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For London cabdrivers, orchestra musicians, mathematicians // sought after skills // specialized training // and customized, remodeled gray matter.

The Brain at Work

By Anita Slomski // Photographs by Eric Ogden // SUMMER 2010
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london cabbie the brain at work

Eric Ogden for Proto

In 1965, when the American neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita learned the results of his father Pedro’s brain autopsy, an important suspicion was confirmed: The brain stem, damaged by a stroke seven years before, had never regenerated. Considering Pedro’s remarkable recovery—less than a decade after being paralyzed, he was climbing a mountain when he had a fatal heart attack—Paul concluded the brain had rewired itself.

His finding ran counter to the widely held belief that neural architecture in the adult brain is fixed. To further challenge conventional wisdom, Bach-y-Rita began a series of experiments using several bizarre devices. In one experiment, congenitally blind people sat in a chair covered with hundreds of sensors that vibrated in response to electrical signals from a camera recording an image. With practice, the subjects became adept at “seeing” what the camera recorded. The results of the experiments, Bach-y-Rita asserted, demonstrated the brain’s ability to reorganize in response to stimuli.

Now, with the development of imaging techniques that measure the concentration of gray matter, scientists are finding out how highly skilled individuals—mathematicians, musicians and certain cabdrivers—have remodeled their brains through training that may ultimately benefit us all.

“Knowing how the brain changes when a healthy person becomes very good at a motor skill will likely provide insight for rehabilitation treatments,” says John Krakauer, co-director of the Motor Performance Laboratory at Columbia University’s Neurological Institute. Here’s why the mental habits of such accomplished people may be worth understanding.

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