Book Review: The Remarkable Adaptability of the Human Brain
In “Livewired,” neuroscientist David Eagleman shows how the brain shapes itself by interacting with the outside world
BY ELIZABETH SVOBODA
Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman is obsessed with probing the outer limits of this kind of neural transformation — and harnessing it to useful ends. We’ve all heard that our brains are more plastic than we think, that they can adapt ingeniously to changed conditions, but in “Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain,” Eagleman tackles this topic with fresh élan and rigor. He shows not just how we can direct our own neural remodeling on a cellular level, but how such remodeling — a process he calls “livewiring” — alters the core of who we are.
In a refreshing counterpoint to the biology-is-destiny drumbeat, Eagleman embarks on a lively tour of how we can transform our brains by exercising our own agency. The neurons we exercise thrive and make new connections, he says, while the unused ones wither away. It’s essentially Darwin’s survival of the fittest playing out inside the human skull. “Just like neighboring nations, neurons stake out their territories and chronically defend them,” Eagleman writes. “Each neuron and each connection between neurons fights for resources.”
Importantly, Eagleman also addresses the limits of neural remodeling — a discussion that lends surprising insight into our polarized political landscape. We experience a pronounced drop in brain plasticity as we age, which is one reason some older people seem mired in world views that may not align with today’s global realities. “Through years of border disputes, neural maps become increasingly solidified,” Eagleman writes, later adding, “Someday, your brain will be that time-ossified snapshot that frustrates the next generation.”