Sculpting your brain: The Science of Becoming Better

Summary:
Neuroplasticity is the ability of our brains to change continuously throughout our lives.
It has important implications for how we can become better versions of ourselves.
The first implication is that we can sculpt our brains by constantly learning. When we learn something new, our brain cells develop connection with other cells. This is the scientific foundation behind psychological theories like the "growth mindset".
The second implication is that we can sculpt our brains by perfecting the skills we have. When we perfect a skill, we speed up the way brain cells talk to each other. This is the scientific foundation behind psychological concepts like "deliberate practice".

Madrid, Spain. 1894. Squinting into his microscope, he began to draw the most delicate parts of the human brain. Meditative branch-like figures grew, connecting to each other to form a web of inky tendrils.

Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal

This is Santiago Ramón y Cajal. He was drawing and squinting to understand this: How do our brain enable us humans to do all the miraculous things that we do? His answer will win him a joint Nobel Prize in 1906. Oh, and it will also teach us how to become better versions of ourselves.

Cajal was not your typical scientist. Born in Navarra, Spain in 1852, he was a rebellious child, more interested in becoming an artist than a scientist. He was a polymath of sorts. He drew everything around him, taught himself photography at a time when colored photos were rare, took carefully posed self-portraits, was into bodybuilding, and published science fiction under the pseudonym Dr. Bacteria (come on, a good sense of humor too?!). If he were alive today, he would be riding a motorcycle from his laboratory to scientific conferences, presenting his work with the charm of Antonio Banderas.

Cajal through the years. From left: self-portrait as bodybuilder (from his autobiography); (2) in his library (from Instituto Cajal del Consjo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid); (3) in his laboratory in Valencia, Spain (4) portrait published by Clark University.

Act 1. Dr. Cajal discovers how our brains work

It was only under the persuasion of his father, a professor of anatomy, that Cajal turned towards medicine. Here, sitting in his laboratory with his microscope and sketchpads, he combined his artistic talents with his aptitude for science, setting the foundation of modern neuroscience.

Cajal had a theory about how information flowed through our nervous system. He said that our brains are made up of lots of cells called neurons. These Neuron guys liked talking to each other, by using chemical messengers to deliver messages to one another. Incoming signals caused a listening Neuron-guy to fire or send signals. The electrical signal travels through the body of the Neuron-guy, moving away from the cell body, down through a long appendage called an axon. When it reaches the end of the axon, it triggers the release of those chemical messengers. Then, the chemical messengers jump across a tiny gap, the synapse. This triggers the next Neuron-guy to fire, and so on. This became known as the Neuron Doctrine. At the time, this theory was radical. It challenged the prevailing theory, the Reticular Theory, which said that our nervous system was composed of a continuous network of cells without gaps between them.

Cajal died in 1934 before anyone could show that the Neuron Doctrine, and not the prevailing Reticular Theory, was true. In the 1950s, microscopes got powerful enough to allow us to see images of the gaps between our brain cells (some thousands times smaller than the width of a human hair). These images showed that Cajal, drawing and squinting over 50 years earlier, was indeed correct.

Act 2. Dr. Cajal invites us to sculpt our brains

Open any modern textbook on neuroscience and the Neuron Doctrine is spoken about as though there wasn’t a time when the gaps between our brain cells were too small even for the most powerful microscopes to see. It’s easy to forget that the Neuron Doctrine isn’t just some anatomical fact about that big blob of tissue between our ears. By helping us understand the structure of our brain cells and how they connect with each other, this doctrine has also helped us understand how we can constantly become better versions of ourselves.

For example, one of the most amazing findings in neuroscience in recent decades that builds on the Neuron Doctrine is the concept of neuroplasticity. This refers to the ability of our brains to change continuously throughout our lives by creating, strengthening, weakening or dismantling connections between the Neuron-guys.

In his 1897 book Advice to a Young Investigator, Cajal presciently wrote: “any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.” It is in light of his scientific work that Cajal invites us to be the sculptors of our own brains. If he were alive today, I think he would invite us to at least two sculpting parties each year.

Invitation 1: Sculpting by learning new things

***

Dear Young/Old Investigators (age doesn’t matter):

You are cordially invited to the first annual party at the Cajal manor in which we sculpt our brains by learning.

In 1894, I wrote a paper in which I concluded that:

“intellectual power, and its most noble expressions, talent and genius, do not depend on the size or number of cerebral neurons, but on the richness of their connective processes, or in other words on the complexity of the association pathways to short and long distances.”

In Modern Parlance: When we learn something new, our brain cells develop connection with other cells. These cells form a “circuit” and send signals to each other to enable you to do that task. Overtime, it takes less effort for your brain cells to tell the next cell what to do. At this point, you get a sense that you “know” how to do that thing.

I hope you will join me at this party. Here is the plan for the evening:

  • We select 3 skills that we would like to learn in the next 3 months.
  • We break down what learning those new 3 skills would require.
  • We develop a plan for learning those skills.

Sangria will be provided. Please bring your own notepads and pens.

Yours sincerely,

Santiago Ramón y Cajal

***

Why should we be pleased to get this invite? Because Cajal is telling us: you can learn almost anything to some degree of proficiency. How intelligent you are isn’t determined by natural talent, but by how many connections you make between the relevant Neuron-guys. And modern science has shown that these Neuron-guys can build connections with each other overtime!

This is the neuroscience behind why training yourself to have a “Growth Mindset”, a term popularized by psychologist Carol Dweck, makes so much more sense than the “Fixed Mindset” that all of us fall into sometimes. People with a growth mindset believe that we have the capacity to learn and grow skills; people with a fixed mindset believe that skills, intelligence, and talents are natural. People with a growth mindset believe that people who are good at something are good because they built that ability, people with a fixed mindset believe that some people are naturally good at things while others are not.

Sounds like Cajal had the growth mindset many years before the term was popularized!

Invitation 2: Sculpting by perfecting

***

Dear Young/Old Investigators (I was SO happy to see all ages at the last party):

You are cordially invited to the second annual party at the Cajal manor in which we sculpt our brains by perfecting the skills you started learning in the first party.

The scientific research for my 1894 paper led me to conclude that:

“Adaptation and professional dexterity, or rather the perfecting of function by exercise (physical education, speech, writing, piano-playing, mastery in fencing, and other activities) were explained by either a progressive thickening of the nervous pathways…or the formulation of new cell processes.”

In Modern Parlance: When we perfect a skill, we speed up the way brain cells talk to each other by coating them in a white, fatty, electrically insulating layer called myelin. Myelin is a bit like the plastic coating around the copper wires in your home. It prevents electrical signals from leaking out of one wire onto another. It also increases the pace at which these signals travel.

I hope you join me at this party.

Yours sincerely,

Santiago Ramón y Cajal

***

Why should we be pleased to get this invite? Because Cajal is basically saying: you can become better at most things by practicing! As you practice more and more and focus on a skill, you’re forcing the relevant Neuron-guys to talk to each other again and again. The repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells to wrap layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits, cementing the skills.

This is the neuroscience behind a swath of psychology and productivity books extolling the importance of doing 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to achieve mastery. When Malcolm Gladwell published Outliers in 2008, one of the ideas that resonated most with readers was the 10,000 hour rule (which has recently been challenged). This rule is based on research from psychologists K. Anders Ericsson and coauthors who demonstrated that the key to becoming world-class in any field was to practice a specific task for at least 10,000 hours. More recently, this idea has been pushed forth by Cal Newport. He argues that professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your capacities – cognitive or physical – to new limits (i.e. “deep work”) is necessary to improve your skills and create new value. As Newport writes, “to be great at something is to be well myelinated”.

Act 3. We go to Cajal’s party

Cajal lived as though he had sculpting parties every day. Artist to scientist, photographer to bodybuilder, young academic to Nobel Prize winner. Nothing seemed impossible. There is still a lot that neuroscientists and psychologists are trying to figure out about our brains. But whenever we find ourselves getting stuck, let’s invite ourselves to look at his drawings and remind ourselves that we too can be the sculptors of our brains.