03 October 2007

Plastic Brains--Shaping Your Future Self

The human brain retains some capacity to learn and change throughout its life. Cortical neurons can not only change their wiring based upon inputs, but new neurons can be grown to reinforce (and replace?) existing networks. Neuroscientists are hot on the trail of brain plasticity, and the story is far from being told entire.

Focal hand dystonia (FHD) is a fascinating disorder of brain plasticity that particularly affects musicians. FHD involves plastic changes in the somatosensory cortex that receives inputs from the involved hand. The brain actually loses its ability to distinguish sensory input from the different fingers, leading to the inability of the musician to synchronize and sequence the intricate fingerings of difficult pieces for piano, violin, and other instruments. The reason for this brain confusion is that long practise sessions playing rapid, difficult pieces confuse the brain into thinking that input from different fingers is actually coming from the same finger. Input from one finger grows into the somatosensory map of a different finger as the brain adapts to this new input, until the brain can no longer distinguish one finger from another when attempting to play music. Here is more on focal dystonia.

We have only so much cortex to work with. The intricate folding of the neocortex provides us with more gray matter than we would have with smooth-surfaced brains, but there is a limit. If we lose an eye or a limb, the cortex serving that part of the body is freed up for other uses. Inputs from other sensory organs or other units of the same sense will typically grow into the unused area of cortex in those cases. Thus someone who goes blind may develop keener hearing and much better discrimination with his Braille reading hand.

Similar plastic remapping of motor cortex can occur, for example after a stroke (CVA). You should not be surprised that many scientists and mental health professionals believe that the associative cortex is capable of similar plastic remapping. In other words, it appears that you truly are shaped by the things you most commonly think about. Your brain accomodates your choices of thought and action by changing as you think, act, cogitate, and daydream.

Jeffrey Schwartz has gone beyond thinking about brain plasticity, to incorporating it into a therapy for his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) patients. His results are promising.

While most educated persons may consider themselves too modern to fall for the admonitions of religious teachers and self-help gurus, who constantly drone that "you are what you think," perhaps it is time to go back to the underlying idea--without all the religious and other extraneous matter.

Humans are at a major turning point. They can either choose the path of accelerating change, or the path of stagnation--with its inherent vulnerability to more primitive, more vital ways of thinking and living. Al Fin frequently points out the stagnant and self-defeating ways of education and child-raising in the modern west. Here at Al Fin, the best alternative put forward to mainstream stagnation, is the next level. But the next level will require smarter humans--humans who can direct their own evolution.

The curve of forward development and accelerating change will not be a smooth, continuously upward curve. It will develop in fits and starts, with occasional relapses and reversals. We are missing much of the data we will need for many of our forward leaps, but more than that, we are missing the conceptual power we will need. If we--through our commitment to stagnant ideologies and customs--neglect basic advances we could be making, we will pay for our lapses dearly, in time.

Adult brains are not nearly as plastic as childhood and teenage brains. The one advantage that adult brains possess, is their life experience and possibly their fuller use of the prefrontal pathways of the brain. These advantages may be used exclusively for one's own benefit, or in addition, used to assist younger generations.

We will eventually utilise gene therapy to bring about higher intelligence in humans. This will be done first in neurodegenerative conditions of old age and childhood. As the methods improve, the benefits of better intelligence-conferring genes (and other augments) will be made available to everyone who can pay--even if the person must travel to Brasil or India to obtain the treatments. But I suspect that we are capable of significant improvement in our ability to learn and conceptualize simply by using the natural plasticity of our own brains. Certainly methods for teaching our children can result in much more capable and confident children if they work with the natural plasticity and the natural hunger for competence of the young brain.

The positive lessons of brain plasticity in Schwartz's treatments for OCD and the negative lessons of brain plasticity in FHD, should give a thoughtful person much to think about.

Previous posts at Al Fin discussed the importance of "purpose" in providing motivation for development and positive change. Learning the lessons of neuroplasticity provides a deeper rationale for discovering purpose in life, and using that purpose to motivate, and to set personal goals.

Religious and ideological zealots and terrorists have no lack of purpose or motivation. They simply want to destroy all competing ideologies and religions. Those of us with more constructive goals may need to focus a bit more.

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Blogger Michael Anissimov said...


PS. It's slightly awkward, yet amusing, how you seem to have a habit of relating everything back to Islamic terrorists.

Wednesday, 03 October, 2007  
Blogger al fin said...

Interesting. Are you sure you are not projecting a bit. I am certain that I cannot find the words Islamic, Islam, muslim, etc. anywhere in the entry.

Although I am trained to psychoanalyse people, I will forego the opportunity unless you make a habit of such projection in the future. If so, I may make some truly amusing comments.

Wednesday, 03 October, 2007  
Blogger IConrad said...

Despite his great talent and insight, Michael has a rather strong dismissive/derisive streak. I've called him on it a number of times -- never gotten an acknowledgment.

Wednesday, 03 October, 2007  
Blogger al fin said...

IC: I tend to disregard snarky comments anyway. Michael is a tremendous resource on the net in the area of accelerating change and existential risk. I typically learn something from most of his comments.

As for the dolphin graphic, that was an inside joke. I tend to risk people misunderstanding some of my graphics and asides, for the sake of a few good laughs.

Thursday, 04 October, 2007  
Blogger chuckatmain said...

Interesting, although I'm not sure I completely understand. My wife suffers from a chronic, incurable vocal disorder called Spasmodic Dysphonia, which I believe must be related to focal dystonia. The only treatment is botulism injected into the vocal cords, which can sometimes ease symptoms for a month or two. I wonder if this work will lead to other treatments for her.

Thursday, 11 October, 2007  
Blogger al fin said...

Norwood, I suspect that spasmodic dysphonia has a different cause than the focal dystonias.

A very clever emg biofeedback clinician may find a way to place electrodes to monitor the abductor and adductor muscles of the vocal cords. If so, biofeedback may become one of the best ways to manage spasmodic dysphonia.

Thursday, 11 October, 2007  

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