The Adaptive Brain

In my previous post, ‘From Localizationism to Neuroplasticity’, I explained how cutting edge brain science has disrupted the old notion that mental processes are fixed to specific functions of the brain.

In Norman Doidge’s fascinating book on the subject he explains how scientists have only recently been comfortable using the term ‘neuroplasticity.’

“At first many of the scientists didn’t dare use the word ‘neuroplasticity’ in their publications, and their peers belittled them for promoting a fanciful notion. Yet they persisted, slowly overturning the doctrine of the unchanging brain. They showed that children are not always stuck with the mental abilities they are born with; that the damaged brain can often reorganize itself so that when one part fails, another can often substitute; that if brain cells die, they can at times be replaced; that many ‘circuits’ and even basic reflexes that we think are hardwired are not.”

The science of neuroplasticity is so recent that the practical benefits of the brain’s malleability are only just coming to be discovered. Last year Psychology Today shared a handful of some of these benefits:

  • Reactivate long-dormant circuitry. The expression “it’s like riding a bike” is very true when it comes to your brain. Often, you never completely forget a skill once learned, though you might need a short period of practice to kick your neurons back into gear.
  • Create new circuitry. For instance, the neurons in your nose responsible for smell are made new and replaced every few weeks, and new neurons are made in other parts of your brain as well. Also, whenever you learn something new, your brain can strengthen existing neuronal connections and create new synapses that allow you to maximize new skills.
  • Rewire circuitry. Parts of your brain that were used for one purpose can be retasked to other uses. This is often the case with stroke victims who relearn to use a limb or to speak after some neurons are destroyed.
  • Quiet aberrant circuits and connections (such as those contributing to depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias, and so on). Some parts of your brain (your prefrontal cortex, for example) can exert control over others (the amygdala, for example) and change how much they affect your mood, decision-making, and thought processes.

Above all, neuroplasticity means that the brain is not programed with numerous prefabricated adaptations, but is actually able to evolve and adapt itself within the lifetime of an individual. It does this by forming specialized structures to meet the demands of the environment, whether those demands include having to learn new language or preparing for the EPPP.

This kind of adaptation occurs every time we use a new tool. Scientists have found that whenever human beings learn to use a new tool, the brain forms new neuro-pathways to deal with the demands of that tool. Whether the tool is a hammer, a clock, a book, or the structures of the specific language we speak, our flexible brains literally rewire themselves around the requirements of the tool. In each case, this involves strengthening some neurons and weakening others. As Walter Ong put it in Orality and Literacy, “Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word.”

Although this process of adaptation occurs in our brains all the time, we would do well to be aware of it. Sometimes the adaptation is good, but sometimes it is not.

Nowhere does this apply more than when it comes to the internet. As Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan point out in iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind,

“Daily exposure to high technology—computers, smart phones, video games, search engines like Google and Yahoo—stimulates brain cell alteration and neurotransmitter release, gradually strengthening new neural pathways in our brains while weakening olds ones. Because of the current technological revolution, our brains are evolving right now—at a speed like never before.”

By being self-conscious about this process, and learning about the ways our tools are affecting our brains, we can encourage the positive side of neurological adaptation and lessen the negative. In short, you can take control of your brain’s evolution.

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