Posted On 16 Sep 2011
How does brain development work? Does an improved understanding of it yield any significant implications for what we should do to live better?
The Greek words for “know thyself” were inscribed over the entrance to the ancient Greek temple at Delphi. Knowing ourselves includes knowing our bodies.
However, nobody yet really knows all about the brain. After all, given its well-protected location, it has been very difficult to study this organ.
I certainly don’t understand how it works. The information in this post comes largely from John Bruer’s The Myth of the First Three Years. His research is based on recent technology that allows researchers to understand brain development better.
Perhaps the most astounding feature of brain development is that, unlike other organs, brains seem to grow backwards!
Synapses are the connections between brain cells (neurons) that enable them to communicate with each other. All our thoughts and behaviors depend upon the formation of appropriate synaptic connections among neurons.
There are two facts that, when taken together, are puzzling.
First, brain development occurs very rapidly in the sense that your brain got big very quickly. You created your first neuron 42 days after conception and just 120 days later your brain had one hundred billion neurons!
60 days prior to birth, your neurons started trying to communicate with each other by literally reaching out (on strands called ‘axons’) to each other. Each successful connection formed a synapse.
By the time you were 3 years old, each of your hundred billion neurons had formed 15,000 connections!
Second, your brain then shrank into adulthood. That’s right: it grew smaller as the rest of your body was growing larger. Many of the synapses were not used and, so, they disintegrated.
By the time you hit your 16th birthday, half of those connections had permanently disappeared!
You might think that, because of this shrinkage, your brain worked less well. That’s exactly wrong. As your brain became smaller, you became smarter. Why?
The closing down of billions of connections enabled you to exploit more fully the connections that remained. In brief, that’s the story of brain development.
As an adult, you have an important problem: how can you eliminate dissatisfactions and improve the quality of your life? In particular, how can you continue to learn?
The purpose of these blog posts is to help you do that.
In terms of brain development, there are only three ways to continue to learn: strengthen your remaining synaptic connections, lose more of your extraneous synaptic connections, or develop a few more synaptic connections.
Because it takes a relatively large amount of energy to create the biological infrastructure to develop new connections, the least efficient of the three ways to continue brain development is to work on developing more synaptic connections. This explains why it is more difficult to learn new skills later in life.
So the best way to continue brain development is to focus on strengthening the synaptic connections that you already have while ignoring your extraneous ones.
This is exactly what the lifetime strategy of focusing on maximizing your strengths does [click here for more on this strategy]. In fact, the argument in favor of the strategy of maximizing strengths has as its foundation the new understanding of brain development.
Your most important talents are based on how your unique brain is actually already working. Once you have identified those talents, the task is to transform them into strengths by gaining the appropriate understanding and mastering the relevant skills.
This is the only way to maximize your potential.
How can you tell if you are doing that? When you are performing the right kinds of tasks, you will feel better and more energized. When you are performing the wrong kinds of tasks, you will feel worse and more tired.
It’s not whether or not you are “working” that makes the difference. It’s whether or not you are “working” at the right kinds of tasks for you.
I put “working” in scare quotes because work of the right kind isn’t really work in any kind of pejorative sense at all.
When you are working well, your work is play.
When work is play, life is fun and flowing.
If your work is not fun and flowing, I recommend more intense self examination. You have gotten side-tracked, perhaps by such understandable pursuits as pleasure-seeking or money-making. Why not get back on track?
If your work is fun and flowing, I congratulate you. Excellent!