The Plastic Brain

Image from 'The Why Files' website
Image from 'The Why Files' website

How the Brain can Change

If the science writers are to be believed, a hot topic in the field of neuroscience at the moment is the brains incredible plasticity--that is, its ability to grow, adapt and re-map itself, depending on the input it receives through experiences. It's been suggested that this discovery has been the most significant development in our understanding of the brain for 400 years.

Neuroplasticity or cortical remapping is a turnaround from the earlier belief that a persons brain does not significantly change after a critical early period. Now the thinking is that all areas of the brain may be plastic..that is, environmental changes can alter connections between neurons, thus changing behaviour and cognition, even well beyond childhood.

Plasticity has big implications for us humans and our brains. Scientists have already established that through learning new skills, such as another language or a new dance step, new pathways can be forged in the brain. More interesting still, some experiments have also suggested that even just imagining learning new skills can produce significant changes in the brain.

An experiment conducted by Pascuale-Leone, Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, involved three groups of adult human volunteers, none of whom could play the piano. It was the task of the first group to merely stare at the piano, while the second group learnt five-finger piano lessons. The third group were only required to imagine they were playing the piano. All groups underwent brain scans before and after the experiment.

The results of the study were extremely interesting -in the first group, as might be expected, there was no change in the brain scans, while in the second group there had been an impressive change in brain areas relating to digits. However, in the third group, where participants had only imagined playing the piano, the changes in the brain were almost as significant as were found in the group that had actually learnt the exercises.

But plasticity can also mean vulnerability...

Just as the human mind has shaped culture, so too does culture shape the mind, causing some scientists to hypothesise that the startling exponential developments in technology may, over time, be 'reshaping' our brains..and not necessarily in a good way.

Susan Greenfield has an interesting perspective
Susan Greenfield has an interesting perspective

A New Type of Mind

One of the more vocal neuroscientists sending out warnings is Professor Susan Greenfield, Director of the Oxford Centre for the Science of the Mind. Greenfield is concerned that today's developing brain is being disturbingly reshaped by, among other things, an excess of visual stimulation.

Technology, in its various manifestations (and how we use it) is impacting on our plastic brains and in so doing could be inadvertantly laying the groundwork for a repatterning of the brains of future generations, who will have different abilities and ways of thinking as a result. Greenfield predicts we could be on the verge of a 'brain makeover', with gains in some areas and losses in others.

Greenfield posits, for example, that as an activity, while computer games are good for enhancing skills such as problem solving and fast reactions, they fall short in helping to develop attributes like empathy and communication. As Greenfield puts it the human brain is 'exquisitely sensitive to every event' and spending hours in front of a computer monitor playing games or lingering too long in the cyber social arena could be affecting the frontal cortex..the area of the brain that is more developed than any in other animal and also the part that helps us make sense of the world.

What I am advocating is a hypothesis. That if we were to scan the brains of young people who spend a lot of time playing computer games and in chatrooms, we would find that the prefrontal cortex is damaged, underdeveloped or underactive - just as it is in gamblers, schizophrenics or the obese.

Susan Greenfield Mail Online

Such experiences, says Greenfield, are all about the sensorial titillating here and now rather than interrelatedness through sequences and consequences:

To understand sequences and consequences is to think, to proceed from the sensory to the cognitive, to be able to consider and understand the development and interrelation of things beyond the here and now. The notion of sequence, the order of things, is what we mean by thinking.


The *Yuk* and *Wow* Factor

Stressing the importance of narrative to the plastic brain, Greenfield claims, "it is crucial: it is your life. You cannot live your life backwards or start again. The notion of narrative is that you cannot go either way with a click of the mouse and then go backwards again." Over a long period of time, moving backwards and forwards all over the place on a screen and not sequentially, may be altering the structure of the brain.

To illustrate the point she gives an example of a book about a Princess locked in a castle. If you were to read such a story, more than likely you will care about what happens to the Princess. By contrast if you play a computer game in which the object is to rescue the Princess from the castle you probably wont really give a monkey's elbow about her --it's merely a task to do with reward and frustration and unlike real life, you know if you fail you can go back to the beginning and start again, thus there is no real emotional investment in the fate of the character...ie; no empathy.

Technologies such as the internet tend to work around immediate sensual gratification...what Greenfield calls the 'yuk' and 'wow' factor...and in turn the brain reacts by releasing chemicals such as dopamine that can affect the prefrontal cortex. Dopamine, which is also found in high quantities in cocaine and amphetamines, can cause problems with addiction.

Greenfield laments that after 5,000 years of civilization we may wind up emotional stunted creatures with excellent processing skills and fast reactions but short on empathy, attention span and deeper levels of thought. Whether she is right or wrong, I suppose only time will tell...


As this writer's brain is not all that it should be, due to having spent way too long on computers seeking the thrills of a sensory fix, you might like to get a clearer picture of all this straight from the horses mouth, through the videos at the following website:

http://www.abc.net.au/tv/bigideas/browse/speaker.htm?index=idx-big-ideas-speaker-susan-greenfield&surname=g



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Comments 17 comments

Petra Vlah profile image

Petra Vlah 6 years ago from Los Angeles

Most informative hub; thank you for presenting the facts and give us a lot to think about.

Very interesting studies and an allarm signal for what technology could do for the next generations. Just out of common sense I was always worried about those mechanical skills that children develop and the effect (in terms of critical and rational thinking) that may be affected by such activities.


Makingsense 6 years ago

Thanks for your thoughts. It's a pleasure to read a well thought out and researched hub. I tend to think that one day studies will draw a correlation between the time spent playing violent games while young and callous acts of violence on whatever scale when older.


drbj profile image

drbj 6 years ago from south Florida

Thank you for this very well-written hub, Jane. This is an excellent synopsis of Greenfield's hypotheses and we should all be afraid, really afraid.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hi Petra,

Thanks for popping by.Yes,it is an alarm signal. Greenfield thinks technology might be 'infantilising' the brain into a small child-like state, drawn to buzzing noises and bright lights...with a poor attention span. I suspect the internet, games, social media etc is ok as long as you have another context by which to make sense of it all.That is, as long as you spend enough time thinking and reacting in the r/world.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Makingsense, thanks for reading. You might be right...I'm not sure about that one. Some of those games are pretty horrific, you're not wrong. I guess another problem with them is that tend to work just on a *flight or fight*' region of the brain, rather than the areas responsible for reasoning.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

drbj...one consolation is many of us will probably be dead and dead and buried before the New Brains take over completely. I can't imagine a world short on empathy..it would be awful...there's not enough as it is.

Thanks for stopping by.


David Stone profile image

David Stone 6 years ago from New York City

Nice work, Jane, as usual. They are making progress by the traditional brain scientists till get it wrong a lot of the time.

First, and this is a universal irritation, anyone who still uses the term "wiring" for brain structures either doesn't know what brains or wirings are. When they say, "hard wired," it's even worse. Brains are not mechanical in this sense. Our brains are soft machines, and considered that way, we are closer to the truth.

Like most commentators in the mainstream, these instantly assume that major changes in anything are bad, as if they'd never heard of evolution. Evolution, at one speed or another, is a necessity for the enrichment of any species. Just because our brains may be learn to ignite in new arrangements, base on technology, doesn't make that change harmful, unless we assume out of hand that the limited strategy of a straight ahead narrative–a fantasy itself–to be better. And who would be do that when, as a very young species, we know little else?

The narrative dialogue is an adaptive method for navigating an environment we only partially perceive. It's helped us grow in some ways, although unless we assume that separating ourselves from nature is "better," there is no rational way to argue against trying other methods. We've grown increasingly less well-adjusted to the world around us, even trashing it in fact, and maybe our genetic/evolutionary processes are simply angling for a more holistic human animal.


Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 6 years ago from Southeast Michigan

Good stuff. I need to go digest it now.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

David, thanks for those interesting thoughts. I changed that word 'rewire' for you, which I'd written in my laymans ignorance.(It's true, I don't know much about the brain). I agree..change is an evolutionary imperative and not necessarily bad just because it might happen through the influence of technology. Greenfield's prediction is only a hypothesis. Who knows what we will become?

Her warning does resonate though -it seems reasonable to think that too much time spent in front of screens might displace us even further from the natural environment, as well as from each other in terms of r/life interaction. Will we find the sanitised method of communicating via a detached machine too seductive? Might that detachment lead to a diminishment of empathy? If the virtual world becomes so sophisticated that elaborate fantasies can be played out...experiences that *feel real*, who's going to want to hang out in the actual world?

It's possible technology will alter us in ways we'd find hard to imagine. We may become part soft machine, part non-human machine. Perhaps if we lack certain attributes we can have them implanted through a computer chip. It's mind boggling really.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hi there Jeff...it is a lot to digest and I'm still chewing on it myself. Thanks for reading.


De Greek profile image

De Greek 6 years ago from UK

Terrifying - but useful, informative and convincingly well written article. VERY well done, and for my part, I thank you.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Thanks De Greek.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 6 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Interesting Jane.

No doubt at all about whether or not computers are addictive. They most certainly are along with television.

Since reality television started up, though, I find myself less addicted to television and more addicted to my own writing. At least with my own writing I don't always know beforehand how things will work out.

Emotionally stunted? Yes, we may indeed be more emotionally stunted than, say, our grandparents.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

No WE'RE not emotionally stunted Rod...it's generation Y and beyond.

We're still deep and meaningful...lol.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 6 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Okay. I'll buy that Jane.


Baileybear 6 years ago

interesting hub - I hadn't heard of the brain being "plastic" before. I am aware of brain differences eg I have a lot of "right-brain" traits, I'm not socially geared, and my brain is prone to depression.

It seems that young people these days are more "instantaneous" - they want everything right now and have short attention spans. Emphasis around technology - technology changes so fast my aging brain can't keep up!


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Yes..it's amazingly rapid. I don't know whether it's my imagination but I suspect my attention span is getter shorter too.

Thanks for the comment Baileybear.

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