Your Brain Learns By Doing
The mirror neuron system is the name for those regions of the brain with synapses that fire whether you’re actually doing or merely watching an action — as long as you’ve done it previously. Doing an action lays down neural connections that fire again when you watch the same action. This accounts for the connection you feel when viewing a sport you’ve played, or why you wince when you see someone else get hurt.
Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues in the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Parma in Italy first noted the mirror effect while studying the brains of macaque monkeys. When a monkey was watching one of the researchers pick up a peanut, the same neurons fired as if the monkey — likely a seasoned peanut gatherer — had picked up the nut itself. The researchers labeled these specific cells “mirror neurons.” In the human brain, entire regions light up in response to a familiar action; this endows us with a full-fledged mirror system.
Why It Matters to You
The existence of the mirror system helps explain why learning a new skill is easier if you try doing it early in life. This includes doing it clumsily, rather than hanging back watching your instructor or a video until you think you “have it.” Watching before you try means that you will probably see very little; watching after you try will engage the mirror system, increasing your brain’s power to “get it.”
As London-based neuroscientist Daniel Glaser, PhD, puts it, “When you look at something you have done before, you are actually using more of your brain to see it, so there’s a richer information flow. Until you started playing tennis, you couldn’t see the difference between a good topspin stroke and a bad one; after a few weeks of practice, when your coach demonstrates the stroke, you really get it visually. And you can thank the mirror system for that.”
The mirror system is also what endows you with the empathic ability to feel the pain or joy of others, based on what you register on their faces. “When we see someone else suffering or in pain, mirror neurons help us to read her or his facial expression and actually make us feel the suffering or the pain of the other person,” writes UCLA neurologist Marco Iacoboni, MD, PhD, in his book, Mirroring People (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008). “These moments, I will argue, are the foundation of empathy.”
Growing Older Can Make You Smarter
For some time, the prevailing view of a brain at midlife was that it’s “simply a young brain slowly closing down,” observes Barbara Strauch. But she notes that recent research has shown that middle age is actually a kind of cranial prime time, with a few comedic twists thrown in for fun.
“Researchers have found that — despite some bad habits — the brain is at its peak in those years. As it helps us navigate through our lives, the middle-age brain cuts through the muddle to find solutions, knows whom and what to ignore, when to zig and when to zag,” she writes. “It stays cool. It adjusts.”
Brain scientists used to be convinced that the main “driver” of brain aging was loss of neurons — brain-cell death. But new scanning technology has shown that most brains maintain most of their neurons over time. And, while some aspects of the aging process do involve losses — to memory, to reaction time — there are also some net gains, including a neat trick researchers call “bilateralization,” which involves using both the brain’s right and left hemispheres at once.
Strauch cites a University of Toronto study from the 1990s, soon after scanning technology became available, that measured the comparative ability of young and middle-age research subjects to match faces with names. The expected outcome was that older subjects would do worse at the task, but not only were they just as competent as younger subjects, PET scans revealed that, in addition to the brain circuits used by the younger crowd, the older subjects also tapped into the brain’s powerful prefrontal cortex. As some of their circuits weakened, they compensated by using other parts of the brain.
Ultimately, this means the effects of age caused them to use — and strengthen — more of their brains, not less.
Why It Matters to You
Gene Cohen, MD, PhD, who directs the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University Medical Center, notes that this ability to use more of your cognitive reserves strengthens your problem-solving ability as you enter the middle years, and it makes you more capable of comfortably negotiating contradictory thoughts and emotions. “This neural integration makes it easier to reconcile our thoughts with our feelings,” he wrote in “The Myth of the Midlife Crisis” (Newsweek, Jan. 16, 2006). Like meditation, the middle-age tendency toward bilateralization seems to promote your ability to stay cool under pressure.
There are things you can do to amplify this increased strength. “Our brains are built to roll with the punches,” Strauch writes, “and better — or more carefully cared for — brains roll best.” Studies show multiple ways to build long-term brain health: from healthy eating, exercise and conscious relaxation to active social bonds, challenging work and continuing education. Good advice, it would seem, for a brain at any age.
While it was once thought that the brain’s architecture was basically set by age five or six, New York Times medical science and health editor Barbara Strauch explains her book The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries About the Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids (Anchor, 2003), new research shows that the teen brain is “still very much a work in progress, a giant construction project. Millions of connections are being hooked up; millions more are swept away. Neurochemicals wash over the teenage brain, giving it a new paint job, a new look, a new chance at life.”
The neurochemical dopamine floods the teen brain, increasing alertness, sensitivity, movement, and the capacity to feel intense pleasure; it’s a recipe for risk-taking. And, as anyone who has tried to rouse a sleepy teen should appreciate, brain chemicals that help set sleep patterns go through major shifts.
Knowing about these brain gyrations in young people can help parents be a little more patient and tolerant—and they offer some opportunities too. As Jay Giedd told PBS’s Frontline, “If a teen is doing music or sports or academics [during this period of brain change and consolidation], those are the cells and connections that will be hardwired. If they’re lying on the couch or playing video games or MTV, those are the cells and connections that are going to survive.”
By Jon Spayde, Experience Life
Jon Spayde is a writer, editor and performer based in St. Paul, Minn.
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