How To Change Your Brain

Not a Halloween/Frankenstein themed post.

Nearly twenty years ago now I spent some time with the acclaimed Vietnam war photographer Tim Page. He told me how an exploding shell sent a piece of shrapnel through his head and tore out about a third of his brain. Afterwards, he couldn’t walk, talk, write, and had to re-learn all his functions. But re-learn he did, over time, and the neural mechanism for each activity shifted to a new part of the brain, a recognised effect. When I met him, you couldn’t tell he’d been so devastatingly injured.

That discussion was part of an ongoing fascination I’ve had with consciousness studies. It’s a science that’s been through one or two revolutions over the years. For instance, one of those things that everyone knows is that brain cells can’t be regenerated. That’s based on a piece of 1928 research which was completely turned on its head seventy years later.

Thus, this:

“As Sharon Begley remarked in her book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, “The discovery overturned generations of conventional wisdom in neuroscience. The human brain is not limited to the neurons it is born with, or even the neurons that fill in after the explosion of brain development in early childhood.” What the researchers discovered was that within each of our brains there exists a population of neural stem cells which are continually replenished and can differentiate into brain neurons. Simply stated, we are all experiencing brain stem cell therapy every moment of our lives.”

The book by Newsweek science writer Begley looks interesting: “Contrary to popular belief, we have the power to literally change our brains by changing our minds. Recent pioneering experiments in neuroplasticity–the ability of the brain to change in response to experience–reveal that the brain is capable of altering its structure and function, and even of generating new neurons, a power we retain well into old age. The brain can adapt, heal, renew itself after trauma, compensate for disabilities, rewire itself to overcome dyslexia, and break cycles of depression and OCD. And as scientists are learning from studies performed on Buddhist monks, it is not only the outside world that can change the brain, so can the mind and, in particular, focused attention through the classic Buddhist practice of mindfulness.”

Quantum Levitation

“U.S. scientists have found a way to levitate the very smallest objects using the strange forces of quantum mechanics, and said on Wednesday they might use it to help make tiny nanotechnology machines.”

Don’t you love popular science reporting? Who would ever have guessed that nanotechnology machines were “tiny”? And what about those “strange forces” of quantum mechanics? Spooky.

Invasion Of The Zombie Ants

“The parasite, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, appears to take over the minds of infected ants.

The insects are forced to leave their nests and head for a leaf that provides ideal conditions for the fungus to reproduce.

On arrival the ants are compelled to bite hard on a major vein of the leaf before dying. The “death grip” leaves the ant in a perfect position for the fungus to grow and release its infectious spores.”

A thousand authors begin a new story…

Who’s Really In Charge?

Think you’re a rational, thinking human being in control of yourself and your surroundings? It’s an illusion. New research suggests our subconscious is really the part of us that is in control.

I’ve always known how important the unconscious is when it comes to creativity – it generates the most surprising and affecting parts of stories while I’m in that hazy, detached writing zone. (And that’s why writers who want to get published shouldn’t plot things out too heavily in advance – you’re cutting off the bit of you that is the most important part of the process.)

Now we know the subconscious mind stands behind everything – choosing when and how we respond, and identifying certain emotions – love, fear – as “more important”. The analogy in the above article is that the conscious mind is a searchlight, but the subconscious decides when to switch it on and where to shine it.

Life On Mars Staring Us In The Face?

A report in New Scientist suggests the evidence for life on the Red Planet could be as plain as those lumps of rocks that scatter the landscape in all the photos we’ve seen a thousand times.

There’s never been any sign of complex carbon-based molecules on Mars, but sulphur is all over the place, more than on earth. Some microbes in our own backyard convert sulphates to sulphides as a by-product of their activity. Intriguing evidence of this microbial work has been found at crater sites – and similar tests could be carried on Mars relatively easily.

All we need is a Mars Lander fitted with the right tools. Oh, one’s already planned? When’s it hitting the red dust?

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover will land on the Martian surface in 2012. It will carry a mass spectrometer that should be sensitive enough to see variations as small as 2 per cent in sulphur isotope abundances, says John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, the lead scientist for the mission.

The Meaning Of The 21st Century

Further to recent discussions, I wanted to flag up a book – The Meaning of the 21st Century: a vital blue print for ensuring our future by James Martin – which raises many of the big issues facing us, the great opportunities technology can bring, and then ties it all up in a nice, neat bundle.

Martin is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author for The Wired Society which was prescient about much of today’s world. In this one, he interviews lots of experts across a range of disciplines and gives a powerfully-stated overview, which is hard to get in such a complex world.

It’s a popular science book, and easily understood, so all you uber-scientists don’t come here complaining that he’s not written it at a thesis level. Worth checking out for anyone interested in life in general, science and politics.

The Venus Project

Underwater cities. Space stations. City-sized ships.

The stuff of science fiction is just day-to-day business for Jacque Fresco, a futurist who’s come across my radar a few times in the past. He’s a designer and an inventor with a view on where we’re going and what we need to change to survive.

His latest work is The Venus Project – a vision of how to integrate the best of science and technology into a comprehensive plan for a new society based on both human and environmental concerns.

Click on the link above and you’ll see some absolutely breathtaking art that wouldn’t look out of place on an SF book cover. You can find out more about The Venus Project here:

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