Part two of the documentary titled The Brain with David Eagleman discussed the idea of identity: how the intrinsic factor which makes people who they are can develop from a three-pound organ. The documentary opened by discussing how humans enter the world as defenseless beings entirely dependent on outside support. This is starkly contrasted to the ability of other animals immediately post birth. I learned that this allows the postnatal experiences of the child to shape their development. In the absence of these experiences, as shown in the documentary’s example of the Romanian orphanage, neuronal development is hindered. I find it interesting to consider that children and adults both have the same number of neurons, just different patterns of connections between neurons. These connections can be made and modified by experience. This relates to the video we discussed in class last week regarding how the neurological development of children who live in poverty is impacted by their environment.
In the documentary, Dr. Eagleman conducted an experiment to judge how differently adults and teenagers respond to social attention. The experiment was conducted by having the participant stand in a window display in full view of anyone passing by. He observed that with adults, stress levels were constant throughout the experience. However, with teenagers, stress levels were much higher when they were being viewed by other people. This phenomenon is due to the differences between the teenage brain and the adult brain. From increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex to a still developing frontal cortex, the teenage brain is markedly different to that of an adult. Since the brain structures are so different, I wonder if there is any difference in how a teenager learns new information compared to an adult. Are different brain structures involved?
The human brain doesn’t stop changing after it transitions into adulthood. The adult brain is still plastic. For example, the research on people training to become cab drivers found that learning new things can cause structural changes in the adult brain. Additionally, I found the study examining aging and brain health to be quite interesting. Dr. Eagleman explained how almost a 3rd of the brains examined post autopsy showed the neuronal changes associated with Alzheimer’s Disease. However, before they died, the individuals showed none of the behavioral changes associated with the disease. Dr. Eagleman suggests that it is the lifestyle the individuals lead which is responsible for this discrepancy. Individuals with greater cognitive reserve showed the pathology of the disease, without the symptoms. It is amazing to consider how experiences and activities shape the mind. I would like to know if there are programs geared towards improving cognitive reserve, and if so, how successful are they?