Authors: Nicholas Carr
Much of the early evidence of neuroplasticity came through the study of the brain’s reaction to injuries, whether the severing of the nerves in the hands of Merzenich’s monkeys or the loss of sight, hearing, or a limb by human beings. That led some scientists to wonder whether the malleability of the adult brain might be limited to extreme situations. Perhaps, they theorized, plasticity is essentially a healing mechanism, triggered by trauma to the brain or the sensory organs. Further experiments have shown that that’s not the case. Extensive, perpetual plasticity has been documented in healthy, normally functioning nervous systems, leading neuroscientists to conclude that our brains are always in flux, adapting to even small shifts in our circumstances and behavior. “We have learned that neuroplasticity is not only possible but that it is constantly in action,” writes Mark Hallett, head of the Medical Neurology Branch of the National Institutes of Health. “That is the way we adapt to changing conditions, the way we learn new facts, and the way we develop new skills.”
“Plasticity,” says Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a top neurology researcher at Harvard Medical School, is “the normal ongoing state of the nervous system throughout the life span.” Our brains are constantly changing in response to our experiences and our behavior, reworking their circuitry with “each sensory input, motor act, association, reward signal, action plan, or [shift of] awareness.” Neuroplasticity, argues Pascual-Leone, is one of the most important products of evolution, a trait that enables the nervous system “to escape the restrictions of its own genome and thus adapt to environmental pressures, physiologic changes, and experiences.”
The genius of our brain’s construction is not that it contains a lot of hardwiring but that it doesn’t. Natural selection, writes the philosopher David Buller in
, his critique of evolutionary psychology, “has not designed a brain that consists of numerous prefabricated adaptations” but rather one that is able “to adapt to local environmental demands throughout the lifetime of an individual, and sometimes within a period of days, by forming specialized structures to deal with those demands.”
Evolution has given us a brain that can literally change its mind—over and over again.
Our ways of thinking, perceiving, and acting, we now know, are not entirely determined by our genes. Nor are they entirely determined by our childhood experiences. We change them through the way we live—and, as Nietzsche sensed, through the tools we use. Years before Edward Taub opened his rehabilitation clinic in Alabama, he conducted a famous experiment on a group of right-handed violinists. Using a machine that monitors neural activity, he measured the areas of their sensory cortex that processed signals from their left hands, the hands they used to finger the strings of their instruments. He also measured the same cortical areas in a group of right-handed volunteers who had never played a musical instrument. He found that the brain areas of the violinists were significantly larger than those of the nonmusicians. He then measured the size of the cortical areas that processed sensations from the subjects’ right hands. Here, he found no differences between the musicians and the nonmusicians. Playing a violin, a musical tool, had resulted in substantial physical changes in the brain. That was true even for the musicians who had first taken up their instruments as adults.
When scientists have trained primates and other animals to use simple tools, they’ve discovered just how profoundly the brain can be influenced by technology. Monkeys, for instance, were taught how to use rakes and pliers to take hold of pieces of food that would otherwise have been out of reach. When researchers monitored the animals’ neural activity throughout the course of the training, they found significant growth in the visual and motor areas involved in controlling the hands that held the tools. But they discovered something even more striking as well: the rakes and pliers actually came to be incorporated into the brain maps of the animals’ hands. The tools, so far as the animals’ brains were concerned, had become part of their bodies. As the researchers who conducted the experiment with the pliers reported, the monkeys’ brains began to act “as if the pliers were now the hand fingers.”
It’s not just repeated physical actions that can rewire our brains. Purely mental activity can also alter our neural circuitry, sometimes in far-reaching ways. In the late 1990s, a group of British researchers scanned the brains of sixteen London cab drivers who had between two and forty-two years of experience behind the wheel. When they compared the scans with those of a control group, they found that the taxi drivers’ posterior hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a key role in storing and manipulating spatial representations of a person’s surroundings, was much larger than normal. Moreover, the longer a cab driver had been on the job, the larger his posterior hippocampus tended to be. The researchers also discovered that a portion of the drivers’ anterior hippocampus was smaller than average, apparently a result of the need to accommodate the enlargement of the posterior area. Further tests indicated that the shrinking of the anterior hippocampus might have reduced the cabbies’ aptitude for certain other memorization tasks. The constant spatial processing required to navigate London’s intricate road system, the researchers concluded, is “associated with a relative redistribution of gray matter in the hippocampus.”
Another experiment, conducted by Pascual-Leone when he was a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, provides even more remarkable evidence of the way our patterns of thought affect the anatomy of our brains. Pascual-Leone recruited people who had no experience playing a piano, and he taught them how to play a simple melody consisting of a short series of notes. He then split the participants into two groups. He had the members of one group practice the melody on a keyboard for two hours a day over the next five days. He had the members of the other group sit in front of a keyboard for the same amount of time but only imagine playing the song—without ever touching the keys. Using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, Pascual-Leone mapped the brain activity of all the participants before, during, and after the test. He found that the people who had only imagined playing the notes exhibited precisely the same changes in their brains as those who had actually pressed the keys.
Their brains had changed in response to actions that took place purely in their imagination—in response, that is, to their thoughts. Descartes may have been wrong about dualism, but he appears to have been correct in believing that our thoughts can exert a physical influence on, or at least cause a physical reaction in, our brains. We become, neurologically, what we think.
MICHAEL GREENBERG, IN
a 2008 essay in the
New York Review of Books
, found the poetry in neuroplasticity. He observed that our neurological system, “with its branches and transmitters and ingeniously spanned gaps, has an improvised quality that seems to mirror the unpredictability of thought itself.” It’s “an ephemeral place that changes as our experience changes.”
There are many reasons to be grateful that our mental hardware is able to adapt so readily to experience, that even old brains can be taught new tricks. The brain’s adaptability hasn’t just led to new treatments, and new hope, for those suffering from brain injury or illness. It provides all of us with a mental flexibility, an intellectual litheness, that allows us to adapt to new situations, learn new skills, and in general expand our horizons.
But the news is not all good. Although neuroplasticity provides an escape from genetic determinism, a loophole for free thought and free will, it also imposes its own form of determinism on our behavior. As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit. The paradox of neuroplasticity, observes Doidge, is that, for all the mental flexibility it grants us, it can end up locking us into “rigid behaviors.”
The chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons program us, in effect, to want to keep exercising the circuits they’ve formed. Once we’ve wired new circuitry in our brain, Doidge writes, “we long to keep it activated.”
That’s the way the brain fine-tunes its operations. Routine activities are carried out ever more quickly and efficiently, while unused circuits are pruned away.
Plastic does not mean elastic, in other words. Our neural loops don’t snap back to their former state the way a rubber band does; they hold onto their changed state. And nothing says the new state has to be a desirable one. Bad habits can be ingrained in our neurons as easily as good ones. Pascual-Leone observes that “plastic changes may not necessarily represent a behavioral gain for a given subject.” In addition to being “the mechanism for development and learning,” plasticity can be “a cause of pathology.”
It comes as no surprise that neuroplasticity has been linked to mental afflictions ranging from depression to obsessive-compulsive disorder to tinnitus. The more a sufferer concentrates on his symptoms, the deeper those symptoms are etched into his neural circuits. In the worst cases, the mind essentially trains itself to be sick. Many addictions, too, are reinforced by the strengthening of plastic pathways in the brain. Even very small doses of addictive drugs can dramatically alter the flow of neurotransmitters in a person’s synapses, resulting in long-lasting alterations in brain circuitry and function. In some cases, the buildup of certain kinds of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, a pleasure-producing cousin to adrenaline, seems to actually trigger the turning on or off of particular genes, bringing even stronger cravings for the drug. The vital paths turn deadly.
The potential for unwelcome neuroplastic adaptations also exists in the everyday, normal functioning of our minds. Experiments show that just as the brain can build new or stronger circuits through physical or mental practice, those circuits can weaken or dissolve with neglect. “If we stop exercising our mental skills,” writes Doidge, “we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead.”
Jeffrey Schwartz, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s medical school, terms this process “survival of the busiest.”
The mental skills we sacrifice may be as valuable, or even more valuable, than the ones we gain. When it comes to the
of our thought, our neurons and synapses are entirely indifferent. The possibility of intellectual decay is inherent in the malleability of our brains.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t, with concerted effort, once again redirect our neural signals and rebuild the skills we’ve lost. What it does mean is that the vital paths in our brains become, as Monsieur Dumont understood, the paths of least resistance. They are the paths that most of us will take most of the time, and the farther we proceed down them, the more difficult it becomes to turn back.
THE FUNCTION OF
the brain, Aristotle believed, was to keep the body from overheating. A “compound of earth and water,” brain matter “tempers the heat and seething of the heart,” he wrote in
The Parts of Animals
, a treatise on anatomy and physiology. Blood rises from the “fiery” region of the chest until it reaches the head, where the brain reduces its temperature “to moderation.” The cooled blood then flows back down through the rest of the body. The process, suggested Aristotle, was akin to that which “occurs in the production of showers. For when vapor steams up from the earth under the influence of heat and is carried into the upper regions, so soon as it reaches the cold air that is above the earth, it condenses again into water owing to the refrigeration, and falls back to the earth as rain.” The reason man has “the largest brain in proportion to his size” is that “the region of the heart and of the lung is hotter and richer in blood in man than in any other animal.” It seemed obvious to Aristotle that the brain could not possibly be “the organ of sensation,” as Hippocrates and others had conjectured, since “when it is touched, no sensation is produced.” In its insensibility, “it resembles,” he wrote, “the blood of animals and their excrement.”
It’s easy, today, to chuckle at Aristotle’s error. But it’s also easy to understand how the great philosopher was led so far astray. The brain, packed neatly into the bone-crate of the skull, gives us no sensory signal of its existence. We feel our heart beat, our lungs expand, our stomach churn—but our brain, lacking motility and having no sensory nerve endings, remains imperceptible to us. The source of consciousness lies beyond the grasp of consciousness. Physicians and philosophers, from classical times through the Enlightenment, had to deduce the brain’s function by examining and dissecting the clumps of grayish tissue they lifted from the skulls of corpses and other dead animals. What they saw usually reflected their assumptions about human nature or, more generally, the nature of the cosmos. They would, as Robert Martensen describes in
The Brain Takes Shape
, fit the visible structure of the brain into their preferred metaphysical metaphor, arranging the organ’s physical parts “so as to portray likeness in their own terms.”
Writing nearly two thousand years after Aristotle, Descartes conjured up another watery metaphor to explain the brain’s function. To him, the brain was a component in an elaborate hydraulic “machine” whose workings resembled those of “fountains in the royal gardens.” The heart would pump blood to the brain, where, in the pineal gland, it would be transformed, by means of pressure and heat, into “animal spirits,” which then would travel through “the pipes” of the nerves. The brain’s “cavities and pores” served as “apertures” regulating the flow of the animal spirits throughout the rest of the body.
Descartes’ explanation of the brain’s role fit neatly into his mechanistic cosmology, in which, as Martensen writes, “
bodies operated dynamically according to optical and geometric properties” within self-contained systems.
Our modern microscopes, scanners, and sensors have disabused us of most of the old fanciful notions about the brain’s function. But the brain’s strangely remote quality—the way it seems both part of us and apart from us—still influences our perceptions in subtle ways. We have a sense that our brain exists in a state of splendid isolation, that its fundamental nature is impervious to the vagaries of our day-to-day lives. While we know that our brain is an exquisitely sensitive monitor of experience, we want to believe that it lies beyond the influence of experience. We want to believe that the impressions our brain records as sensations and stores as memories leave no physical imprint on its own structure. To believe otherwise would, we feel, call into question the integrity of the self.
That was certainly how I felt when I began to worry that my use of the Internet might be changing the way my brain was processing information. I resisted the idea at first. It seemed ludicrous to think that fiddling with a computer, a mere tool, could alter in any deep or lasting way what was going on inside my head. But I was wrong. As neuroscientists have discovered, the brain—and the mind to which it gives rise—is forever a work in progress. That’s true not just for each of us as individuals. It’s true for all of us as a species.