I recently picked up a book by Moheb Constandi called Neuroplasticity. It was published by MIT Press in 2016 and I was mostly interested in reading about the current state of the science on the subject. Neuroplasticity is a general term that describes a number of processes involving change and growth in the brain. I’m mostly familiar with the concept in the realms outside of science as it is often applied in pop psychology and some metaphysical contexts. The author of this book writes on the topic for The Guardian so I figured a journalistic approach would help me get through the basics without diving too deep into the science and getting lost.
I was particularly drawn to the book because of the author’s assertion in the preface: “Among the general public, the concept is generally misunderstood, and misconceptions about what neuroplasticity is, and what it is capable of, are rife.” Because I often bring psychological and neurological concepts into the classroom when I teach, I picked up the book to be sure I’m not misusing the term.
What I found was that neuroplasticity is often hard to nail down. It really is kind of an umbrella term that pulls together several different processes happening in the brain. It is also a relatively new field of study that is still being uncovered. The basic gist of it is that an early pioneer of modern neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal was responsible for most of our early understanding of the physical cellular structures of the brain. He won a nobel prize for his work, but he also introduced the idea that the human, adult brain is fixed and immutable. Cajal thought the growth of the basic structure of the brain happens in childhood and adolescence. The adult brain was unchanging and no new growth happened only deterioration.
For nearly a century, this was taken as fact. But according to Constandi, Cajal’s proclamation was meant to be more of a challenge. Beginning in the middle of the 20th century and leading up to today there have been a number of breakthroughs which show that our brains continue to change throughout life. The author is careful to ensure that we understand this isn’t unlimited growth and we still don’t fully understand all of the ways that an adult brain changes during a lifetime. Certainly the growth during youth and adolescence is much more pronounced. But we have some evidence and proof of neuroplasticity in the adult brain in certain cases listed below.
Here are some interesting facts about where what we know about adult brain growth:
learning another language has been proven to have larger benefits to your brain. It has been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and protect your brain against other types of damage or degeneration.
Addiction This is a maladaptive form of neuroplasticity which can shape the reward center of the brain. Using addictive substances can cause brain pathways to become honed in on perpetuating the addictive behavior. The author doesn’t touch on this topic but I definitely began thinking about technology and social media addiction and how similar or dissimilar this is to cocaine or alcohol addiction (the ones referenced in the book). All addictions in theory prey on the same hormone release patterns and literally create physical changes in the brain.
Learning When learning a new task the brain both grows new connections and removes others (called pruning) in order to both simultaneously strengthen some connections and weaken others. Both the growth of new connections and the removal of others within a distributed network is important for processes like memory storage. Learning and experience including motor learning encourages clustering of new bits of neural cells. When the growth is clustered it has a higher likelihood of persistence than when formed in isolation. Hence your brain needs to both grow and to shrink in parts in order to build better connections for understanding.
Brain Training You may have heard of the lawsuit involving the company “Luminosity” who claimed to help train your brain the way you train your body at a gym. There is an entire industry of companies with brain training games like this and Luminosity had to pay a $2 million settlement for deceiving their customers. Using game mechanics to train your brain hasn’t been proven as a transferable exercise. What that means is that using brain games makes you better at the game but it doesn’t mean (or hasn’t been proven) that it does anything of benefit for other parts of your of your brain. Interestly though, learning another language has been proven to have larger benefits to your brain. It has been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and protect your brain against other types of damage or degeneration.
blind people can be taught to “see” using echolocation or touch. When doing so they actually receive inputs into their visual center but instead of coming from their eyes it comes from touch centers
The Deaf and Blind The most extensive work done on changes in the brain seems to be in the areas of deaf and blind people. Generally speaking the average brain has localized regions for types of activities. As such you have a kind of “sight” center of your brain and a “hearing” area. Because these non-sighted and non-hearing individuals don’t have those inputs from their eyes or ears, however, their brains actually repurpose the corresponding areas of their brains. I found this fascinating. For example, blind persons can use their brains’ vision centers for enhancing their word memory recall.
Using some techniques, blind people can be taught to “see” using echolocation or touch. When doing so they actually receive inputs into their visual center but instead of coming from their eyes it comes from touch centers like sensors placed on their tongue. In turn deaf people tend to use the “hearing section” of their brain for sight giving them enhanced peripheral vision. Studies like this show the most promise I believe in seeing how brains nearly literally “rewire” under certain conditions.
There also seems to be a lot of promising work with stroke patients who are able to repurpose areas of their brain that are no longer functional. So even though the adult brain appears somewhat “fixed” there are situations that can cause and allow the brain to rewire and utilize the connections differently.
Becoming a Parent Some evidence even exists for the rewiring of adult brains after childbirth. Apparently both mothers’ and fathers’ brains create connections to attune to the needs of their child. There is some evidence that parents with this kind of brain rewiring form deeper connections with their children and affect the child’s development. There are changes in mice brains in the auditory centers after giving birth. In the human adult mother and father growth is seen in areas of the brain related to bonding. The study around father’s brains was published as recently as 2014!
As our tools for looking at the brain processes improve we seem to learn more and more about different areas of where our brains change and adapt to situations and behaviors. It may not be a magic bullet but it also is definitely real and we are only now just learning all of the different way it manifests. I suppose what you think of the science of it may say more about whether your cup is half empty or half full.