I was born with only half a brain. To make matters worse, my mother smoked a pack-a-day of unfiltered Camel cigarettes and was a bed-ridden alcoholic for virtually all of the first 16 years of my life. So, the damage caused by those unfortunate addictions means that I was actually born with even less than half a brain. Before each of you begins expressing astonishment, incredulity and amazement – “Wow, how did he ever manage to make it through high school, let alone earn a graduate degree?” – let me clarify things a bit.
The Plastic Brain
First of all, I owe it all to my remarkable, flexible, plastic, regenerative half a brain. Here’s an interesting excerpt, which I may have mentioned before, from Marian Diamond’s extraordinary book, Magic Trees of the Mind (co-written with noted Science News editor, Janet Hopson):
“By the best estimates, natural cell death can eliminate 50 percent of the neurons in the cerebral cortex before the baby is born, and up to 40 percent of the synaptic connections between nerve cells by the age of twenty-one months. Think of it: your neural heyday came and went before you had your first serious thought!” (pg. 47).
Think of it, indeed. So, not only was I born with only half a brain, but so were you. And so were all your children. (I found this statement so astonishing that I contacted Dr. Diamond directly to confirm this actual neural research, which she graciously did for me. The process of programmed cell death is happening all the time in our bodies and our brains. It’s called apoptosis and is one of the reasons we’re not all born with the webbed hands and feet that we use to wade around in the womb – apoptosis programs all those webbing cells for very early retirement.
I have since investigated infant apoptosis further and it turns out that in about-to-be-born babies, the 50% brain cell reduction takes place primarily between the eighth and ninth month of pregnancy. That reduction manages to take the baby’s head size down to only 101.8 percent of the size of the mother’s birth canal. If this cell death didn’t happen, we’d be an extinct species. (Or else we’d have a world full of mothers whom no one in their right half-mind would ever consider messing with).
Losing Half Your Marbles
But think about it. Imagine today, as you’re reading this column, you have all your brain cells present and accounted for and firing and fully up to any task. But a mere 30 days from today, you have only half that number operating in your cerebral cortex. What might that experience be like? I’m guessing it’s something most of us would notice. Or at least our friends and family would. Not to mention, our own bodies. I’m also guessing that it’s something a baby notices as well. Or, at a minimum, something a baby remembers somatically – it remembers what it was like living in utero with twice as many neural resources available.
Of course, neurologists claim that this programmed pruning – apoptosis – mostly functions to improve neural functioning – getting rid of poorly formed cells, unused cells, old cells, poorly connected cells or cells that are simply surplus and not needed for the neural function they and their comrades were designed to perform. That seems reasonable – but 50 percent of the brain! At no other time in our lives will such a radical massive pruning take place (although some lesser bit of programmed pruning as been documented to happen several more times up through our early 20s).
Apprehending the Divine
Nevertheless, I like to think that with double the neural resources available, babies in utero are somatically able to apprehend the Divine. It’s undocumented, pure conjecture, but what I notice that is often alive and well in me is a recurring desire to reconnect with such an experience. Psychosynthesis writer, Frank Haronian described it as “the repression of the sublime.” To be in touch with life sublime, it looks like we have to deliberately do intentionally, what brain neurons do naturally – we have to heartfully connect with other like entities. People.
Acting Like My Brain
As a reclusive misanthrope, i.e. people-fearer, for much of my life, I find the above statement somewhat astonishing to be making at this juncture. I was fully planning on happily retiring to an isolated cabin in some beautiful, California redwood forest to a life of contemplative leisure. (Whidbey Island, it turns out is a lovely compromise). But something has changed in my brain. And Dan Siegel, in The Mindful Brain, details exactly what that change is. Through many years of contemplative and other kinds of integrative practices, I’ve apparently managed to grow new neurons and connections (synaptogenesis) and reclaim lost neural real estate in my prefrontal cortex. This central area connects to many of the limbic regions in my brain. Growing these connections has become the newfound blessing that allows me to begin to regulate my anxiety around people. People are now rarely draining or scary to me!
Not too shabby for someone operating in the world with only half a brain!
Mark Brady, Ph.D. is a father and a parent educator. Many years ago, together with friends, he co-founded the Children’s Grief Program at Kara, a public service agency in Palo Alto, California, where he volunteered until very recently. He is the prize-winning author of a number of books. Two of his most recent books are entitled A Little Book of Parenting Skills and A Father’s Book of Listening. Those and others can be ordered from bookstores, or on the Internet or directly by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org. His most current book- Safe and Secure: 12 Findings from Neuroscience That Can Help You Raise Happy Healthy Children will be available in 2009.