The Paradox of Neuroplasticity

The Paradox of Neuroplasticity

The brain is a highly changeable, adaptable and 'plastic' part of our bodies. Our neural pathways change over time, based on the environment in which we immerse ourselves. Neuroplasticity operates via modification of our neural pathways (the wiring that connects parts of our brain together). One of the primary methods of neuroplasticity is "synaptic pruning, the idea that individual connections within the brain are constantly being removed or recreated, largely dependent upon how they are used. This concept is captured in the aphorism, "neurons that fire together, wire together"/"neurons that fire apart, wire apart." If there are two nearby neurons that often produce an impulse simultaneously, their cortical maps may become one. This idea also works in the opposite way, i.e. that neurons which do not regularly produce simultaneous impulses will form different maps." (Wikipedia) The idea that the human brain is capable of dramatic change, beyond the formative years of childhood, has been slow to become accepted. Studies have shown that people underestimate the degree to which their personalities and proclivities will change over time, not imagining that they will change as much in the future as they have in the past:

"When we remember our past selves, they seem quite different. We know how much our personalities and tastes have changed over the years. But when we look ahead, somehow we expect ourselves to stay the same ... They (call) this phenomenon the “end of history illusion,” in which people tend to “underestimate how much they will change in the future." ... when asked to predict what their personalities and tastes would be like in 10 years, people of all ages consistently played down the potential changes ahead." (John Tierney, New York Times)

While the human brain has apparently underestimated itself, neuroplasticity isn’t all good news; it renders our brains not only more resourceful but also more vulnerable to outside influences.

Neuroplasticity has the power to produce more flexible but also more rigid behaviors—a phenomenon I call “the plastic paradox.” Ironically, some of our most stubborn habits and disorders are products of our plasticity. Once a particular plastic change occurs in the brain and becomes well established, it can prevent other changes from occurring. It is by understanding both the positive and negative effects of plasticity that we can truly understand the extent of human possibilities.

Neuroplasticity is a very powerful tool, and has been used to resolve severe medical conditions, ranging from tinnitus, phantom limb syndrome, and maladies caused by physical damage to the brain itself. These sorts of treatments have yet to become commonly prescribed, or even widely understood, however. This is still the 'cutting edge' of medicine. The brain is not infinitely malleable, however. Brian plasticity tends to reinforce itself in predictable ways:

(N)europlasticity is like pliable snow on a hill. When we go down the hill on a sled, we can be flexible because we have the option of taking different paths through the soft snow each time. But should we choose the same path a second or third time, tracks will start to develop, and soon we will tend to get stuck in a rut—our route will now be quite rigid, as neural circuits, once established, tend to become self-sustaining. Because our neuroplasticity can give rise to both mental flexibility and mental rigidity, we tend to underestimate our own potential for flexibility, which most of us experience only in flashes.

One of the challenges in utilizing neuroplasticity as a tool to create change, is that neuroplasticity operates in a similar manner to punctuated equilibrium in evolutionary biology. Rapid change in the brain tends to happen in short, intense spurts -- and then these changes stabilize, once a new equilibrium point is reached. What's fascinating about neuroplasticity is how powerful it is, that is has enormous potential for creating change in human consciousness.

Research has shown that neuroplasticity is neither ghettoized within certain departments in the brain nor confined to the sensory, motor, and cognitive processing areas ... The brain structure that regulates instinctive behaviors, including sex, called the hypothalamus, is plastic, as is the amygdala, the structure that processes emotion and anxiety. While some parts of the brain, such as the cortex, may have more plastic potential because there are more neurons and connections to be altered, even noncortical areas display plasticity. It is a property of all brain tissue.

Neuroplasticity has enormous potential, but it's still not well-understood from a practical standpoint. The paradox of neuroplasticity is that while it is a powerful tool, and humans are constantly changing over time, it is very difficult to direct the shape and scope of neuroplastic changes in the brain. This is because neuroplasticity happens in short, punctuated bursts that are frequently caused by novel environments or experiences. Unfortunately, simply deciding that "I'm going to stop eating chocolate" doesn't exert a neuroplastic response in the human brain! So, the question becomes, are there any methods by which we deliberately shape our future selves via neuroplasticity? The answer is "Yes, with difficulty!". == Why You Won’t Be the Person You Expect to Be, John Tierney, Doidge, Norman (2007-03-15). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (James H. Silberman Books) Penguin Group.


Written on 2013/07/17

Written by Erik Schimek

Erik is an entrepreneur and self-improvement expert. You can learn more about Meliora Meditation at Infinite Chorus.

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