Watched a Jazz Messengers gig from Paris in ‘59 and Lee Morgan, all of 21 years old, was unbelievable. Astonishing creativity. The chances he took and never flubbed in those solos, leaping over precipices, seeing around corners, weaving a short story’s worth of narrative into every solo…. damn. When you’re that young all this stuff is new and you’re seeing these things for the first time; your brain is a huge mass of neurons you’re exploring for the first time, and the neural pathways you follow can become established routes you’ll follow again and again. You could hear those in his playing, the licks and ideas that would come up over and over again during his career. And you’d hear things he might have explored just that once and never gone back to. As you get older and older you do that less and less, the brain hardwires into distinct paths that you perfect and improve and the other synapses wither and disappear and ideas you had at 21 will never be there again. Possibilities disappear. Eventually you don’t even see those pathways anymore. You read stuff you wrote forty years ago and have no idea of all the possibilities that were before you then but you weren’t yet good enough to write them down. A twenty something brain is a marvelous thing, a mass of neuronal potential just waiting to be shaped, trillions upon trillions upon trillions of possible thoughts, and we will never have that range of cognitive possibilities before us again.
The plasticity of the brain defies belief…a woman born without a Cerebellum and not diagnosed till age 24. Which means that even though the genes that would normally be involved in cerebellum development were missing (actually they were there, they were just unable to perform this set of tasks), other genes were able to use other parts of the brain to perform the cerebellum’s tasks. The brain is able to function the way a drummer lays down a complex web of polyrhythms. That is, a drummer has two feet and two hands, but is able to create varying patterns by combining elements of the same hands and foot pedals striking in different but simultaneous patterns. And the brain can use the same neurons in varying patterns by making varying combinations of neurons…a neuron firing can fire off other neurons simultaneously so one neuron can be part of various chains of neurons performing various functions. It’s insanely complex.
I suspect this woman needs more fuel to keep at her peak alertness since a smaller brain means that neurons are firing more often and burning through the cells stores of potassium and manganese (which are what neurons use to spark) than a healthy brain. My wife has recovered remarkably from being without a heartbeat for four minutes, but her thinking fades if she fails to eat properly throughout the day. That’s because she lost a few million neurons when oxygen stopped being delivered to the brain, and since then her brain has recovered most of its former capabilities through plasticity–other neurons taking over. But those neurons are now being used more, which means they are firing more, which means they run low on the fuel–potassium and manganese, mostly–faster than they did prior to her heart stoppage.
A ten year old told me about this story. Brains are so cool, she said.