The adult brain retains impressive powers of "neuroplasticity"--the ability to change its structure and function in response to experience. These aren't minor tweaks either. Something as basic as the function of the visual or auditory cortex can change as a result of a person's experience of becoming deaf or blind at a young age. Even when the brain suffers a trauma late in life, it can rezone itself like a city in a frenzy of urban renewal. If a stroke knocks out, say, the neighborhood of motor cortex that moves the right arm, a new technique called constraint-induced movement therapy can coax next-door regions to take over the function of the damaged area. The brain can be rewired.
The first discoveries of neuroplasticity came from studies of how changes in the messages the brain receives through the senses can alter its structure and function. When no transmissions arrive from the eyes in someone who has been blind from a young age, for instance, the visual cortex can learn to hear or feel or even support verbal memory. When signals from the skin or muscles bombard the motor cortex or the somatosensory cortex (which processes touch), the brain expands the area that is wired to move, say, the fingers. In this sense, the very structure of our brain--the relative size of different regions, the strength of connections between them, even their functions--reflects the lives we have led. Like sand on a beach, the brain bears the footprints of the decisions we have made, the skills we have learned, the actions we have taken.
As scientists probe the limits of neuroplasticity, they are finding that mind sculpting can occur even without input from the outside world. The brain can change as a result of the thoughts we think. This has important implications for health: something as seemingly insubstantial as a thought can affect the very stuff of the brain, altering neuronal connections in a way that can treat mental illness or, perhaps, lead to a greater capacity for empathy and compassion. It may even dial up the supposedly immovable happiness set point.