain in a new way. It's not the physical side that makes the crucial difference. It's a person’s resolve, intention, patience, hope, and diligence. These are all a matter of how the mind relates to the brain, for better or worse. We can summarize the relationship in ten principles.
A SUPER BRAIN CREDO
HOW THE MIND REL ATES TO T H E B R A I N
1. The process always involves feedback loops.
2. These feedback loops are intelligent and adaptable.
3. The dynamics of the brain go in and out of balance but always favor overall balance, known as homeostasis.
4. We use our brains to evolve and develop, guided by our intentions.
5. Self-reflection pushes us forward into unknown territory.
6. Many diverse areas of the brain are coordinated simultaneously.
7. We have the capacity to monitor many levels of awareness, even though our focus is generally confi ned to one level (i.e., waking, sleeping, or dreaming).
8. All qualities of the known world, such as sight, sound, texture, and taste, are created mysteriously by the interaction of mind and brain.
9. Mind, not the brain, is the origin of consciousness.
10. Only consciousness can understand consciousness. No mechanical explanation, working from facts about the brain, suffices.