Michael Merzenich and Brain Fitness

In his 1949 classic The Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory, the Canadian behavioural psychologist D.O. Hebb pioneered ideas about the brain that greatly advanced our understanding of the “fire together wire together” principle.

Hebb’s work has been built on by Michael Merzenich, the professor emeritus neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. (Merzenich is also the author of more than 200 scientific papers, and has appeared in two documentaries about neuroplasticity, and has been praised in the New York Times, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Forbes, Discover, and Vogue.)

In our earlier post, ‘The Power of Association,’ we shared some of the things Merzenich discovered about the human brain from experiments performed on monkeys. What is fascinating about Merzenich’s work is that he has taken his ground-breaking discoveries about the brain and used these discoveries to develop tools for helping people with learning disabilities and other cognitive challenges. Norman Doidge summarized the theory behind Merzenich’s cutting-edge work:

“Following Hebb, Merzenich’s new theory was that neurons in brain maps develop strong connections to one another when they are activated at the same moment in time. And if maps could change, thought Merzenich, then there was reason to hope that people born with problems in brain map-processing areas—people with learning problems, psychological problems, strokes, or brain injuries—might be able to form new maps if he could help them form new neuronal connections, by getting their healthy neurons to fire together and wire together.”

Merzenich has used this understanding to develop therapies to help everything from Alzheimer’s to schizophrenia. All of these therapies are based on appreciating that the brain is like a muscle that has to be exercised to stay fit and healthy. In an article for the San Franisco Magazine, Gordy Slack described why Merzenich’s mental workouts therapies are so successful:

“One way his mental workout accomplishes this, Merzenich says, is by helping neurons develop the right links in the brain. There are a hundred billion of these neurological building blocks in your head, and their electrochemical business pretty much runs everything in your body and your brain. Neurons that fire at the same time form relationships, he explains, and under certain con­ditions, those relationships become long-lasting. In other words, neurons that fire together wire together.”

The idea of keeping the brain sharp is something we have also devoted considerable time to on this blog, and was central to the suggestions we made in our series of posts about EPPP study skills.

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