Ben Singleton

Ben Singleton.

We are more complex than we realize. Or at least neuroscientist David Eagleman thinks so.

In “Livewired: The Inside Story of Our Everchanging Brain,” Eagleman hammers home one overarching message: “Our machinery isn’t preprogrammed, but instead shapes itself by interacting with the world.”

We humans, unlike most other mammals, are extremely helpless the first few years of our lives. When a foal is born, it doesn’t require a whole lot more development to become a horse. The young equines are able to walk around right after birth. On the flip side, we’re totally helpless at the beginning stages and need constant care and attention. But what sets us apart is the versatile hardware we’re born with. The human brain “molds itself to its surroundings. It soaks up everything from local languages to broader culture to global politics. It carries forward the beliefs and biases of those who raised it.”

Eagleman presents many examples of how the brain needs constant input in order to function. He takes the case of Matthew, a child who had half of his brain removed — an entire hemisphere — to treat a rare and debilitating disease that gave him constant seizures. One would think that a person with half a brain would barely be able to perform some of the most rudimentary tasks, but Matthew grew up to be a mostly functional adult with normal cognitive abilities. With a healthy upbringing, his brain was able to rewire itself and compensate for missing parts, shaping itself to fit his world.

On the flip side are the instances of “feral children.” These abused and neglected people grew up in social isolation deprived of the mental nourishment needed to lead independent lives. Because they lacked stimuli during the crucial childhood years, their brains adapted in a negative way to their surroundings, despite the later interventions of doctors and other medical professionals.

Eagleman’s short book expands on the idea of the adaptability of our brains and how our gray matter helps and sometimes tricks us. He covers such topics as the heightened hearing senses of some people who are blind, the feeling of “phantom limbs,” and some ideas of the nature of the self and memory. There are surely parts of oneself that one would learn by reading “Livewired.”

But that shouldn’t scare anyone away. After all, as Eagleman writes, “the thrill of life is not about who we are, but who we are in the process of becoming.”

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