POWs in Solitary May Have Tapped Unused Parts of Their Brains

Ex-POWs told researchers about some amazing new mental skills they'd acquired in solitary.


Dennis S. Charney, MD, is the Dean of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, and he’s been thinking about the brain, specifically how we don’t normally take full advantage of it. Charney and his associates got their first inkling that this was the case when they spoke to POWs who’d been held in solitary confinement. These men developed some impressive talents during those long and dark stretches during which there was literally nothing else to do but think.

For one prisoner it was a math thing. By the time he was released, he could multiply 12-digit numbers by other 12-digit numbers. Pretty amazing. Another person spent time thinking about his early childhood until he could name every single child in his Kindergarten class. And there was Admiral Shoemaker, who’d painstakingly constructed a house—down to the nails required—in his head. When he got out, he built that house just that way.

What Charney’s team took from the POW’s stories is that there’s reason to believe that when a person is allowed to really concentrate, the brain’s plasticity can be increased through mental exercise, allowing its owner access to previously undiscovered capabilities.

Leveraging new understandings about the locations in the brain where things happen and what chemistry is involved, Charney’s team has been conducting targeted research on areas of the brain. In one study, they’re trying to retrain the circuitry involved in depression. In another, it they’re giving the areas of the brain responsible for memory and learning a workout. Currently, they’re focused on developing techniques for managing the brain’s anxiety centers and chemistry. The results are encouraging.

We already owe our POWs for their obvious sacrifice, but now we owe them even more: The revelation that our remarkable human brains have powers we never knew we had.

Related Articles
Playlists
Keep reading Show less

Five foods that increase your psychological well-being

These five main food groups are important for your brain's health and likely to boost the production of feel-good chemicals.

Mind & Brain

We all know eating “healthy” food is good for our physical health and can decrease our risk of developing diabetes, cancer, obesity and heart disease. What is not as well known is that eating healthy food is also good for our mental health and can decrease our risk of depression and anxiety.

Keep reading Show less

For the 99%, the lines are getting blurry

Infographics show the classes and anxieties in the supposedly classless U.S. economy.

What is the middle class now, anyway? (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs

For those of us who follow politics, we’re used to commentators referring to the President’s low approval rating as a surprise given the U.S.'s “booming” economy. This seeming disconnect, however, should really prompt us to reconsider the measurements by which we assess the health of an economy. With a robust U.S. stock market and GDP and low unemployment figures, it’s easy to see why some think all is well. But looking at real U.S. wages, which have remained stagnant—and have, thus, in effect gone down given rising costs from inflation—a very different picture emerges. For the 1%, the economy is booming. For the rest of us, it’s hard to even know where we stand. A recent study by Porch (a home-improvement company) of blue-collar vs. white-collar workers shows how traditional categories are becoming less distinct—the study references "new-collar" workers, who require technical certifications but not college degrees. And a set of recent infographics from CreditLoan capturing the thoughts of America’s middle class as defined by the Pew Research Center shows how confused we are.

Keep reading Show less