Grey matter: age does bring wisdom
Our bodies may deteriorate, but our minds can develop ...
Professor Susan Greenfield.
The frontier of science is not outer space; it is inside our own heads.
Deborah Smith reports on the evolution of the brain.
The brain, the mind, the soul - Professor Susan Greenfield has them clearly sorted out in her head.
Yet nothing is quite as fascinating, says this leading British neuroscientist, as holding
that twinned lump of tissue, a human brain, in one hand and pondering that it was once
the repository of a personality, an inner world, a mind.
The human brain has changed little in the past 30,000 years. And we are each born with
most of the brain cells we will ever have, says Professor Greenfield, an
Oxford University pharmacologist and author who is visiting Australia for National Science Week.
What change constantly are the connections forged between the 100 billion brain cells
in our heads, in response to each experience, each moment of every day.
This "personalisation of the brain", which influences attitudes that lead in turn
to different experiences for each individual, is what Greenfield calls the mind.
The good news, she says, is that wisdom really does come with age.
Our bodies may deteriorate, but our minds can develop, our consciousness can "deepen", as
long as we stimulate the brain enough to keep strengthening the network of connections.
Scientists are a very long way from understanding the brain, says the director
of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney, Professor Allan Snyder.
"But that's positive. It's a challenge."
Professor Snyder's main interest is the non-conscious mind - the part that governs our selection of a partner, personal decisions, risk-taking and even doing what we do best, "whether that's physics or swimming 1,500 metres".
Studying people such as savants, brain-damaged people with extraordinary skills, throws light on this non-conscious mind, says Professor Snyder, who believes we all have access to virtuoso talents, if we could switch off higher consciousness.
The fact that people after a stroke can recover movement attests to the ability of the brain to make new connections. Last year American researchers also showed for the first time that monkeys were constantly growing new brain cells in adulthood.
Last month an influential British study was published showing that stimulating the brains of mice, with lots of new plastic toys, can delay the onset of Huntington's disease, a genetic brain deterioration.
"It shows we can deter the tyranny of the genes with environment," Professor Greenfield says.
Professor Snyder, a mathematician, also advocates mastering new skills; the more views of the world we have, the better we can find unexpected likenesses between things, which is at the heart of creativity.
The mind the brain -- it works, takes a lickin and keeps on tickin -- new connections, overcoming damage --
exercise it and keep it happy...