We are witnessing huge advances in the world of science and technology. Progress has been especially dramatic in the areas of electronics and applied genetics.
For example, the latest iPhone, which fits easily into your shirt pocket, has a capacity far beyond what was available in a desktop computer when this century began. Meanwhile, scientists have unraveled the genetic code for most DNA sequences.
Without question, these are grand accomplishments. But equally important is our improved understanding of how the human brain functions. Shrouded in mystery for thousands of years, the formerly hidden workings of the brain are now being revealed in many different ways.
Just visit a large bookstore or go online in search of new books on the brain. You won’t find just 20 new titles for sale; there will be more than a hundred. This explosion of publications about the brain has been made possible in large part because scientists can now see movie-like images of a human brain—while it is functioning—by means of specialized magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scanners. (a fascinating, navigable, 3D diagram of the brain can be found on Healthline)
For example, in a music lab, researchers might make three different movies of Susan’s brain: one when she is listening to music, one when she is playing a piano, and one when she is composing a new song. Each of these activities uses specific parts of the brain. Listening to music, for example, uses a limited area. Composing music, in contrast, engages a wide portion of the brain.
NEW CONCEPTS ARE SUPERSEDING OLD
Many long-held ideas about the brain and learning are being discarded, as new concepts are replacing traditional beliefs. The concepts behind exercising muscles are now being applied to the brain as well. The parts of the brain that you use develop and strengthen. The parts you neglect atrophy from lack of exercise.
We have also learned that a part of the brain that is not used for its normal application, e.g., for hearing, is reassigned to another activity.
We have always known that some people with severe-to-profound hearing loss can carry on a conversation in a noisy restaurant, while others with the same audiogram cannot. Recent research offers new hope to people having difficulty understanding speech in noise. New findings suggest that many of the things we have believed were impossible may, in fact, be doable.
Many of the “facts” I learned about the brain in neurology class many years ago were wrong. Brain tissue can re-grow. “Dead zones” can repair themselves. Old people can (and should) learn foreign languages. Memory does not necessarily deteriorate with age. And, like muscles, memory improves with use.
When we provide a patient with effective amplification, it sends a stronger electrical signal to the brain. However, the brain needs some time to integrate this signal into meaningful and useful content. New neural pathways need to be established or older pathways need to be reinforced. Therefore, we must stay in touch with our patients and constantly monitor their hearing aid use and the benefit they are receiving.
In fitting hearing aids on a patient, we are opening a door for improved brain function. Let me give you an example of how that works. Suppose I say my name is “Dr. Grump.” If your hearing is weak you will probably reject this sentence—it doesn’t make sense. As a result, the name does not get stored in memory.
But if your hearing is sharp, you will probably question the name, “Did you say, ‘Grump’? That’s a funny name.” And when the name is confirmed, you will effectively store it in memory because it is a novel event.
Like muscles, brain tissue grows, strengthens, and matures—if exercised. So, the take home-lesson here can be summarized in five words: Use it or lose it. This concept holds as true for brain tissue as for biceps.
Brain image from WebMD.