Neuroplasticity Allows Our Neurons to Be CivilizedDid you know that our DNA only differs from chimpanzees by two percent? That’s right. We share 98 percent of our DNA with our furry cousins that swing from trees. So, what is it exactly that makes us human and keeps them being primates?

As part of the human genome project, scientists have identified which genes set us apart. Turns out that one of them is the regulatory gene that determines how many neurons humans make and when the neuron producing process stops.

The Total Number of Neurons Matters

Human neurons are fundamentally identical to those of chimpanzees and even those of marine snails. The big difference is in the total number of neurons each organism ends up making. Humans produce about 100 billion neurons. Stopping earlier, chimpanzees have brains about one-third the number.

Each neuron makes thousands of connections. This leads to the possibility of a staggering amount of neural circuits in the human brain. The most recent studies put the number around 86 billion neurons.  This huge number of connections allows the human brain to be so complex and capable of performing an impressively vast array of mental functions and behaviors.

The astronomical number of connections also explains how the brain is capable of massive change through neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to physically change form and function based on experiences, behaviors, and thoughts. Before the discovery and acceptance of neuroplasticity, it was widely believed that the only way for the brain to change was through the slow process of evolution. Now, we know that your brain changes from birth until death.

Neuroplasticity Allows the Human Brain to Evolve 

Plasticity confirms a way for the brain to change and evolve other than genetic mutation. For example, when a person learns to read, the biological structure of their brain is altered. Reading is taught to the next generation and, subsequently, impacts their brains and so on.

However, the process of learning to read not only modifies the brain circuits in one area of the brain but also many areas connected to the ones employed to read. Because of this, plastic change tends to “flow” through the brain. When areas of the brain are linked together in a new way by a new activity, the brain modules involved are altered by the interaction. Synergistically, a new brain with greater capabilities is formed.

Plasticity Yields a Civilized Brain

This neuroplastic process may explain how our hunter-gatherer brain and more cognitive-cerebral brain work together to make us “civilized.” Becoming civilized is fundamentally a process of learning to restrain or channel brute predatory and dominance instincts into acceptable expressions such as contact sports, board and computer games, art, and literature.

The basic instincts still exist — as demonstrated by a fan yelling “Kill him!” at a football game. Yet, when the instinct to stalk prey is linked to activity with rules and acceptable behaviors, the neuronal networks are also linked and alter and temper each other.  Accepted culture is a series of processes where the hunter-gatherer’s brain teaches itself to rewire itself. Our plastic brains can always allow functions that have come together to separate. Because of this, regression is always possible and civilization is always only one generation deep.

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  1. Hi Debbie,
    Oooh goodie, another post with neuroplasticity roots. I'm loving this!

    I think what scares me most about neuroplasticty is thinking about the nature of social media and the internet (two-second bites of everything!). I wonder how this is changing our brain's structure and our ability to maintain attention on one thing for a long time (e.g., writing a book, crafting a painting, or enjoy dinner with family).

    Sorry, I'm a little off topic, but I was just thinking about this as I was reading.

    Profound it is, indeed, to realize that civilization is always one generation deep. I find that to be remarkable.

    Again, great post, Debbie! Sorry I drifted a bit in my comment.

  2. Debbie Hampton Reply

    Lori, for some reason it says one comment, but when I go to view it…nothing. Oh well,I can view it in my email.

    You make a very good point. Did you know there is actually marketing geared at taking advantage of neuroplasticity. It is called "neuromarketing" and is really gaining some use. Scary. There are also expensive toys and games now which utilize neurofeedback. Very irresponsible. Through, plasticity, these are actually changing the brainwaves of users without any regard as to whether it is a desired change or not. You better believe that our use of technology is having a plastic effect on the brain. Some good, but mostly not so good.

    All this is for anther blog. I have been filing away the research on it. Certainly does have some huge implications for us as a society.

  3. Dr. Mark Langer Reply

    I always look for blogs with a positive theme and this post definitely fits the bill. While it isn't really talked about (or I haven't come across it), There's a form of neuroplasticity I refer to as making decisions. One looks for and often finds evidence to support one's decisions. That includes deciding to persevere and make a positive life for yourself. Thankfully at least a part of you was "programmed" as a survivor, the depth of which you found out when placed in extraordinary circumstances. That we can mold ourselves and our world view to fit in with such evidence is a form of plasticity that is rarely, if ever, talked about. Thankfully you found and have strength and the plasticity to mold an engaging and productive life.

    May we all find the plasticity necessary to effect and allow positive change in our lives and go beyond merely surviving to thriving.

  4. Debbie Hampton Reply

    Mark…thanks for the thought. I like the idea of the act of making decisions being one of neuroplasticity. I agree whole heartedly. That is what I have experienced in my own life. By changing my decision making and perspective and thought processes, it permanently changed my brain over time to become the default and, in turn, changed my life for the better.

    This is the super powers we all possess. Amazingly powerful yet simple stuff which indeed allows anyone to thrive instead of just survive!

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