“Brains are as unique as snowflakes. As your trillions of new connections continually form and re-form, the distinctive pattern means that no one like you has ever existed, or will ever exist again.” – David Eagleman, The Brain: The Story of You
Humans arrive in the world unlike other animals do. In the animal kingdom, an offspring arrives more or less neurologically equipped to become the full version of who it will be; we could say that it already has within it, the totality of it’s destiny. It has a mostly complete roadmap for its ultimate development.
We, on the other hand, are born with something similar to the borders of a blank canvas: we have some biological outline and preparedness for how to develop, but the difference is that much of our development relies on experiential input. Infants have just as many brain cells as adults; but at birth, a baby’s neurons (brain cells) are unconnected, and begin to make an incomprehensible array of connections within the first two years of life. And these connections are formed based on their experiences.
“As many as two million new connections, or synapses, are formed every second in an infant’s brain.”
Who we are is a collection of our thoughts, actions and behaviours; and these are both a product of, and reflected by, activity within the brain.Tweet
And this activity is predicated on the brain’s neural networks, or synapses, or connections, which mirror the experiences we have accrued throughout our entire lives. Cultural, familial, social, academic, socioeconomic experiences—these all translate into real pathways within the brain, which culminate into what makes you, you. So perhaps the easiest way to define ourselves—at least neurologically—is to say that we are the sum of our experiences.
“Instead of arriving with everything “hardwired”—a human brain allows itself to be shaped by the details of life experience. We are exquisitely sensitive to our surroundings. Because of the wire-on-the-fly strategy of the human brain, who we are depends heavily on where we’ve been.”
But it doesn’t end there. This enter-revise-delete strategy of the brain continues throughout our entire lives, to accommodate experiences that we have every moment of every day. We are constant shapeshifters; our selfhood is sculpted and eroded in infinitesimal ways every second—it’s not until years pass that we often notice a tangible change.
Of course, some experiences are so riveting that they change who we are forever. In fact, the more emotionally poignant an experience is, the more likely it is to leave an imprint on our brain—and by now we know, if it leaves an imprint on our brain, it leaves an imprint on us.
This is what neuroscientists term plasticity: the ability of the brain to change, throughout the lifespan. We often say certain habits like meditation “change the brain”—but as Sam Harris so aptly said, “everything changes the brain.” It’s more so a matter of how it’s changing it.