Richard G. Petty, MD

Our Unique Brains

One of the fundamental tenets of the old self-help movement is that we all have the same brains and so we all have the potential to become a Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein or Michelangelo.

But is this really true?

I’ve talked a lot about the way in which genes in the brain do not so much determine your behavior, but instead predispose you to respond to the environment in certain ways. If asked the question, “Why has she got depression? Was it because of the abuse as a child, or because her grandmother had depression?” The answer is “Yes.” All of the above.

I’ve examined many hundreds of brain scans, and one of the most striking features of them is their variability. It’s a strange paradox: when we look at the nerves running to your fingers or your toes, they are pretty much in the same place in everyone. The veins and arteries are often in different places, but those peripheral nerves tend to stay put.

Yet when we get to the brain, things are very different. I’ve never seen two brain that look the same. This has been a big problem in research: how do you compare the brain of someone with depression with a healthy volunteer? We usually end up doing all sorts of sophisticated computer modeling to be able to compare two very different brains. This is also why we are a bit skeptical about people who claim to be able to diagnose illnesses based on brain scans. There is just so much variability.

This came up last week, when Grigory Perelman turned down a prestigious honor for his extraordinary work in mathematics. Here we have someone who’s brain works quite differently from other people. He has a very remarkable gift, but I doubt that anyone else could simulate what he has achieved.

I knew a woman who was employed as an air traffic controller by the Royal Air Force. Like all air traffic controllers, she had to have an amazing ability: to be able to tell – without instruments – where every plane was in the sky. With planes flying in different directions at 300-500 knots, the variables are staggering. Yet Veronica and her co-controllers could do it easily.

One of the reasons that I landed in the United States was that I was given a problem to solve. It had to do with measuring an inaccessible region of the brain that is mind-bogglingly important. World class investigators had been trying to solve the problem for four years. After years of playing chess, I have a reasonable ability to visualize things in three dimensions. That was all that it took to solve the problem. Within three weeks we started cranking out data that changed the way in which we think about major mental illness.

Could anyone model Grigory Perelman, or Veronica the air traffic controller or my modest efforts in brain imaging? Is that something that everyone can do?

The answer is almost certainly not.

Although we are forever being told that we can each be whatever we want to, that is not what the evidence says.

I am in no doubt that most people have the potential to perform far above their accustomed level.

But I’m just as sure that not everyone can do everything.

There is often a subtle subtext here: if you have not achieved everything that you want, it is because you have failed. And that’s wrong. Human potential is magnificent, but there are almost certainly some neurological constraints on what each of us can achieve. The key to much of our work is to see how we can expand beyond those neurological limitations.

There’s a terrific discussion of some of these issues by Steven Pinker from Harvard.

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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