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Neuroplasticity, a new science

Neuroplasticity, a new science
Consulting Educational and Communications Expert
Trends in Education

Learning changes the brain

"Pensar es servir"

Every mind is creative

Since ages past, people have been interested in understanding the workings of their minds. From ancient times until roughly around the 15th century, people around the world believed the heart to be the seat of the intellect, memory, emotions, and spirit of the individual. In the 15th and 16th centuries, paradigm shifts occurred that changed the locus of the soul and mind from the heart to the head—but not necessarily to the brain.

The name of French philosopher René Descartes (1586-1650) became synonymous with dualism, the belief that mind and body are separate entities, independent of each other, different in nature, and governed by different laws. For Descartes, bodies are like machines, governed by physical laws. The mind ("rational soul") is uniquely human, produces thought, and is governed by the laws of reason. He believed the nonphysical mind "pulls the levers" of the physical body, but didn't exactly explain how. He also located the mind in a single unpaired structure of the brain (the pineal). The neuroscientists Jeanette Norden suggests he didn't credibly explain his theory, since animals also have a pineal gland.

Dualism was the dominant influence on Western science for four hundred years

In the 17th century, Thomas Willis, the “father of neurology,” helped establish that perception, movement, cognition, and memory were all functions of the brain, and neuroscience has drawn from philosophy, psychology, science and medicine to understand the brain. For four hundred years or so, it was accepted as fact that brain anatomy was fixed, or unchanging, after childhood—after which period, the only change was decline with age.

Norman Doidge suggests three sources for this theory of the unchanging brain: (1) brain damaged patients rarely made full recoveries, (2) scientists did not have the technology "to observe the living brain's microscopic activities," and (3) the established notion that "the brain is like a glorious machine" (Preface to The Brain That Changes Itself). The “fact” of the unchanging brain has been proven to be false, but many brain myths prevail.

In the Preface to The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge suggests three reasons for this theory of the unchanging brain or localizationism: (1) brain damaged patients rarely made full recoveries, (2) scientists did not have the technology "to observe the living brain's microscopic activities," and (3) the established notion that "the brain is like a glorious machine" (Preface to The Brain That Changes Itself). The “fact” of the unchanging brain has been proven to be false, but many brain myths prevail.

Modern neuroscience has now established that the brain, by its very nature, changes itself. This phenomenon is called neuroplasticity, and is lifelong. Changing itself is what the brain does, and experience changes the brain.

Understanding neuroplasticity has helped many individuals achieve astonishing transformations—in some cases without operations or medications, but focused attention combined with repetitive drills and practice over a period of time are required conditions for brain change. Barbara Arrowsmith Young has become a famous example of directed brain change based on neuroplasticity.

Many neuroscientists believe that brain is the seat of the mind - i.e., that the brain creates and shapes the mind, and that all mental processes stem from brain activity. Evidence also demonstrates that the mind, through mental activity and mental practice, causes changes to the very structure of the brain.

In his recent book, The Brain's Way of Healing, Norman Doidge emphasizes that the "view of an imperial brain is not accurate.... Not only does the brain send signals to the body to influence it; the body sends signals to the brain to affect it as well, and thus there is constant, two-way communication between them. The body abounds with neurons, the gut alone having 100 million. Only in anatomy textbooks is the brain isolated from the body and confined to the head."

Neurons also abound in the heart, and scientists tell us that the heart produces the strongest electrical and magnetic fields in the body. 
The question of whether the heart and and the gut are our second and third brains also gives rise to much speculation. Outside mainstream science, many researchers have been investigating the association of the heart with feeling, emotion, and even belief. Although this research takes place mainly outside the neuroscience mainstream, many scientists take them seriously, including scientists at the Institute of HearthMath.

Mysteries of the Heart

We know that our brains grow roughly 100 billion neurons. The number of synaptic connections made possible by 100 billion neurons far outnumbers the particles of the known universe. These astronomical numbers help to explain the vast potential for creativity, contemplation, adaptation, and change enabled by the vast number of neurons we have, the massive number possible synaptic connections between neurons, and by the dynamic process of neuroplasticity. They also help us to understand the complexity of our brain and suggest that we may never be able to fully understand the brain, which is the seat of the mind.

Clearly, the human brain is a complex organ we may never be able to fully understand. New findings will continue to generate new research. Unanswered questions and unresolved problems will continue to baffle neuroscientists as well as lay individuals interested in the workings the brain in general, and their brain in particular. By learning about the neuroplastic brain, we can use the knowledge that our brains are changeable to understand ourselves better and improve our daily lives.

Neuroplasticity is the key to brain change and brain fitness. The knowledge that our brains are changeable can provide insights into our daily lives, and help us understand what it means to be an individual person. It may also inspire us to be proactive in enhancing our personal growth and improving our lives in important ways.

Here are some points to remember about neuroplasticity

(1) Neuroplasticity is not extraordinary, because changing is what brains are designed to do. Modern neuroscience has contributed a new and better understanding of our changing brain, but the brain has always been an organ that changes itself throughout life.

(2) Neuroplasticity is neutral. It's a two-way street because brain change can be positive or negative. Knowing more about neuroplasticity has helped us to better understand and explain addiction, for example; it may also motivate us to use our understanding of neuroplasticity to reverse negative habits and behaviours.

(3) Neuroplasticity is not a new fad. Neuroplasticity-based recoveries may amaze us and sometimes appear "miraculous," but research, discoveries, and neuroplasticity-based therapies are grounded in serious science.

(4) Renowned scientists and researchers have developed plasticity-based therapies that have achieved previously unimaginable results, but a better understanding of neuroplasticity has not solved every brain-related problem.

For example, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and multiple sclerosis are three well-known brain-related disorders where unanswered questions and unresolved problems continue to baffle neuroscientists. While research has contributed strategies and interventions to significantly alleviate some symptoms of many disorders, discovering root causes and developing treatments that lead to recovery are a continuing challenge.

(5) Understanding neuroplasticity is important for everyone, not just for people with problems, because everyone needs to achieve and maintain brain fitness to have a healthy brain.

Experience changes the brain, but we may not be aware of the change, and we may not have consciously intended it. However, every time we learn something new, develop a new habit, or acquire a new skill, we are changing our brain. “Using the brain’s ability to change, we can change it in dramatic ways” because those accumulated changes define who and what we are, as well as what we can and can’t do. “Using the brain’s own ability to change, we can change it in dramatic ways” (Michael Merzenich in Brain Fitness Frontiers, a PBS documentary).