Chapter 1: Your Brain Is Magic
Grab something to write with and something to write on so when you see this symbol, you can play along with the activities and games in this book!
CHAPTER 1 YOUR BRAIN IS MAGIC
THE HUMAN BRAIN IS A mystery and a marvel. And maybe a little bit magical.* It tells our bodies what to do, consciously and unconsciously. It stores our thoughts and memories, regulates our emotions, and, every once in a while, comes up with really great ideas like antibiotics or waffle cones.
MAGICAL (adjective): having the power to make impossible things happen; able to create things, including illusions, without the viewer knowing how.
Much like when you practice baseball or the piano, every time you use your brain, you’re improving it. For example, look at the earlier drawing. What do you see?
Pretend you had to describe it to someone who couldn’t see it. What would you tell them?
Would you tell them half the drawing was in black-and-white and the other half was in color? Would you mention the sketches and numbers on the left side and the colorful splatters that look like paint on the right?
Does the illustration remind you of anything? If you’re thinking “a brain,” you’re right. It was meant to look like a human brain.
Did any shapes stand out to you?
Did you find the same shape on both sides? If you saw the two stars, good for you! Your brain is tuned in to both details and patterns. If you didn’t, go look for them now.
Scientists used to believe that the brain you were born with was the brain you were stuck with and that some people were just born with smarter brains. But as people lived longer, healthier lives and technology advanced, scientists were able to learn more about the human brain. And they discovered some startling things. Such as the brain can heal itself. Or that it can make new pathways and rewire connections. And that it never stops growing. The brain’s ability to adapt and change is called “plasticity.”*
We can improve our brain’s function at any time in our lives, for all of our lives. The more you engage your brain, the quicker, smarter, and more powerful it will be. Which is helpful not just for your future—getting a job or following your passion—but also in the present. A better, faster brain can help you right now. It can help you do better in school, have better friendships, be a better judge of situations, and negotiate better deals with the adults in your life (like later bedtimes or a larger allowance). A better, faster brain can help keep you safe, help you solve difficult problems, and help you see what everyone else may have missed.
“PLASTIC” as a noun refers to the material used to make video game controllers and water bottles. “Plastic” the adjective means “capable of being molded.”
In 1905, an eleven-year-old named Frank Epperson was in his San Francisco backyard making his favorite drink—flavored powder stirred into water—when his mother called him inside. He set his cup down and forgot all about it. There was an unseasonal frost overnight, and the next morning Frank found his cup had completely frozen, the stirring stick standing straight up in the colored ice. He tipped the cup upside down, removed it, held the stick, and licked the delicious fruity icicle. He realized other kids might like to do the same, so he intentionally began freezing his flavored water in small cups with sticks and called them “Epsicles.” Today the company he started sells two billion
“Popsicles®” a year.1
When Hannah Taylor was five years old, she saw something countless other people had seen before her: a homeless man eating out of a trash can. Instead of just shrugging it off though, Hannah decided to do something about it. Three years later, she founded the Ladybug Foundation to raise awareness and funds for the homeless community. She became a voice for the homeless, speaking to crowds of sixteen thousand people at a time, and so far, she’s raised $2 million to help the cause.2
When twelve-year-old Jessica Maple’s grandmother’s house was robbed, she was told by police that since they found no signs of forced entry, the burglar was someone who had used a key to get in. Jessica did her own detective work, though, and discovered a broken window and fingerprints the police had missed in the attached garage. She then thought about what the criminals would do with the stuff they stole and decided they might try to sell it for money. She visited a local pawnshop and found some of her grandmother’s belongings there. When she told the police, they were able to interview the shop owner about who had sold them the items, and the suspects were arrested.3
What did these three kids have in common? They all saw something everyone else had missed.
Want to be the hero in your own life, for your family, or for your community? You don’t need superpowers, just a supercharged brain.
Supercharging your brain is easy, and anyone—I mean anyone
—can do it. It doesn’t matter where you go to school or how many books you’ve read. It doesn’t involve memorizing or math. All it takes to increase your brain’s capacity for thinking and problem solving, to help you become the next inventor or crime solver or great humanitarian, is three simple steps:
LEARN TO SEE
LEARN TO THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU SEE
LEARN TO TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU SEE
I’m sure you’re thinking, as I once did, “But I already know how to see! I’ve been doing that since I was born!” Followed by, “And anyway, I see with my eyes, not my brain.” It turns out that our eyes are actually part of our brain, and the eye and the brain work together in ways we probably never thought about. Let me explain.
You’ve no doubt learned, from the science teacher and from feeling them with your finger, human eyeballs are round and made up of many parts. There’s the pupil—the black circle—and the iris—the colored circle—that work together to control the amount of light let into the eye. Then there’s the retina, a thin layer of tissue that covers the back of the eye and converts images into signals for our brain to organize. The retina is a complicated structure more like a computer than a simple pathway to the brain.4
In fact, it is the brain. (So, technically, when an optometrist looks at your retina during an eye exam, they’re looking at your brain!)
When we engage our visual processing system, we’re using a full 25 percent of our brain and more than 65 percent of all our brain pathways.5
So, in reality, we don’t “see” with our eyes; we see with our brain.
USE IT OR LOSE IT
Our ability to see and make sense of what we see relies on the brain’s incredible processing power—a power that depends entirely on the connections in our brains. Scientists have discovered that when we stop flexing our mental “muscles,” their speed and accuracy decrease dramatically.6
Since our brain controls every function of our body, any slowdown in neural* processing, aka how our brain processes information, will cause a delay in the body’s other systems, including how we react to what we see. While slower reflexes and forgetting things are associated with old age, they can also be the result of not exercising our brains enough.
Fortunately, the opposite is also true. Since our brains never stop making new connections, no matter how old we are, we can keep them fast and sharp by continually engaging them. Researchers have found that stimulating our brains in a variety of ways—from studying something new to reading about a concept that makes you think about things in a different way—will increase growth in brain tissue, even for the very oldest humans.7
If you want to still be able to drive a car, play video games, and remember the lyrics to your favorite song when you’re one hundred years old, never stop training your brain.
Want to flex your brain right now? The drawing on page 3
isn’t just a representation of the brain with all its “wrinkles”—technically the grooves are called “sulci” and the ridges are “gyri”—it’s also a maze! Actually, two mazes. Turn back and see how fast you can move through the LEFT side of the brain maze starting from the opening at the bottom (the brain stem) to the black star outline. Want to feel even smarter? Dare someone older than you to solve the RIGHT side of the maze and see how long it takes them. Come back here when you’re done.
“NEURAL” refers to any part of the nervous system, which is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves.
Did you notice anything about the right maze? That wasn’t a printing error: if you start at the opening on the bottom right, you can’t get to the solid black star… at least, not if you stay inside
the lines. Did you read any instructions that said you had to stay inside the lines? I didn’t. Who is to say we can’t cross the line to get to the star? What if we drew a bridge over one of the lines? Or grabbed a frog to hop us over? Grab a piece of paper to draw three ways you could jump over this solid line:
No matter how we exercise our brains, we’re making them sharper. Whether you solved the left maze quickly or slowly, your brain still learned from the experience. It will be faster the next time you do a maze and the next time you try to solve any puzzle—on paper or in real life.
Completing the right maze just taught your brain to find alternative, creative answers when you run into an obstacle. This is an extremely useful skill since problems will always be there to get in our way. If we can find a means around them (or over them or through them) we’re going to have a lot more success in life.
While there are many different “brain games” you can play to sharpen your wits, I’ve found the best way to do so is to use something that surrounds us every day: art.
Art expands the way we see the world and shifts our perspective because everyone’s idea of creativity is different. We get to see things, people, and ideas in ways we would have never thought of. Art can transport us to destinations outside our everyday lives and sometimes out of our comfort zones. Art inspires conversation, especially when it makes us squirm. Surprisingly, discomfort and uncertainty bring out the very best in our brains. Harvard psychologists discovered that the brain is most effective at learning new material when our stress hormones are slightly elevated by an unfamiliar experience.8
Art gives us that and more. In some paintings, we might see women with noses where their eyes should be, clocks dripping from trees, blue horses, and lots of people screaming. These images are probably very different from the way we see our own world.
Part of the beauty of art, especially the stranger pieces, is that anyone can discuss it, even if you know nothing about art history. In this book, we won’t be studying brushstrokes or colors or historical periods. We’ll simply be using art as visual data: talking about what we see… or what we think
we see to actually help us see even more. For instance, let’s look at this painting:
You don’t have to know who painted it, or when it was painted, or why it was painted to describe it. Let’s try right now.
What’s going on in this painting?
Are the people in the painting indoors or outside?
How many people do you see?
How many different colors are there?
What noise or noises do you hear when you look at this picture?
How would you describe it to someone who couldn’t see it?
These are the kinds of questions I’ll teach you how to ask yourself as we look at art and then, in how you look at the world around you: questions that will develop your critical thinking skills, teach you how to analyze what you see, and explain it to someone else.
I’ve been using art to teach people how to see more accurately for eighteen years. I’ve taught senators, Navy SEALs, and the CEO of Target. The Department of the Army retains me to work with officers before they’re deployed to the Middle East. Why? Because when army officers go overseas, they encounter the unexpected and the unknown. Describing what you see in a painting of a figure on a bridge screaming like Kevin McCallister in Home Alone
—“hands on the side of the face, mouth open, eyes bulging”—uses the same skill set as describing what you see on the first day of school or when you arrive at camp for the very first time. If you can talk about what is happening in a work of art, you can talk about the scenes surrounding your everyday life, anytime, anywhere.
The first thing we’re going to do to start the process of supercharging our brains, of training them how to work faster and more accurately, is to slow down.
Alexander Graham Bell was sixty-seven years old when he took the stage at the Friends’ School in Washington, DC, to deliver the graduation address to the class of 1914. Sporting a snowy beard that swooped up at the end, the communications pioneer was now a grandfather and nearing the end of his career. Although he was best known for inventing the telephone, he held thirty patents for future contraptions like air-conditioning, metal detectors, and solar panels. So, the crowd was surprised when he confessed that he didn’t always take the time to really look around him.
He’d recently taken a walk at his family’s property in Nova Scotia, a place he thought he knew everything about. He was shocked to discover a moss-covered valley that led to the sea.
“We are all too much inclined,” he said, “to walk through life with our eyes shut. There are things all ’round us and right at our very feet that we have never seen, because we have never really looked.”9
We live in an incredibly fast-paced world that demands our attention 24/7. And while our brains have unlimited potential, our attention is finite. We’ll only see what we really look for, and if we look too fast, we can miss a lot. What other amazing innovations did Bell miss by not always paying attention? What have we missed?
Do you remember the first painting in this book? Not the painting we just saw of the figure screaming on a bridge, but the square painting made up of different shapes right before Chapter 1 began? Without turning back, draw as much of the painting as you can remember.
If you’re like most people, you saw it but didn’t study it. You might have flipped right past it because there were no instructions to stop and stare at it. Don’t wait for someone to tell you to use your brain to gather as much information as you can wherever you are. You just might discover what you need to change the world!
Slowing down doesn’t mean moving at a slow pace. It just means taking a few extra minutes to absorb what you are seeing. Details, patterns, and relationships take time to recognize. Information can be missed if we rush past it.
Let’s go back to the screaming painting on page 12
. Only this time, really examine it. Set a timer for two minutes. On a separate piece of paper, write down as many details as you can about the painting. Just a list. No sentences. Come back here when you’re done.
Did you write down that the person screaming has no hair?
Did you note the number of people in the painting?
Did you see the boats in the background? How many? If not, go back and count them now.
How many rails are on the bridge?
Did you see the border on the right side of the painting?
How much more did you notice in the painting—called The Scream
by Edvard Munch—when you looked at it longer and harder?
(Answers: There are three people, two boats, and three railings in the painting.
Let’s flex our brain muscles again with another painting. Set a timer for one minute. Now turn back to that very first painting on page 1
. When you’re done studying it, come back here. Now
draw as much of the painting as you can remember.
How much more did you see this time? How much more accurate is this picture than your first one?
We’re going to look at the painting one more time, but instead of drawing it, I’m going to ask you questions about it, so tune your eyes and your brain in to catching as many elements—both big and small—as you can. Set a timer for two minutes, then come back here when you’re done.
The painting you were just looking at has one of the longest titles ever: Fifty Abstract Paintings Which as Seen from Two Yards Change into Three Lenins Masquerading as Chinese and as Seen from Six Yards Appear as the Head of a Royal Bengal Tiger
. It was painted in 1963 by Salvador Dalí. Let’s find out how much you saw:
Here are the answers:
- What shapes did you see?
- Did you see any human faces? If so, how many?
- Did you see an animal’s face? If so, what kind?
- Did you see eyes? How many? What color?
- Did you see tears (as in crying)?
- Did you see teeth?
- Did you see that some teeth were sharp and some were dull?
- Did you see whiskers?
- Did you see stitches?
- Did you see a bicycle?
- There are many shapes in the painting, including squares, circles, triangles, diamonds, ovals, cones, cylinders, and an assortment of polygons. Bonus points if you listed any of the types of triangles: right, equilateral, obtuse, or scalene. There were no rectangles.
- There are three human faces.
- There is a tiger’s face.
- There are eight eyes: three human and one animal. Only the animal’s eyes are fully opened. They are a yellow/amber/brown color.
- The person on the upper right has what appear to be tears, or some other liquid, coming from their eye.
- The tiger is showing its top and bottom teeth. There are fourteen teeth in total: eight on top and six on the bottom. Four are large fangs.
- Ten of the tiger’s teeth are sharp, while four are not. Good for you if you noticed the difference!
- There are what appear to be whiskers on the tiger’s face, two sets of which also form mustaches on the human faces.
- Two of the humans’ eyes are stitched shut. There are five stitches in total.
- Trick question! There was no bicycle.
KEEP TRAINING YOUR BRAIN
As we’ve just seen, the longer and more attentively we look at something, the more we will find. Many of the world’s greatest thinkers, like Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs, believed that invention was more about recognizing the potential in things than simply creating new stuff. We can uncover exciting possibilities by just opening our eyes, turning on our brains, tuning in, and paying attention. Sir Isaac Newton agreed, saying, “If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention than to any other talent.”10
have the ability to observe in different ways and make discoveries that will lead to great things. We just need to be prepared to notice them.
Let’s practice some more. This is Past Times
by the artist Kerry James Marshall. Mentally check off the following items as you spot them:
- A dog
- Seven birds
- A blue croquet ball
- The word “heart”
- The word “heart” again
- A water-skier
- The sun
- A park bench
Great! Let’s try another. Grab a new sheet of paper if you need one.
Here are two pieces of art next to each other.
What are three differences between the images? What are three things they have in common?
Now show the two images to someone else. Ask them to come up with three differences and three similarities and write down what they tell you.
Compare your lists. Was anything the same? Why do you think your lists might have been different?
Let’s do one more. In honor of our friend Frank Epperson, inventor of the Popsicle®, and the other incredibly brainy kids who have helped make our world a little sweeter, let’s take a look at this work of art:
What does it look like?
What else does it remind you of?
Do you see a Popsicle?
Do you see any letters of the alphabet? If so, which letters?
Do you see anything else?
I bet you can already feel your brain getting faster and sharper! The more you practice actively looking, the more you’ll uncover.
Did you immediately see a Popsicle? Did you remember that Frank Epperson was its inventor and helped make the world a little “sweeter”?
While observing the sculpture, did you think it looked like a brain? If so, it might be because I purposefully used the word “brainy” right before it.
When I first glanced at the sculpture, I thought of squishy intestines. Gross, right? Maybe it’s because of the color, but it’s more likely because I had just worked with a group of nurses, and we had talked a lot about anatomy.
The human brain is amazing. As I mentioned, it can heal itself, learn new things, and get smarter every day of our lives. But it’s not perfect. We don’t have unlimited attention spans or flawless memories. Sometimes our brains can even be unintentionally tricked by limited sleep or stress, or intentionally by a carefully planted word or recent experience.
You’ve already seen how much more powerful your brain can be when you engage it. Now, to unleash our brain’s full potential, we’re going to learn how to overcome some of its weaknesses—like biases and blind spots.