Without it you couldn’t keep breathing, let alone reading this column. Yet how often do you think about your own brain–how it works, what it needs, and how it could work better? Your brain is both the most important and least understood organ in your whole body. But in these fascinating TED Talks, neuroscientists and psychologists shed some light on how our brains work–and what we can do to make them work better:
1. Understanding only matters if you take action.
Why do we have a brain in the first place? Its purpose is to control our movements, argues Daniel Wolpert in this thought-provoking talk. If our understanding of the world around us didn’t cause us to do things differently than we would otherwise, there’d be little point in having it, he notes. And it turns out it’s our movements, not our understanding that’s most difficult for machines to reproduce. IBM’s Deep Blue can beat most or all of the world’s human chess players. But a five-year-old can pick up and move a chess piece better than the most sophisticated robot.
2. Our biases help us as well as hurt us.
We tend to assume prejudice is always bad, but it isn’t, as Paul Bloom explains in his talk. Our assumptions about other people help us quickly discern, for instance, whether the person hurrying toward us in a hotel lobby is a thief coming to rob us or a bellman coming to help with our luggage. And such generally good things as patriotism, school spirit, or supporting your hometown sports team all stem from the same biased idea that our own group is better than any other. This tendency to divide the world into those like us and those not like us goes all the way back to infancy, studies show.
Of course, when biases turn into racism, unfair hiring practices, or worse, it’s time to do something about them. Bloom explains how both reason and emotion can help break prejudices down.
3. You must never stop training your brain.
Because it will never lose its capacity for learning, explains Michael Merzenich in his compelling talk. Your brain keeps its plasticity as long as you’re alive, so make constant learning and “mental aerobics” part of your regular routine.
4. Listen to your right brain as well as your left.
Contrary to popular belief, language, creativity, and music involve both halves of the brain, not just one. But while the left half allows us to focus and complete tasks, the right half scans the horizon and seeks for connection with other living beings. That difference became clear to neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor when a stroke caused her left brain to blink on and off, leaving her to live full moments in the joy and connectedness of the right brain. Her talk is one of TED’s most popular ever and deservedly so.
And in a Best of the Web animation, Iain McGilchrist makes a powerful case that left-brain activities are over-valued in our society and that we should learn to value right-brain ones more. The world might be a better place if we did.
5. Someday soon, others will be able to see what you’re thinking.
Brain scientists can already create fuzzy but generally accurate videos of what people are watching or imagining based on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. Now all medical science needs to do is to improve the resolution and remove that fuzziness, explains Mary Lou Jepsen in her talk. And, she says, expect that to happen within the next 15 years or perhaps a lot less.