Two seasoned science writers enthuse about some new wrinkles in neuroscience, and ways you can benefit from the findings.
The wrinkles are literally those folds of neuron-rich cortex that cover the brain. Back in the 1930s, neurosurgeons charted the primary somatosensory and motor cortices, strips of brain tissue that map points on your body to points on the strip in an orderly way—brain cells receiving signals from your hand lie next to cells receiving signals from your wrist, and so on. The sensory cortex tells you where you have been touched; the motor cortex indicates which body parts you move. Each is part of larger integrated circuits that feed forward and back to create perceptions, actions and emotions, to build memories, etc. The key to these multiple anatomical layouts in the brain is plasticity: The brain maps can change, and you can help the process. One way is practice. Those maps in your finger areas can grow larger as you practice arpeggios or free throws. Evidence suggests that mental practice works too. The Blakeslees, a mother and son team, see potential reversals for stroke paralysis, but they also describe a host of weird body distortions that result from disease or brain injury. “Amputee wannabes,” for example, seek to have body parts removed. Dieters who relapse may be stuck with a mismatch between their new, thin body map and their long-standing, fat body image. Curiously, the authors do not consider the role of hormones and neurochemicals. They are also cavalier in their discussion of pain, surely one of the most complex phenomena, and all too readily assume that belief explains why any and all forms of alternative medicine may work.
Despite some flaws, a text with much to be savored—not least the upbeat message that you can take control.