Cast your mind back, cast it right back. You may remember that once, in conversation a long time ago, I uttered the phrase that a brain is “wired” in certain ways. Upon verbalising this phrase I was lambasted in a way that can only be described as ‘verbal rape’. This condemnation has continued to the present day whenever the topic of the brain comes up in our discussions.
Today however, I may be getting the last word on this topic.
For decades, the prevailing dogma in neuroscience was that the adult human brain is essentially immutable, hardwired, fixed in form and function, so that by the time we reach adulthood we are pretty much stuck with what we have.
The doctrine of the unchanging human brain has had profound ramifications. For one thing, it lowered expectations about the value of rehabilitation for adults who had suffered brain damage from a stroke or about the possibility of fixing the pathological wiring that underlies psychiatric diseases.
But research in the past few years has overthrown the dogma. In its place has come the realization that the adult brain retains impressive powers of “neuroplasticity” – the ability to change its structure and function in response to experience. These aren’t minor tweaks either. Something as basic as the function of the visual or auditory cortex can change as a result of a person’s experience of becoming deaf or blind at a young age. Even when the brain suffers a trauma late in life, it can rezone itself like a city in a frenzy of urban renewal. If a stroke knocks out, say, the neighbourhood of motor cortex that moves the right arm, a new technique called constraint-induced movement therapy can coax next-door regions to take over the function of the damaged area. The brain can be rewired.
Of course, this may not be news to you considering your past research experience, but what I thought may interest you is how often they are saying that a brain is “wired”. I’m not arguing that because Time says so, it is correct. What I am saying however, is that what I said is not worthy of the lambasting that I received… the phrase used is an acceptable layman’s term. Am I a layman? Of course I am… I did a degree in Computer Science, not Neuro-Psychology! That’s a ‘hard science’, not one of these ‘fuzzy soft-pseudo-sciences’ that you are so drawn to*.
*Note: I am not a science despot and by no means consider any psychological or sociological studies a ‘soft-science’. This is simply an ‘in-joke’ that is written to stir angry feelings in the recipient. Please don’t hurt me.
You may also be interested in some of the articles that the above links to, especially this one by Steven Pinker (of Blank Slate, ‘fame’): The Mystery of Consciousness
For those who prefer laughing at others rather than reading petty squabbles, direct your mince pies here: Cliff Arnall is depressing. The first three links are worthy of a read; especially Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’ retort (more Bad Science available on my Blogroll). I’m embarrassed to admit that this ‘psychologist’ was from Cardiff University.