We were taught in high school that if we drank alcohol, we would destroy brain cells that would never grow back. (Thank God that was wrong because it failed as a deterrent to our partying.) Now neuroscientists understand that every time we learn something new or even practice a skill repeatedly, the brain changes accordingly. Someone who has played piano or a stringed instrument will have a larger volume of area in brain dedicated to finger movement than the average person will have. This is neuroplasticity. On a grander scale, this process occurs in the brain of a blind person whose hearing develops way beyond what the normal range would be. The part of the brain that used to receive input from the eyes (called the occipital lobe)looks for another way to receive information, so it joins forces with the part of the brain used for hearing, increasing the amount of brainpower dedicated for hearing. Stroke victims can sometimes recover speech or movement because the undamaged portion of their brain begins learning the required action. However, the most magnificent illustration is that neurosurgeons have performed hundreds of hemispherectomies (removing half of a person’s brain) because of disorders that are uncontrollable in any other way. Unbelievably, the surgery has no apparent effect on personality or memory. Some of the patients are now in college doing very nicely; one such person became a champion bowler, and one is a chess champion of his state. I know what you are wondering now—and the answer is no, we can’t just have the sad part of the brain cut out. Thankfully, however, we won’t have to.
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