Originally published as part of 'Your Brain is Your Brain' : An art project by Adib Fricke in which he displayed ten headlines about the human brain across Berlin, and got some neuroscientists to write short articles expanding on those statements.
We know that all our thoughts, ideas, memories come from our brain. No matter how fleeting, no matter how intangible, they are all the results of millions of neurons stimulating and signaling one another through synaptic connections; manifestations of actual physical events that go on in the brain.
We are not born with all the neurons and synapses that we have as adults. During childhood we go through a long period of establishing new connections and losing the ones that are not used much. The experiences we are exposed to during this period, the kind of thinking and behavior we engage in, have a large role in deciding how many and what kinds of connections are brought into play. The more stimulating and challenging the environment is, the more there is for the brain to take in and adapt to. That is how we pick up and develop a lot of things while growing up. But this process does not stop here. It goes on throughout life, because these intricate webs of synapses are essentially how the brain encodes everything. The connections that are employed more are made stronger; the ones that are not employed frequently become weaker, and often new information or experiences need new connections to be established.
Think about learning to play the piano. When someone who doesn’t know anything about playing the piano starts to learn a piece, they start by playing one key after another—following a pattern of movement their fingers have never followed before. As the person plays the same piece over and over again, and then plays many different kinds of pieces, his/her movements from one key to another become more automatic, more efficient, more effortless. Similarly, when certain connections or sets of connections between neurons are activated repeatedly, they also become stronger and more efficient. In fact, one could argue that it is because this communication between the parts of the brain involved in playing the piano gets better that the person gets better at playing the piano.
Recent developments in neuroimaging have revealed how acquiring and mastering a skill can introduce a change in the “structure” of parts of the brain and also the “workings” of the neurons that form those structures. It is perhaps easier to imagine this idea of change in the context of an observable skill (like playing the piano or juggling), but it also holds true for more abstract concepts like how we think or feel. Engaging in any kind of mental activity repeatedly over a long period of time will alter parts of your brain—not only in terms of strength of neural pathways but also in terms of complexity. Persistently participating in intellectually challenging contemplation or creative thinking, and moreover observing and regulating these thought processes, requires a great deal of complexity from the respective neuronal networks. These networks may in turn change as a result of this constant need for complex connectivity. And the results of some of these changes might not be limited to the activity that caused the change, but might also transfer to some other process that engages some of the same networks. In this way, playing around with ideas could equip you better for developing or dealing with new ideas.
It is wonderful to know that our minds are not slaves to some biological pre-set that was installed into us at birth; that what we choose to do and how we choose to think actually matters. But in the time we live in—when so many people claim to hold some magic formula that will train your brain to make it perfect—it is also important to remember that recognizing this remarkable effect of our thoughts on our brain is not just about training our brain to become more intelligent, more rational, more focused, more happy, or more—or indeed less—anything. We are still a long way from knowing enough about the brain to be doing this. For every conscious mental process we might actively trigger, there are countless others going on without us even noticing.
Knowing that your ideas can alter your brain is about understanding and acknowledging these beautiful and complex physical processes, which might hold the key for us to get a real glimpse into the abstract and elusive thing we call the mind.