Summary of The Brain by David Eagleman

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of The Brain by David Eagleman

There is nothing more fascinating than the human brain. For centuries the mysteries of the brain have been studied and even with modern technology, some things are still unknown. However, what is absolutely certain is that our brains make us who we are. From our personalities, actions and the decisions we make every day, our brains are in charge. 

So, does our brain actually make us who we are? Researchers and neuroscientists continue to study the human brain to determine just how much it is responsible for. 

In this book summary, readers will discover:

  • How the brain shapes who we are
  • The brain and your sense of reality
  • Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
  • The social aspect of our brain
  • The implications of technology

Key lesson one: How the brain shapes who we are

No one stays the same from the time they are born. People changing is inevitable. Sometimes it is for the better but it can be for the worse too. We have all seen it as well. How often do we bump into an old friend from school and are amazed by how much they have changed? What could have possibly happened to them for them to become so different?

Everyone’s brain changes over time. As we are faced with new situations, our brain adapts and makes new connections. These constant new connections shape our personalities. A two-year-old child has the same number of brain cells as an adult, however, an adult has half the number of synapses. Synapses are the connections in our brains that convey information and kids have much more than adults. This is because as we age, we lose connections that have not been repeated much. It is only those connections that are constantly repeated and therefore used often that remain. 

These synaptic connections are a result of what you have been exposed to in your lifetime and determine your overall personality. They are influenced by the people you meet, the places you go to and the books you read. This ability of the brain to learn by repetition is referred to as plasticity. Kids have more room for plasticity because of the number of synapses they possess. However, this does not mean that adults have lost their plasticity. Adult brains are also able to change. A study was done at University College London that proved this. They scanned the brains of taxi drivers and found that they had much bigger hippocampi than the control group. The hippocampus is the area of the brain responsible for spatial memory and they were larger in taxi drivers because they had extensive knowledge of the streets of London that they drove every day. They acquire this knowledge through four years of extensive training and using this knowledge every day meant that they reinforced the connections in their brain, making them stronger. You can think of it as they exercised their hippocampus and as a result, it grew. So, change is possible. 

However, sometimes changes can result from something else going on in the brain. Charles Whitman is an infamous case. One day in 1966, he woke up and killed his wife and mother before killing 13 other people with a rifle. He was eventually shot to death and postmortem results found a tumour in his brain. It was located in the region of the brain that deals with aggression and fear and was thought to have played a part in his actions that fateful day.

Key lesson two: The brain and your sense of reality

Our sense of reality is influenced by how our brain processes the sensory data it receives. The way you perceive the world is thus not only dependent on your brain. An example of this comes from Paralympic skier Mike May. He lost his sight as a young child and his body and brain had become accustomed to his loss of sight. When he had surgery in his forties to regain his sight, it was not at all what he thought it would be. May felt not only overwhelmed with his newfound sight but he found it difficult to recognize his own kids and skiing also became more difficult. This all occurred because his brain was not used to seeing things. It had used his other senses as a way to process information and sight was something it would have to learn how to deal with. You see, his brain had learned to overcompensate for the lack of activity in his visual cortex. 

Our eyes and brains learn to work together from an early age. Sight is a collaboration between these two organs. The eyes send an image to the brain and the brain thereafter interprets it. May’s sight was lost when he was young and his brain had learned to interpret information differently. Similarly, people with a condition known as synesthesia also have issues with their senses. They get mixed up. This means that they report tasting words that they see on a page or that hearing music conjures up colours in their brains. This is not a hallucination, but they simply have a different sense of reality. This occurs because the information their sensory organs is providing is being interpreted differently by their brain. 

Key lesson three: Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Do you believe that you are in complete control of your actions and decisions? Well, the answer you give is dependent on how you define your conscious ‘self’. Either way, the region of the brain that is responsible for decisions usually acts without your knowledge. However, before you freak out, you should know that this is completely normal and happens the same for everyone. If it did not occur, you would be constantly faced with little decisions. The simple act of drinking your coffee would be bombarded with minute details that are otherwise handled by our brains subconsciously. 

In fact, when you reach a certain level of proficiency in any activity from sport to games, if you put conscious effort in, you are more likely to make mistakes. Baseball players, for example, hit the ball unconsciously. They have not made the decision to do it, nor does the brain work fast enough to gauge when they should swing. It all happens subconsciously and it happens a lot more than you realize. 

Conscious decision making, on the other hand, involves more than just one part of your brain. Sensory and emotional feedback stimulates different areas of the brain until a decision is made. A simple question of what you want to eat for dinner increases neural activity as you begin to contemplate different options. Your sensory and emotional connections are activated and this can result in a feedback loop. If you enjoy the decision you make, your brain releases dopamine and next time you are faced with a similar decision, your brain will remember that good feeling. The way the brain is programmed to make decisions can further be seen and studied when something happens to sever the connection between the brain and body. For example, Tammy Myers was hurt in an accident and damaged the part of the brain that relays information about her emotional and physical state. As a result, Myers does not know when she is tired, thirsty or agitated. Because this communication has been disrupted, she can no longer make decisions.

Key lesson four: The social aspect of our brain

Humans are social creatures. It has been this way since the beginning when early primates stayed together in communities as a means of survival. This is seen in how our brains function. We are constantly trying to gauge other people and seeing how they fit into our group or if they do at all. This is done via empathy. 

Being empathetic revolves around mirroring. If you mirror another’s behaviours or facial expressions, our brains begin to understand what they are feeling. An experiment was conducted by the author to determine just how mirroring works. He used two groups of people, the first group was made up of Botox users and the second group were people who had never used Botox before. He then asked the groups to look at pictures of different facial expressions while attached to a device that measured their facial muscle movement. As expected, those with Botox had less facial muscle movement however, what was surprising was that they were also worse at gauging the emotions of others. This showed that mirroring plays an important part in reading emotions. 

Key lesson five: The implications of technology

The advancement of technology means that we can learn so much more about the human brain. One of these amazing discoveries is that the brain can adapt to non-biological symptoms. Cochlear implants are an example of this. The electronic device sends a digital signal to the brain and the brain ‘hears’ it. The signal on its own has no meaning, but in combination with the brain results in hearing. 

This implies that it can be done with other information as well. If we can upload information directly into the brain, there is no telling what we could do. We could become walking electronic devices, receiving notifications directly in our heads. Or what if we could upload our brains to machines? Of course, these are just hypothetical situations but there is no telling what we would be able to accomplish in the future. Computers are advancing at a phenomenal rate and with it, so too are the possibilities. 

The key takeaway from The Brain is:

The human brain has always been an organ that is both fascinating and mysterious. Scientists and researchers have dedicated their lives to unlocking the secrets of our brains and how exactly it all comes together. Our brains shape our personalities and make decisions for us every day. Our experiences shape the way our brains make connections but this does not mean that we cannot make new ones. We are never too old to learn new things and make new connections. Technology has hinted at levels of transhumanism, or a combination of the human brain and a computer but, even if they are able to accomplish this in the future, there is nothing that can replace the human brain.

How can I implement the lessons learned in The Brain:

Do not think that it is too late to get rid of bad habits that you have developed. It is possible for you to make new connections and get rid of those that reinforce your bad habits. For example, if you wish to live a healthier and more active lifestyle, start rewarding yourself for every good action you take in that direction. A healthy and delicious smoothie after gym or hiking with friends. This will leave you with positive feelings afterwards and you are more likely to make the same decision again.

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