We’re living in a golden age for brain research, which could revolutionize how we think, feel, and behave. Thanks to advanced brain scans like the fMRI, brain activity can be localized and even the most precise activity pinpointed. For example, researchers can spot the minuscule area in the visual cortex that, when damaged, prevents a person from recognizing faces, including his own.
Now the goal of neuroscience is to map the brain’s 100 billion cells and perhaps a quadrillion connections down to the tiniest detail. But what will we use the map for? One obvious area is medicine. The more we know about what goes wrong in Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s, the closer we get to a cure. But the highest good would be to reinvent the brain.
“Reinvent” isn’t an exaggeration. Ten thousand years ago Homo sapiens had evolved the same genetic array that modern people inherit, which includes the same brain structure. But in the intervening millennia since then, there arose reading, writing, advanced art and music, mathematics, and science. Each advance required a new relationship between mind and body.
Human beings reinvent the brain as we go along, day by day. You are doing it right now. In short, the brain is a verb, not a noun. It is reshaped by thoughts, memories, desire, and experience.
If genes and a fixed structure of brain cells told the whole story, it would remain a total mystery why a cave dweller after the last Ice Age should have just the right complement of neurons to discover gravity or write a symphony. Now we realize that the human brain is far from fixed, at any level. New brain cells are being formed throughout life; trillions of connections between neurons are developed; and the genetic activity inside each neuron is dynamic, responding to every experience and every stimulus from the outside world.