The adrenals are responsible for sending the message that slows down a racing heart. So if a patient stops taking a steroid drug all at once rather than tapering off, the body may be left with no brakes. The adrenal gland hasn’t had time to regrow. In that event, somebody could sneak up behind you, yell “Boo!” and send your heart racing out of control. The result? A heart attack. With such possibilities, suddenly feedback loops start to become fascinating. To make them mesmerizing, there are extraordinary ways to use the brain’s feedback. Any ordinary person hooked up to a biofeedback machine can quickly learn to control bodily mechanisms that usually run on automatic. You can lower your blood pressure, for example, or change your heart rate. You can induce the alpha- wave state associated with meditation and artistic creativity. Not that a biofeedback machine is necessary.
Let’s take this concept to the place where life can be miserable or happy. Consider stroke victims. Medical science has made huge advances in patient survival after even massive strokes, some of which can be attributed to better medications and to the upsurge of trauma units, since strokes are ideally dealt with as soon as possible. Quick treatment is saving countless lives, compared to the past. But survival isn’t the same as recovery. No drugs show comparable success in allowing victims to recover from paralysis, the most common effect of a stroke. As with the discouraged children, with stroke patients everything seems to depend on feedback. In the past they mostly sat in a chair with medical attention, and their course of least resistance was to use the side of the body that was unaffected by their stroke. Now rehabilitation actively takes the course of most resistance. If a patient’s left hand is paralyzed, for example, the therapist will have her use only that hand to pick up a coffee cup or comb her hair. At first these tasks are physically impossible. Even barely raising a paralyzed hand causes pain and frustration. But if the patient repeats the intention to use the bad hand, over and over, new feedback loops develop. The brain adapts, and slowly there is new function. We now see remarkable recoveries in patients who walk, talk, and use their limbs normally with intensive rehab. Even twenty years ago these functions would have languished or shown only minor improvements. And all we have done so far is to explore the implications of two words.
The Super Brain Credo bridges two worlds, biology and experience. Biology is great at explaining physical processes, but it is totally inadequate at telling us about the meaning and purpose of our subjective experience. What does it feel like to be a discouraged child or a paralyzed stroke victim? The story begins with that question, and biology follows second. We need both worlds to understand ourselves. Otherwise, we fall into the biological fallacy, which holds that humans are controlled by their brains. Leaving aside countless arguments between various theories of mind and brain, the goal is clear: We want to use our brains, not have them use us. We’ll expand on these ten principles as the book unfolds. Major breakthroughs in neuroscience are all pointing in the same direction. The human brain can do far more than anyone ever thought. Contrary to outworn beliefs, its limitations are imposed by us, not by its physical shortcomings. For example, when we were getting our medical and scientific training, the nature of memory was a complete mystery. Another saying circulated back then: “We know as much about memory as if the brain were filled with sawdust.” Fortunately, brain scans were on the horizon, and today researchers can watch in real time as areas of the brain “light up,” to display the firing of neurons, as subjects remember certain things. The Astrodome’s roof is now made of glass, you could say. But memory remains elusive. It leaves no physical traces in brain cells, and no one really knows how our memories are stored. But that’s no reason to place any limitations on what our brains can remember.
A young Indian math prodigy gave a demonstration in which she was asked to multiply two numbers, each thirty- two digits long, in her head. She produced the answer, which was sixty- four or - five digits long, within seconds of her hearing the two numbers. On average, most people can remember only six or seven digits at a glance. So what should be our norm for memory, the average person or the exceptional one? Instead of saying that the math prodigy has better genes or a special gift, ask another question: Did you train your brain to have a super memory? There are training courses for that skill, and average people who take them can perform feats like reciting the King James Bible from memory, using no more than the genes and gifts they were born with. Everything hinges on how you relate to your brain. By setting higher expectations, you enter a phase of higher functioning.
One of the unique things about the human brain is that it can do only what it thinks it can do. The minute you say, “My memory isn’t what it used to be” or “I can’t remember a thing today,” you are actually training your brain to live up to your diminished expectations. Low expectations mean low results. The first rule of super rain is that your brain is always eavesdropping on your thoughts. As it listens, it learns. If you teach it about limitation, your brain will become limited. But what if you do the opposite? What if you teach your brain to be unlimited? Think of your brain as being like a Steinway grand piano. All the keys are in place, ready to work at the touch of a finger. Whether a beginner sits down at the keyboard or a world- renowned virtuoso like Vladimir Horowitz or Arthur Rubinstein, the instrument is physically the same. But the music that comes out will be vastly different. The beginner uses less than 1 percent of the piano’s potential; the virtuoso is pushing the limits of the instrument. If the music world had no virtuosos, no one would ever guess at the amazing things a Steinway grand can do.
Fortunately, research on brain performance is providing us with stunning examples of untapped potential brilliantly coming to life. Only now are these amazing individuals being studied with brain scans, which makes their abilities more astonishing and at the same time more mysterious. Let’s consider Magnus Carlsen, the Norwegian chess prodigy. He earned the highest ranking in chess, grand master, at the age of thirteen, the third youngest in history. Around that time, in a speed game, he forced Gary Kasparov, the former world chess champion, to a draw. “I was nervous and intimidated,” Carlsen recalls, “or I would have beat him.” To play chess at this level, a grand master must be able to refer, instantly and automatically, to thousands of games stored in his memory. We know the brain is not filled with sawdust, but how a person is able to recall such a vast storehouse of individual moves -amounting to many million possibilities - is totally mysterious. In a televised demonstration of his abilities, young Carlsen, who is now twenty- one, played ten opponents simultaneously in speed chess - with his back turned to the boards. In other words, he had to keep in mind ten separate chess boards, with their thirty- two pieces, while the clock permitted only seconds for each move. Carlsen’s performance defines the limit of memory, or a small slice of it. If it is diffi cult for a normal person to imagine having such a memory, the fact is that Carlsen isn’t straining his brain. What he does, he says, feels completely natural. We believe that every remarkable mental feat is a signpost showing the way.
You won’t know what your brain can do until you test its limits and push beyond them. No matter how inefficiently you are using your brain, one thing is certain: it is the gateway to your future. Your success in life depends on your brain, for the simple reason that all experience comes to us through our brains.We want Super Brain to be as practical as possible, because it can solve problems that are far more difficult, or even impossible, for the baseline brain. Each chapter will end with its own Super Brain Solutions section, with a host of innovative suggestions for overcoming many of life’s most common challenges.