||The Brain: A
Work in Progress
Cognitive science is the study of the
brain mechanisms responsible for an individual’s thoughts, moods,
decisions, and actions. Cognition refers to everything that takes
place in an individual’s brain that helps him understand the world
around him. To accomplish such an understanding involves mental
processes such as concentration, memory, conceptualization,
creativity, and emotions.
In his book The New
Brain, Dr. Richard Restak uses the term “plasticity of the new
brain” to refer to the capacity of the brain to transform itself.
This is an incredibly exciting notion, and one that has endless
|Until recently, it was generally believed that the brain’s
plasticity peaked out at young adulthood, if not earlier. But
researchers now believe the brain is subject to transformation
throughout life, which is why Restak appropriately refers to it as a
“lifetime work in progress.”
Now that I’ve become a born-again behavioral modificationist, this
makes perfect sense to me. When I was a Freudian laymanologist, I
assumed that genetics and childhood experiences set everything in
stone. It wasn’t until the headmaster at my son’s school told me
that he had based his entire career on his belief in behavioral
modification that I allowed myself to consider its merits.
That in turn led to my reading Reality Therapy. The essence of that
book, and of my article, is that no matter what happened to you in
your childhood, no amount of rehashing the past can ever change it.
On the other hand, by focusing on being a responsible adult today,
you can change the way you feel about yourself, and about life, in
Thus, whether you want to learn a foreign language, how to play
tennis, or the techniques for writing good ad copy, you first have
to make changes in your brain. And the key to making such changes is
repetition, which I have written about many times in the past.
Repetition makes repeated impressions on your brain, but there’s a
catch: If the repetitions are wrong (e.g., swinging a golf club
incorrectly), you are not going to excel at the skill you have
targeted. From whence comes the worn-out but true observation that
only an insane person would continue to repeat the same thing over
and over again and expect to achieve different results.
Which brings yet another question to the fore: If you continue to
get negative results, should you invoke persistence ... or is it
more sane just to give up and move on to something else? The answer
is that you definitely should be persistent, but, based on what you
have learned through your experiences, you should try a different
Restak’s main point is that regardless of how much of success is due
to genetics and how much is due to practice, the level of success
one achieves is based on the plasticity of the brain. My take on
this can be summed up in what I call the “C” Student/”A” Student
Theory, which simplistically states: In a majority of cases, a
student with “C” intelligence who is willing to put forth the
required effort can achieve “A” results.
I know this from firsthand experience, because I went from a 0.8
average in college to a 4.0 after a stint in the army. My military
experience was so unpleasant that it made an indelible impression on
my brain, which in turn caused me to become highly motivated to get
In other words, my brain’s plasticity made it possible for me to
transform my view of the world. It was a cerebral transformation
that made it possible for me to recognize that there is more to life
than girls, booze, and playing poker. Once I redirected my energy
from such trivial pursuits to studying every waking moment that I
wasn’t in class, I was able to achieve “A’s” in such difficult
subjects as physics and organic chemistry.
(To reinforce the truth in the axiom “Practice makes perfect,” I
suggest you reread — or read, as the case may be — Chapter 3 of To
Be or Not to Be Intimidated? For a non-scientific type like myself
to receive the highest grade in an organic chemistry class of 300
students — which is the focal point of Chapter 3 of my book — is
another one of those endless “If I can do it, anyone can” tales.)
The plasticity of the brain is why you can accomplish great things
without being born with superior intelligence or natural talent. Dr.
Restak maintains that a transformation of the brain can be achieved
by sheer determination.
Fair enough, but begs the question: What if your brain isn’t wired
to be determined? That’s where one’s experiences and environment
come into play.
For example, notwithstanding imbecilic arguments to the contrary,
what you see and hear around you (such as in movies and on
television) has a huge impact on how and what you think about all
day long. When people — and children in particular — see violence,
“alternative lifestyles,” and explicit sex on the screen, or hear it
by listening to rap-crap, the power of suggestion is planted with
So-called intelligence is plastic, because scientific research has
shown that experiences cause neuronal circuits to form and become
more dense. Therefore, no matter what your age, the more you
exercise your brain, the higher the density of the neurons in your
frontal cortex — which makes you more “intelligent.” (“General
intelligence” is believed to be directly related to the amount of
gray matter in the frontal lobes of the brain.)
You and I have heard this repeatedly phrased in laymen’s terms as
“Use it or lose it.” The less I write, the more difficult I find it
to write. The more I write, the more easily the words fly off the
keyboard. Which is why every writer should make the words of Michael
Masterson’s father his/her mantra: “A writer is someone who writes.
Not now and then, but every day.” The substance of this philosophy
is true whatever your profession may be.
The corollary to the “C” Student/”A” Student Theory might well be
stated as: In a majority of cases, a student with “A” intelligence
who is unwilling to put forth a reasonable amount of effort is
likely to achieve “C” results. To me, then, intelligence has more to
do with how close you come to performing at your maximum capacity
than it does with IQ.
Finally, it’s important to recognize that native intelligence is not
nearly as important as such traits as social skills, the ability to
persuade, and the willingness to take action. Our universities are
overflowing with top-heavy frontal-cortex types who would surely be
lost in the real world (i.e., the world beyond the ivy-covered gates
guarding a weird mixture of academic pinheads and illiterate
There’s no question that whoever came up with the term “personal
best” definitely was on to something. It’s not what you have, but
what you do with what you have. No matter how old you are, no matter
what your financial condition may be, and no matter how many bad
experiences you may have had in your past, it’s never too late to
Consciously and continuously make it a point to push your plastic
brain to the limit — and beyond — until the day you breathe your
last breath. The human brain is the most powerful collection of
atoms on earth, but it requires constant exercise.
And what if you’re not motivated to exercise your brain? I’ll say it
again: You have free will! Force yourself to take action. That will
get those atoms in your plastic brain vibrating at ever-higher rates
of speed. And that, in turn, will produce motivation. I guarantee
About The Author
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Ringer is the author of three #1 bestsellers, including two
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motivational books of all time.
Copyright © 2006 by Robert J. Ringer. Reprinted by permission of