Neuroplasticity on the radio

Dr. Norman Doidge
Dr. Norman Doidge
Stephanie West Allen, who runs the blog Brains On Purpose, alerted me to the fact that the Australian ABC has posted audio files of a couple of interviews with Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz and Dr. Norman Doidge, the author of The Brain That Changes Itself (see her post, NeuroMediators: Understanding the brain is a critical key to resolving conflict (both within a culture and between cultures)). Dr. Doidge has been in Australia, attending several writers’ festivals and a workshop on ‘neuro-leadership.’ My wife caught his interview on The 7:30 Report, one of the better in depth news analysis programs on ABC TV, but I have not been able to attend any of the events where he spoke (what can I say? It’s a really really bad semester here…).

The original radio shows, audio recordings and transcripts (!) are available on the ABC All in the Mind website:
Part 1 of 2: The Power of Plasticity
Part 2 of 2 – The power of plasticity
See especially Part 2 as there are links to a host of other resources, such as the video of an interview Dr. Doidge did on ABC television while he was here in Australia, and discussions of the work of Prof. Paul Bach-y-Rita, one of the pioneers in work on neuroplasticity, including his research on technological prostheses for missing sensory information.

The material is great, and I’m nearly finished with Doidge’s book, but I still have several reservations about it even though I share the fascination with neuroplasticity and enthusiasm for Doidge’s work:

1) Plasticity, while it is clearly a crucial quality of the brain, is only one quality of a complex organ. Part of the reason for excitement about neuroplasticity is the artificial surprise that was generated because of long-held, erroneous beliefs about the immutability of the brain. In fact, the idea that the brain could not grow, change, adapt, or generate new cells is, in retrospect, pretty damn counter-intuitive and hard to believe. Most living organisms and organs are mutable, and from what we know about the brain’s performance–its ability to form new memories, learn, forget–we might logically conclude that the brain changes.

2) The evidence on plasticity from work like that of Prof. Edward Taub suggests that the brain is malleable, but that the amount of effort involved in changing the brain can be extraordinary. Taub’s work with stroke victims, like that of Bach-y-Rita, suggests that, in some cases, it can take thousands upon thousands of repetitions of basic actions to reshape neural sensitivity, if it is even possible. Sometimes the focus on ‘plasticity’ (rather than, say, long-term development) emphasizes the capacity to change over the severe demands that change actually makes on anyone seeking it. Doidge’s book is quite good on this in the long version, but I sometimes feel that brief discussions of neuroplasticity, especially in the popular press, oversell the malleability.

3) The focus on plasticity in cases of brain trauma tends to emphasize the most unusual cases — those where function is radically changed and severe deprivation or physiological alteration occurs. Although neuropathology has long offered one of the most important windows into brain function, these cases of brain trauma can be misleading for understanding non-pathological plasticity because plasticity is much harder when neural resources are already allocated. For example, brain reorganization following trauma may be more extensive than normally possible because a brain region may be deprived of input from its normal sensory area (such as after loss of a limb); such complete deprivation may be a precondition for large-scale change.

4) It seems to me that most of the ‘plasticity’ discussion is happening around, on the one hand, recovery from brain trauma, and, on the other hand, around self-help and adult populations (like those interested in leadership or Buddhist meditation). While these are both excellent areas to think about neuroplasticity, my opinion is that much of the story of neuroplasticity is in developmental settings, in the normal interactions and activities that occur during childhood. Again, Doidge discusses this in his book (as does John Medina in his book, Brain Rules), but this balanced focus tends to drop out in discussions in the media, where the focus is on adults, probably because the audience is adults.

5) Finally, to go back to the predominance of ‘plasticity’ in some discussions of the brain, I simply don’t think any one term is adequate to capture the basic ways in which the brain functions. For example, the discussion of plasticity may over-emphasize mutability and fail to reflect the degree to which brains develop regional specialization, for example, or reuse specialized regions in different functional networks. There are many stories to tell about the brain, and neuroplasticity is a pretty compelling one, but it’s not the whole story. Some of the self-help-ish discussion of neuroplasticity seems to suggest it’s the only story in town (of course, the same could be said about some evolutionary accounts of the brain).

Of course, the onus is not on those like Doidge to figure out all the stories to tell about the brain. In fact, his work should encourage all of us to raise our game, to make our own parts of the story more compelling and accessible. I know that I’m looking to his book as a role model for my own work on the motor enculturation of the brain; his work is admirable for its comprehensiveness, its accessibility, and its boldness. He’s left out plenty from his book, The Brain that Changes Itself, but that just means there’s ample room for others to contribute their pieces to the collective effort.

All this said, I still like Doidge’s book a lot, and I’m glad he’s doing interviews here in Australia. He’s really energized a lot of people here in Australia with his presentations and appearances in the media. And I still owe our readers a more complete review of his book — I haven’t forgotten.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Stephanie West Allen for rousing me from my mid-semester collapse.

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States, and look forward to a new project in New Zealand. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-edited several books, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

12 thoughts on “Neuroplasticity on the radio

  1. Hello, Greg.

    Doidge clearly wants to lay to rest the fixed concepts of localization and immutability. In drawing together such profound case studies and in the sound bite portrayal in the media I agree that there’s a danger that plasticity will get oversold.

    On the other hand, I think this kind of hype is necessary these days for an important idea to impinge upon the public consciousness.

    I like your balanced view. Plasticity needs to be part of an integrated and realistic understanding of the brain.

    Best wishes,
    Martin Walker
    mind evolve, llc
    Brain Fitness Pro

  2. I think some of the problems you’ve identified are characteristic of popular science in general, i.e. taking a few liberties in what’s presented to maintain a broadly appealing narrative.

    I saw Doidge speak in Melbourne, and your first point was certainly addressed. Hopefully the transcript/audio will be placed online at some point. He essentially blamed the past opposition to plasticity on an obsession with a mechanistic metaphor of the brain. That never gained much traction with me, since I’m of the generation that includes software, biologically-inspired robots and the like under that banner, so never really understood why a machine couldn’t be plastic.

    The head of the Howard Florey Institute, Frederick Mendelsohn, and a grad student there, Emma Burrows, also spoke on plasticity. I found their accounts more interesting in the end, if only because they were a little more down-to-earth

  3. “On the other hand, I think this kind of hype is necessary these days for an important idea to impinge upon the public consciousness.”

    And those of a younger generation of laymen!

    I read the book several months after it came out, as a high school senior. Such implications prompted a dense and impassioned college application essay–though naive and perhaps overly-enthusiastic (looking back, but a year later)–that ultimately served as the key to an education opportunity at my current university.

    I both thank you for a more practical presentation of the picture, and give a healthy “Hurrah!” for accessible pop-sci works!

  4. There could be two ways of understanding the concept of neuroplasticity, and both are related. One is the inductive approach and the other deductive approach. The Western scientific mind is uniquely trained to approach this subject from particular to general, whereas the Eastern mind is culturally trained to approach the same subject from general to particualr.

    When I was reading Dr. Doidge’s “The Brain That Changes Itself,” I felt like I was grasping a profound truth that he captures in those simple few words. When it comes to brain and culture, Dr. Doidge writes, “It implies two-way traffic; the brain and genetics produce culture, but culture also shapes the brain.”

    Can we really think of neuroplasticity as different from the culture that initiates changes occuring in our brains? When a generation of people passes language, religious beliefs, educational learning system and the whole lot to its posterity, is this not, in one sense, like transferring the brain and culture as one package? Of course, the generation of people that inherits the old package has the option and ability to making changes in the general culture before it is passed on to the next. This has been an on going thing in human history and civilization through milleniums and centuries?

    I think the concept of neuroplasticity is opening the whole “pandora box” of asking age-old questions in a new framework of thinking. Who we are, why we believe what we believe, and why we do what we do, like killing fellow human beings, accumulation of millions of dollars without thinking of other fellow human beings that have to make it through life?

    Neuroplasticity is a fascinating subject. My question is a simple one. How can we talk about the brain apart from culture, except as a biological part of the human body. But what good is this brain if this physical entity has to function without a home, family, language, school, community, religion, college, company, corporation, nation, the global community of nations, and the eco system of this Planet Earth that keeps us alive to breathe, eat, sleep and study to make us think and ask such profound questions?

    Charles Mark

  5. If I can quote Dr. Norman Doidge correctly, this is what he writes. “We have what might be called a culturally modified brain, and as cultures evolve, they continually lead to changes in the brain.”

    By the way, I have titled chapter six of my book, “Spiritual Intelligence and The Neuroplstic Brain” (2010) as “The Culturally Modified Brain and The Spirituality of Different Strokes.”

    Charles Mark

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