From Localizationism To Neuroplasticity

“A mere twenty years ago,” wrote Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley in The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, “neuroscientists thought that the brain was structurally immutable by early childhood, and that its functions and abilities were programmed by our genes.” This was an understanding of the brain known as localizationism.

The theory of localizationism asserted that the brain is made up of separate parts, each of which has a specific function to perform. Moreover, because each mental function occurs in a specific location of the brain, one part of the brain can never do the work of another part.

This understanding seemed plausible ever since the sixteenth-century when scientists began to understand the fixed and unchanging laws by which the planets operated. Shortly after Galilei Galileo (1564-1642) demonstrated that the planets worked like a giant clock, the English anatomist William Harvey (1578-1657) showed that the heart circulates blood like a pump.  The world as machine replaced the ancient Greek idea which saw all of nature as a vast and living organism. (For a good comparison of these two paradigms, see the beginning of Francis Oakley’s article ‘Christian Theology and the Newtonian Science.’

The dominance of the machine as the ultimate metaphor for understanding our world had tremendous ramifications for how scientists came to understand the human brain. Following Harvey, the French philosophy René Descartes (1596-1650) suggested that the brain and the nervous system also operated like a pump. Norman Doidge summarized this new way of looking at the brain in his fascinating book on neuroplasticity titled The Brain that Changes Itself:

“Descartes’s idea of the brain as a complex machine culminated in our current idea of the brain as a computer and in localizationism. Like a machine, the brain came to be seen as made of parts, each one in a preassigned location, each performing a single function, so that if one of those parts was damaged, nothing could be done to replace it; after all, machines don’t grow new parts.”

Cutting-edge research in the few decades has now proved that localizationism was false. Despite a few old hold-outs, most neuroscientists have come to accept that the brain is less like a machine and more like a garden. Put another way, the neural pathways and synapses in our brain are flexible and adaptable, able to be molded by changes in our environment or by injury. There are not pre-assigned locations in the brain for each mental task, because new parts of the brain can assume new function through exercise or necessity. This new paradigm is known as ‘neuroplasticity.’

In this series of posts on study skills, we will show how neuroplasticity contains the key to appreciating the study skills needed for an effective and efficient online learning experience.

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