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Livewired

The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain

By David Eagleman
13-minute read
Audio available
Livewired by David Eagleman

Livewired (2020) is an exploration into how the brain is constantly reconfiguring itself. As it learns new information about the world around it, the brain changes shape. We’re always discovering more about its astonishing adaptability.

  • Fans of popular science 
  • Students of biology and human anatomy
  • People keen to expand their own brains

Dr. David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and internationally best-selling author. His books include The Brain and Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. He also created and hosted an Emmy-nominated TV series on the brain, and he runs the neuroscience hardware company NeoSensory

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Livewired

The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain

By David Eagleman
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Livewired by David Eagleman
Synopsis

Livewired (2020) is an exploration into how the brain is constantly reconfiguring itself. As it learns new information about the world around it, the brain changes shape. We’re always discovering more about its astonishing adaptability.

Key idea 1 of 8

Brains can reconfigure themselves however they need to.

Matthew was three years old when he had his first seizure; sadly, they became regular occurrences after that. Over the next three years, Matthew would often have to stay in the hospital for days or weeks at a time.

But his parents eventually learned of an unusual treatment. The problem was isolated in one half of six-year-old Matthew’s brain – so doctors suggested simply cutting out the whole hemisphere.

They did exactly that. And three months later, Matthew was back to normal.

Matthew still has trouble with his right hand and walks with a slight limp. But that’s it – other than that, there’s no way anyone would guess that literally half his brain is missing. And this is because, as it turns out, the human brain is remarkably good at adapting itself in any way necessary. The author calls it livewiring.

The key message here is: Brains can reconfigure themselves however they need to.

A full-sized human brain contains 86 billion neurons and the hundreds of trillions of connections between them. But what’s truly amazing is the way all its parts interact.

We tend to imagine the brain as something fixed, with one region for vision, another for using tools, and so on. The truth is much more interesting: the brain is constantly rewiring itself.

The different regions of the brain are continually adjusting, communicating with one another, and even competing for territory. As a whole, it’s like an immensely intricate, self-weaving tapestry.

Sure, it’s DNA that contains our genetic code – but that’s a relatively small part of who we are. It’s our experiences and interactions that shape our brains, especially when we’re young and our brains are at their most plastic. We really are constantly changing as we learn more about the world.

We change as we learn more about ourselves, too. In the brain’s somatosensory cortex, there’s a small model of you – a neurological map of your entire body known as a homunculus. Each region of the homunculus corresponds to a different body part, like the hands or the eyes.

But we don’t all have the same model. Someone who’s born blind, for instance, won’t need the space normally devoted to vision. So another body part will use that region instead – for example, the ears. That’s why some blind people, like Stevie Wonder or Andrea Bocelli, really do have heightened musical skills. They literally devote more of their brain to it – because they can.

Whatever opportunities the brain has, it rewires itself to use.

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