The brain is an amazing and mysterious organ. Science uncovers new information about the brain constantly. Diseases, disorders and injuries often serve to teach us more about the brain. In the case of lost senses, science has made some startling discoveries about how this impacts the brain.
The Brain is Constantly Changing
It is well documented in modern research that the brain is not a static organ. Although adult brains no longer show significant growth or changes in size or mass, new cell tissue isn’t that important to the brain. The brain increases, maintains or changes its ability based on the connections between the neurons or cells of the brain. These neurons can grow and adapt, making more, less or different connections depending on how much and how often they are stimulated. The general term for this is neuroplasticity.
Stimulation is the brain’s exercise. Every time the brain is forced to do something, whether it is processing a sensation, performing a new math problem, listening to music or trying to learn a new concept, it is being stimulated in various ways. The more certain neural connections are stimulated the stronger and more complex they become. If the stimulation decreases or stops, then those neural connections shrink or disappear entirely. This is one reason extremely successful musicians, athletes and other professionals practice so much and so consistently. They are building the neural connections responsible for their incredible skills to levels far above average.
What Neuroplasticity Means for Sense Loss
It is well documented that most people who lose a sense or were born without it, strengthen their other senses. This was long thought to occur out of simple necessity. A person born without sight, for example, must learn to hear and feel things more acutely in order to function in their environment.
Understanding neuroplasticity adds a deeper level to this phenomenon. If a person no longer has a specific sense, then the brain will stop processing nearly all stimulation related to that sense. The neurons responsible for that sense will eventually shrink and mostly disappear. At the same time, the neurons responsible for the other senses will become increasingly stimulated. They will grow and expand to abnormally complex levels.
This means that heightened hearing of a blind person or the unusually sharp eyesight of deaf person isn’t just because they practice using that sense more. It is because their brain’s neurons have rewired to strengthen and sharpen that sense and their ability to process it. It is extremely important for a person who is born without a sense or loses it later in life not to give up. The brain compensates for this loss at an amazing cellular level.