National Alliance on Mental Illness
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July, 2007

Neuroscience and the Brain

Download audio of this engaging 2007 NAMI Convention presentationBrain graphic

In 2002, the medical journal The Lancet published a report of a three-year-old girl with a life threatening infection in one of the halves of her brain. In order to save the girl's life, surgeons removed the infected half, leaving her with only half of a brain.

Four years later, the little girl was fluent in two languages and, with only a few exceptions, was leading an otherwise normal life.

This is just one of the stories shared by Manfred Spitzer, M.D., one of the speakers at special session on neuroscience and mental illness at the 2007 NAMI Convention in June.

"Our brain is immensely flexible," said Spitzer in his remarks, "and what it really can do better than in any other species on earth is learning"

Spitzer, a professor and chair in the department of psychiatry at University of Ulm, in Ulm, Germany focused his presentation around what the field of neuroscience has uncovered about the brain -- what it is and how it works.

The brain consists of nerve cells, known as neurons, with connections in between called synapses. There are one million billion (1,000,000,000,000,000) of these synapses in our brains, which not only transmit signals among neurons, but also grow and change with use.

It is this process of change within the synapses that makes the brain so adaptable.

"We have one very simple term for that process," said Spitzer. "We call it learning." The more synapses are used, the more useful they become. Which is why a girl can live a normal life with a half a brain.

Learning, however, does not happen instantly.

"Your brain is not geared toward quick learning," Spitzer explained. "Your brain is not a VCR, a hard drive. It doesn't work like that."

"The good news is that your brain is better than that."

Spitzer discussed what science has learned about the role and functioning of the brain across a wide spectrum of practical human experience, including:

  • How human beings acquire grammar at just 7 months old
  • How toddlers learn the simple, yet very complicated, task of walking
  • How unscrambling sentences that involve words related to old age caused people to walk more slowly afterwards
  • Why high anxiety lowers creativity
  • Why human beings are not able to remain constantly happy
  • Why it is best not to try to think too much about important decisions

On the last point, Spitzer explained that the brain is better at figuring out complex decisions than our conscious minds are.

"If you have a complex decision to make, don't think. If you think, you basically hinder its brain doing its work. If you just leave your brain alone, your brain is doing fine."

Listen online:

NAMI is pleased to present the full audio of Dr. Spitzer's engaging presentation online. To play the audio on your computer, simply click the link below. If you wish to download the file for playback on an iPod or other MP3 device, right-click on the link and choose "Save Target As...".

Total running time: 1 hour 24 minutes

Neuroscience Perspectives on Recovery from Mental Illness (MP3 file - 28.7 MB)