The Brain Science Podcast and Blog with Ginger Campbell seeks to keep readers apprised of current happenings in the world of neuroscience. Ginger, who is an emergency room doctor in Alabama, demystifies the brain through interviews and book reviews. I discovered her site while researching Norman Doidge, and spent an enjoyable hour listening to Podcast 26, a recent interview she did with him about neuroplasticity.
Doidge touches on a number of fascinating people and topics, including names from the past such as Galileo, William Harvey, Descartes, and Sigmund Freud, and names from the not-so-distant past Donald Hebb, Erick Kandel, Edward Taub, Paul Bach-y-Rita, and VS Ramachandran. (These links are for me as much as for you! They provide a mini-course about philosophy and the brain, and I plan to dive in with gusto. Good thing our two-week school vacation has begun ).
Their conversation covers some history of how the brain has been studied, beginning with the idea of the mind and brain being separate, and the initial thinking that the brain could not change; that it was hardwired. Doidge makes the point that it was always known that the mind could change, but not that the brain could change! (I can remember back to highly engaging high school and college philosophic discussions about what constitutes our brains and our minds. Are they the same? Is one a physical entity while the other is our mental self? How many times have you said ‘I’ve changed my mind!’ but have you ever said ‘I’ve changed my brain!’)
It turns out that back in the late 1880s Sigmund Freud was talking about neuroplasticity. He came up with a complex sounding description that can be boiled down to “neurons that fire together wire together”. The idea is that when two events (neurons firing) occur in the brain at the same time, the events (neurons) become associated with one another, and the neuronal connections (wiring) become stronger.
While neuroplasticity manifests itself physically in stronger neuronal connections, here is Doidge’s definition of plasticity:
the brain can change its structure and its function depending on what it does. … depending on what we react to when we’re sensing and perceiving … depending on the actions we commit ourselves to … and depending on what we think and imagine.
I find this a phenomenal concept because it empowers us as human beings to be able to fix damaged areas of our brains, to continue to learn well into old age, and to alter our behavior and performance.
As the discussion continues, Doidge describes the hows and whys of the development of the study of neuroplasticity. He was intrigued by a particular component of neuroplasticity, what he describes as the “plastic paradox”, that “the plastic brain can give rise to both flexible and rigid (getting in ruts) behaviors.” He paints a vivid picture of sledding down a snowy hill. Since the snow starts out as pliable, you can start with just about any path. However, following the same sledding path over and over will create ruts (rigid behavior) that both makes the sledding easier and faster but also makes it more difficult to change the path.
Doidge and Campbell fill the second part of their interview with many of the stories that are in Doidge’s book. Each tale is inspirational in that the individuals are able to overcome substantial, life-altering events, such as illness and stroke, thanks to the research of visionary scientists and doctors who developed methods and tools to facilitate neuroplasticity.
I see plasticity and metacognition as closely entwined. This combination of knowing that intelligence is not fixed and you can change it, and knowing how you learn, is immensely positive and powerful, and has huge implications for students of any age. I translate this to students in school who struggle with learning issues, and aging adults who fear their brains will fade.