Teaching the Old Dog New Tricks

8 08 2007

I’ve been an Oliver Sacks fan for years because I’m fascinated with how brains work. I’m particularly interested in the way humans learn and reason, but pets can be interesting as well. Anyway, I was riding to work with Mary Howe this morning and she was raving about a new book she’s been reading on neuroplasticity. This topic is pure Oliver Sacks territory and the commute breezed by in the blink of an eye while we verbally and mentally wandered all over the neurology map.

Since you didn’t get to listen in on this very satisfying conversation, here is Wikipedia’s definition of neuroplasticity:

Neuroplasticity (variously referred to as brain plasticity or cortical plasticity) refers to the changes that occur in the organization of the brain as a result of experience. A surprising consequence of neuroplasticity is that the brain activity associated with a given function can move to a different location as a consequence of normal experience or brain damage/recovery.

The concept of neuroplasticity pushes the boundaries of the brain areas that are still re-wiring in response to changes in environment. Several decades ago the consensus was that lower brain and neocortical areas were immutable after development, whereas areas related to memory formation, such as the hippocampus where new neurons continue to be produced into adulthood, were highly plastic. Hubel and Wiesel had demonstrated that ocular dominance columns in the lowest neocortical visual area, V1, were largely immutable after the Critical period in development. Critical periods also were studied for language and suggested it was likely that the sensory pathways were fixed after their respective critical periods. Environmental changes could cause changes in behavior and cognition by modifying the connections of the new neurons in the hippocampus. Decades of research have now shown that substantial changes occur in the lowest neocortical processing areas, and that these changes can profoundly alter the pattern of neuronal activation in response to experience. According to the theory of neuroplasticity, thinking, learning, and acting actually change the brain’s functional anatomy from top to bottom, if not also its physical anatomy.

American psychiatrist Norman Doidge has called neuroplasticity “one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the twentieth century.”

Mary highly recommends “The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science”, by Norman Doidge. You can check it out, literally, from your local library, or order a hardcover copy from Amazon.

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One response

8 08 2007
Stephanie

I recommend to you three other books. The first is The Mind and the Brain by Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz in which the term self-directed neuroplasticity is first used. I also highly recommend Dr. Ian Robertson’s two books, especially Mind Sculpture.

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