Think Faster, Focus Better and Remember More: Dr. Michael Merzenich (Transcript)

Dr. Michael Merzenich

Following is the full transcript of neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich’s presentation talk titled: Think Faster, Focus Better and Remember MoreRewiring Our Brain to Stay Younger and Smarter at Google Tech Talks. This event occurred on June 16, 2008. Dr. Michael Merzenich is the founder of Posit Science and creator of the Brain Fitness Program software.


Introducing Speaker: We have a wonderful guest here, Dr. Mike Merzenich and he was someone I was inspired by – just by picking up a book and reading about the research that he was doing. But, it’s about all of us possibly attaining our potential. And then speaking with him, I realized how much passion he had for all of this. So I just wanted to introduce you to Dr. Mike Merzenich of Posit Science and Scientific Learning and his team that’s up here. And we have a mic in the middle for questions right after and we’re recording this for posterity so other people can be inspired. So if you could speak into the mic, that’s the only way you can actually log the questions.

So without further ado, Dr. Mike Merzenich.

MIKE MERZENICH: Thank you Peter. It’s a great pleasure to be here.

I want to say at the outset that I’m going to talk about very complicated science in a relatively simple way. And that’s the science of brain plasticity. And if you actually look across the sweep of neural science now, probably about a third of scientific reports relate in some way or other to the fact that the brain is continually changing itself as you acquire ability and in the creation of every disability, and that’s basically what my subject is. So the subject is massive from a scientific point of view. So it’s necessarily going to be treated with superficially here.

I want to say that you can think of this as sort an introduction to basically thinking about how this applies to you and your brain, and how you think about the brain and the world, and society and how it’s organized, maybe how you’re organized a little bit here at Google. I also want to say at the outset that the research I’m going to talk about more directly which relates to the application or uses of this science, we try to drive changes or corrections or improvements in the functional operations of brains of actual people, has been contributed to by hundreds of people. Some of those people are at Scientific Learning Corporation which is a public company in Oakland, California, right across from city hall. And some of the –some of that –some of those contributors are Posit Science Corporation which is in downtown San Francisco, most of those companies that I helped found with the notion of trying to bring this science with approval of the University of California out into the world for the benefit of people that need help.

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But also, both Scientific Learning and Posit Science have collaborators. Scientific collaborators across the world both rely on scientific consultants, sort of the best experts in this field, and they’ve contributed immensely. And also there are clinics, you know, many, many schools in which these things are applied, many, many clinics, many, many, places where too it’s applied. And they’re also in a sense participants in a sense in this lecture.

So I’m going to talk about brain plasticity across the lifetime. The brain is a machine that continually changes itself as you acquire ability and as you lose it. The brain is changing, it’s plastic, it’s not like a computer, it’s actually changing the details of its connectivity across the lifetime. I’m going to talk about using brain plasticity science in attempts to improve individuals’ brain power. And these are some — I’m going to focus initially on people that really obviously need help, children that are struggling to learn or adults that are struggling to keep with it as they age and so forth.

And I’m also going to talk about the normal individual. All of us are subject to positive change at any point in our life. I’m going to talk about the special problems that relate to maintaining brain fitness once you have acquired it and then try to say a little bit at the end about why this science might matter for you.

Brain Plasticity

So the brain is a plastic organ. If you think about it, the last time you might have been around one of these – this happens to be my grandson, Gus. He’s a cute little devil, as you can see. And when he popped out into the world of bright lights and clear sound, he was born more or less stupid. So, you think about babies and what they can do, they’re much more impressive for what they can’t do, right? They have very poor perceptual abilities. They have nothing that you could call cognition, there’s not really any thinking going on in there, believe me. There’s no ability to control movement, they poop, they suck, that’s pretty much it. It’s going to be many weeks before — before the brain is organizing its control activities enough so the baby can roll over, for god’s sake, much less reach out and grab something that they desperately want.

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And there’s not really much indication, there can’t be much indication that there’s actually a person there. After all the person that will be there is formed, is created by the plastic processes of this machine within its lifetime. It doesn’t come into the world as a hand-off; it actually comes in the world with all kinds of possibility. And that person is going to be created by its interactions with the world.

And here we see a boy, a few years forward in life and you can see that he’s bouncing a soccer ball on his head while he’s running and probably shouting at his teammates. We see a boy of this age, not too many years later, this boy has very acute sophisticated perceptual abilities. This boy is able to control operations and thought. He has his elaborate cognitive abilities but they’re still in a period of very rapid development. Many years going forward, he will become more and more complex in his mental operations and his ability to control movement.

You see — he’s controlling an incredibly complicated movement, in this case, in fact multiple movements simultaneously. There’s no question at this age that there’s a person there, a unique individual. We know if we talk to him and got into things with him, we would see that he was unique pretty much in the world. You would not have seen anyone like him, no one that has his — quite his array of abilities, his knowledge, his operations in the world. Every one of us is unique, everyone is special, everybody has an individualized repertoire of capabilities and all of that comes through brain change. All of that comes through the specialization of the machinery of our brain. Our brain literally changes itself in ways that — specialize itself that account for this incredible differentiation, person by person.

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You might notice that he’s bouncing a soccer ball in his head and you could probably guess, just by knowing that fact, where he’s from. So he’s actually from Sao Paulo, you guessed right, and in Sao Paulo, about 40% of boys of his age have this ability. You could go out into Sunnyvale or Redwood City or some place around here and you’d have trouble finding a boy that can do this, run and bounce a ball on their head. And if you found one, they’re probably from Sao Paulo. And that’s all another way of saying that we are very much shaped in our special abilities by the culture into which we just happen to have been born.

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