Tag Archives: plasticity

Plasticity: The Final Four

I am NOT referring to the NCCA’s final four games of the men’s college basketball championships, the opening rounds of which begin in March and are often referred to as March Madness! I AM referring to the final four chapters of Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself. These chapters are jam packed with science and philosophy.

An entire chapter is devoted to imagination and its role in shaping our brains. Perhaps you are familiar with the act of visualization as a means for improving in sports. Feel free to check your knowledge of this built-in brain tool with ChannelOne’s Head Game or read this New York Times article, FITNESS; Visualization: Does It Provide an Edge? As Doidge has written, it turns out “Brain scans show that in action and imagination many of the same parts of the brain are activated. That is why visualizing can improve performance.”

The topic of memory takes up another chapter, which is infused with references to Freud. Written clearly, it provides an excellent discussion of his theories, in particular transference and dreams, which equate to a “plastic view of memory.”

Rejuvenation is a word that always conjures up a positive image. Just take in this definition of “the phenomenon of vitality and freshness being restored” and how can you go wrong! Renew, refresh, repair… A stem cell is a cell that can make exact copies of itself. The brain has neuronal stem cells, so called because they can specialize as either neurons or glial cells. Doidge describes seeing these cells through a highly detailed microscope, and what he has to say about them is refreshing: “…stem cells don’t have to specialize but can continue to divide, producing exact replicas of themselves, and they can go on doing this endlessly without any signs of aging. … This rejuvenating process is called neurogenesis,” and it goes on until the day that we die.” The simple-sounding keys to promoting neurogenesis include novelty, physical exercise, and learning (something new). Heck, that gives license to do all sorts of interesting things as we age, possibly making the latter portion of aging more fun than the first portion 😉

Doidge’s last chapter introduces Betty Edwards and her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. This is near and dear because in the summer of 2005 I took the one week Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain workshop taught by her son, Brain Bommeisler, in New York City. I am rather proud of my accomplishments, and invite you to see for yourself that it is possible to (re)learn to draw, which translates to learning something new later in life, which translates to brain plasticity.

Given how many entries I have posted about Doidge’s book, it will not surprise you to know that I found the content stimulating, refreshing, and exciting. The possibilities for what there is yet to learn about our brains, and the ways in which we will uncover that information, are indeed exhilarating.

Plasticity and the Brain: Merzenich and Taub

Michael Merzenich blogs at On the Brain, where he never seems to mince words as he gets right down to the subject at hand. PositScience: The Science with Dr. Merzenich is a 9 minute video during which Merzenich talks about the development of the brain, brain change, and plasticity.

His current company, PositScience, is focused on how to maintain plasticity and encourage brain change and growth for aging adults, with the goal of improving memory. If you are interested, there are a number of YouTube videos about this, including interviews with neuroscientists and users of the PositScience program.

[October 11, 2008 update – in going through my files I found a May, 6, 2007 NY Times article about Merezenich and his company, entitled Muscular Metaphor, which provides background on the company.]

Merezenich is another one of the neuroscientists featured in Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself, and may best be known for his work on developing the cochlear implant.

What interests me most, though, are the findings of his research.

‘You cannot have plasticity in isolation … it’s an absolute impossibility.’ His experiments have shown that if one brain system changes, those systems connected to it change as well. The same ‘plastic rules’ – use it or lose it, or neurons that fire together wire together – apply throughout. Different areas of the brain wouldn’t be able to function together if that weren’t the case.

Within the same chapter, Doidge explains the brain chemistry that takes place during learning and unlearning, both of which take place as a function of plasticity. As you learn something, the neurons involved in the learning fire together and thus wire together. This is facilitated in cells by LTP (long-term potentiation), which is the chemical process of strengthening the synaptic connections. When the brain is poised for unlearning, the opposite takes place due to LTD (long-term depression), where the synaptic connections are weakened and disconnected.

Another neuroscientist who brightens the pages of Doidge’s book is Edward Taub. His research and innovation in stroke treatment pioneered CI (constraint induced) therapy, which exploits the brain’s plasticity. You can listen to Taub explain his work in an interview on The Brain Science Podcast, where there are also a number of links and references posted.

Taub’s research supported Merzenich’s findings that “when a brain map is not used, the brain can reorganize itself so that another mental function takes over that processing space.” In addition, with specific application to stroke patients and anyone who had some form of brain damage, “Not only could the brain respond to damage by having single neurons grow new branches within their own small sectors, but, the experiment showed, reorganization could occur across very large sectors.”


Plasticity and Education: Barbara Arrowsmith

[UPDATE: CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation) broadcast Fixing My Brain, an interview with Barbara Arrowsmith, June 16, 2009. I found out about this piece thanks to a post by Jason Atwood at playthink, which took me back to a post I wrote for SharpBrains reviewing Doidge’s book. A comment on that post included the link to the CBC piece. I love a good trail!]

Barbara Arrowsmith is another one of the amazing people who populate Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself. Barbara was born with an asymmetrical brain, which means that one side of her brain functioned astonishingly well and the other side functioned retardedly. Even more amazing, though, is her perseverance, which led her to bust her chops and pursue college and graduate school, earning a degree in Education.

Arrowsmith’s keen interest in learning is based upon her own experience which, along with research that crossed her desk while a student, led her to develop methods for teaching students with learning disabilities. And this led to the creation, in 1980, of the Arrowsmith School located in Toronto, Canada. Barbara knew that it was possible to retrain the brain, for that is precisely what she had done for herself as she willed herself through school.

Here is a description of the Arrowsmith methodology from the school’s site:

The Arrowsmith Program is a program of intensive and graduated cognitive exercises that are designed to strengthen the underlying weak cognitive capacities that are the source of the learning disabilities. Each student’s program is based on a careful assessment to identify the specific learning difficulties.

I am a big fan of Mel Levine, a pediatrician, author, speaker, and founder of All Kinds of Minds. In my 26 years of teaching I have heard Levine speak three times, and later this week will be hearing him speak for a fourth time. In 2002 he published the book A Mind at a Time, which crystallized the work being done by All Kinds of Minds. Also in 2002, PBS (Public Broadcasting System) partnered with All Kinds of Minds to create the broadcast Misunderstood Minds, which focused on learning issues related to attention, reading, writing and mathematics.

When reading Doidge’s chapter about Barbara Arrowsmith, I couldn’t help but wonder what Mel Levine would make of her approach. Arrowsmith’s system seems to be a head-on assault of an individual’s learning difficulties by using intensive practice to retrain those parts of the brain that cause the difficulty. Levine, on the other hand, attacks learning difficulties by utilizing the individual’s strengths to tackle specific difficulties. It is not an issue of “fixing” the problem, but rather of finding ways around the problem. Arrowsmith and Levine have the same goal, to make it possible for the individual to learn, but different methods for getting there.

Plasticity and The Senses: Paul Bach-y-Rita

This October 2012 update reflects new links for the videos, as PBS is no longer hosting Wired Science programs.
In December 2007 the PBS Wired Science show included a piece about Bach-y-Rita’s research: Mixed Feelings. Here are some additional videos covering some of the same content: BrainPort Vision Through Tongue, BrainPort Balance Device.


The first time I heard of Paul Bach-y-Rita was on a public television broadcast of a special show about the brain. The story of Paul Bach-y-Rita fills the first chapter of Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself.

The stories of Bach-y-Rita – how his father recovered from a stroke and the impact this had on Bach-y-Rita’s career, the people with severe balancing issues who were essentially cured by his discoveries and innovations, and the people who had no vision who were able to begin to see – are compelling in and of themselves. They are very human stories, derived from the work of a man who was altruistically motivated.

A major contribution of Paul Bach-y-Rita’s to neuroscience was in thinking of the brain as “polysensory”, meaning that the sensory areas of the brain, rather than only processing information from just the senses that normally report to those areas, are actually able to process information from any of the senses. The stories referenced above, relating to balance and vision, rely heavily on the polysensory ability of the brain to take input from the tongue and route it to the areas of the brain dealing with balance or vision.

Amazing? Absolutely! His work is a reminder of how adaptable our brains are, and makes me wonder how many more hidden secrets are waiting to be revealed. You can read more about the science behind Bach-y-Rita’s efforts in these articles:

On Wisconsin Magazine: Balancing Act (Spring 2007)

Discover Magazine: Can You See With Your Tongue? (June 2003)

Discover Magazine: Artifical Sight (August 2001)

College of Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison: Tongue seen as portal to the brain (2001)

And on an unrelated note, F, Happy Birthday tomorrow!

All Roads Lead To…Carol Dweck?

Back in the day, when all roads of the Roman Empire radiated from Rome, it could easily be said that all roads led to Rome. These days, it’s not so much about roads as it is about web searches. It never ceases to amuse me where a search will lead and what it will unearth.

I am an avid reader of Garr Reynolds’ blog, Presentation Zen, all about ‘issues related to professional presentation design’. In his December 21st post, Update from Oregon, Garr references Guy Kawasaki, who made his name as a Macintosh evangelist back when he was an Apple employee.

Following the link to Guy’s site I immediately began scrolling the December posts, eventually landing on How to Not Choke, which interested me because a quick scan showed it related to the brain. At the end of that post there is an addendum mentioning Carol Dweck, along with links to Guy’s post about her, a YouTube video interview with her, and a link to The Secret of Raising Smart Kids, a Scientific American article written by her (and which did not come up when I initially did a search for ‘Carol Dweck’).

I first wrote about Carol Dweck at the end of December in Plasticity in Progress. All roads may have once led to Rome, but, in a roundabout way, all my blog reading habits (well, I only read one regularly ;-)) led to Carol Dweck.

p.s. It’s now June 27, 2008 and I just found another useful article about Dweck. In the May 21, 2007 online issue of Newsweek, Wray Herbert writes about Carol Dweck in Are We Who We Think We Are?

Plasticity and Localization

hardcoverdoidge.jpgIt is New Year’s Eve and I have just completed reading Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself – Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. I read the paperback version, but at the end of his book Doidge notes that the cover of the hardcover “captures, in a single image, what this book is about and even the mood I hope the book creates.” Much in this book intrigued me – there were fascinating ideas to ponder, and brain science to digest. The first seven chapters held me captive for their personal stories; the final four chapters for the science and philosophy.

To have a comfortable grasp of the ideas, be able to discuss them and maybe even remember them, I need to “play” with the ideas, so you know what that means in terms of upcoming blog posts. Especially if anyone has read the book, I hope you will chime in with comments.

Since the book is mainly about plasticity, let’s see if I can explain what that means. Plasticity is not just the brain’s ability to change, for that is what happens all the time when we learn.

Let’s take a look at an old theory of the brain called localization. For many years, it was thought that each area of the brain had its own responsibilities. In fact, my early posts are all about the various parts of the brain, including descriptions of what each area tends to control and monitor. Until the idea of brain plasticity took off, it was thought that specific areas of the brain were responsible for specific functions, in other words, certain functions were localized or hardwired to certain brain areas. If something is hardwired then it is fixed and not capable of change.

The telling words above are “tends to”, because while certain areas of the brain tend to be responsible for specific functions, since the brain is plastic, areas overlap and even can co-opt one another’s functions. Initial maps drawn of our mental system turn out to be not as static as originally thought. If one pathway gets blocked, the brain is very good at finding alternative pathways.

As with any pathway, the more a particular path is used, the more ingrained it becomes, and pathways near one another become associated with each other. If a path is underutilized, over time it will be co-opted by other pathways that are branching out and need more space.

This concept of brain plasticity can be summed up in a few succinct statements revolving around the brain’s ability to reorganize itself, all from chapter 3, Redesigning the Brain:

Neurons that fire together wire together.

Neurons that wire apart fire apart.
This is also stated as Neurons out of sync fail to link.

Use it or lose it.

These statements will become that much more clear in upcoming posts. Meanwhile, here is more information about brain mapping and the idea of localization.

~ Neuroscience for Kids – Functional Divisions

~ Brain Maps: The Study of Brain Function in the Nineteenth Century

~ serendip: Mind, Brain, and Adaptation: the Localizaton of Cerebral Function
The serendip site is a most interesting place to visit and explore. There are a number of simulations and experiments designed to get you thinking!

Plasticity in Progress

[UPDATE May 24, 2010: Carol Dweck is mentioned in a number of my posts, and here is a May 9, 2010 article from The Chronicle of Higher Education – Carol Dweck’s Attitude, It’s not about how smart you are]

Psychologists Lisa Blackwell (Columbia University) and Carol Dweck (Stamford University) have done research showing children can improve on their studies once they learn that intelligence is something that they can develop and control. Dweck calls this a “growth mindset” as opposed to a “fixed mindset”. By simply teaching students that the brain can learn and change, in other words, that the brain can grow, the students realized their brains are malleable. This self-knowledge gave them the internal motivation to enhance their own learning.

Blackwell’s and Dweck’s study supports the idea of neuroplasticity, and is a prime example of the power of positive thinking in influencing brain growth. Their study followed about one hundred seventh graders who had difficulty with, and were low performing in math. The students were randomly placed into two groups. One group was given extra study skills sessions, and the other group was taught about the brain and that intelligence was not fixed so thus it could be changed.

At the end of the term both groups of students’ math grades were reviewed. Those students in the Brain 101 group had substantially improved math scores. In interviews with those students, it was apparent they had taken to heart the concept that their brains could change. This positive knowledge, both of knowing they had control over expanding their minds and that they would not have to remain negatively pigeonholed, had made it possible for them to learn. I am intrigued by this, as it sounds like so simple a fix, and suspect that, while having this kind of knowledge about one’s own brain would be empowering, it may require some additional interventions to help math students who struggle with the subject.

In the video below Carol Dweck explains the two different mindsets, and why your mindset matters.

dweck.pngDweck has written the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which I have not yet read. In addition to her book, there are numerous interviews and articles available about Dweck’s and Blackwell’s studies, and these I have listened to or read.

• ITConversations: Tech Nation – Thirty minute interview by Dr. Moira Gunn of Dr, Carol Dweck (3/14/06) – an indepth, well-rounded discussion
• New York Magazine – How Not to Talk to Your Kids (2/12/07) – lengthy article with helpful suggestions
• NPR – Students’ View of Intelligence Can Help Grades (2/15/07) – brief overview of the research
• Stanford Magazine – The Effort Effect (March/April/07 issue) – includes a link to a graphic comparison of the mindsets
• edutopia – Tell Students to Feed Their Brains (3/16/07) – useful suggestions plus links to additional articles, including Don’t Weigh the Elephant — Feed the Elephant


For my Follow-Up to this post, see my January 7, 2008 entry All Roads Lead To…Carol Dweck?