08 November 2007

Case Study in Adult Neuroplasticity: Charles Darwin

Thanks to Alvaro at SharpBrains for this fascinating peek into how Charles Darwin's thinking changed over his adult life.
I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. On the other hand, novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelists.
Darwin's Autobiography

Darwin's own writing style apparently changed over the years--to his own satisfaction.
Formerly I used to think about my sentences before writing them down; but for several years I have found that it saves time to scribble in a vile hand whole pages as quickly as I possibly can, contracting half the words; and then correct deliberately. Sentences thus scribbled down are often better ones than I could
have written deliberately.

That is a technique that I have found useful as well, even in short comments. The first sentence I write is often useful as a summary, after I work through the ideas a little better. It helps to put the ideas out in the open first for modification and reconstruction.

Darwin's brain experienced neuroplasticity and modification from the "overuse" of some faculties at the expense of other faculties--such as appreciation of poetry and music. His observations of the natural and human worlds may have gained a certain rigour and precision in this process of "selective cultivation" of cortical real estate.

If Darwin had been given the opportunity to relive his life, and thus was able to carry out his plan-in-hindsight of listening to music and reading poetry at least once a week--would his scientific writings have been as clean and precise? An interesting question.

While the neuroplasticity of both motor and sensory cortex following strokes, other denervation, and amputation, are well documented, the neuroplasticity of the associative cortex--prefrontal lobes etc--still requires study to delimit the possibilities. The old saying "you are what you think" is likely to be proven truer than many people would like.

You can find Darwin's works free online here or here.

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Blogger Pastorius said...

I've often wondered if our predilection for poetry is the result of not having a comprehensive understanding of the world around us. In other words, do we like poetry and its vagaries of language, because it echoes the vagueness with which we see the world? Is it natural that we would shuck off poetry (and music) as we get older, and come to favor the more linear story telling of novels.

Certainly, novels have a poetic quality themselves. However, the poetry is usually to be found in the relationships, and in the unfolding of events, rather than in the moment.

Perhaps, as we get older, we don't take as much delight in the moment because we have become used to thinking on more complicated relationships over longer spans of time.

In other words, Darwin's experiences echo mine. And, I think that his progression was a natural progression.

Thursday, 08 November, 2007  
Blogger al fin said...

Interesting, Pastorius.

There may very well be a "Faustian bargain" to be made when deciding on one's career path--particularly for individuals who are multi-talented.

A world class musician has to devote many hours daily to practise, just as anyone at the peak of a career in science or technology must put in the time to stay up with things.

I am not certain that there is a "natural progression" so much as conscious and unconscious choices and priorities that have inevitable consequences.

The only field I know of that is difficult to maintain at highest levels with age--given good health--is mathematics and mathematics-dependent fields.

Thursday, 08 November, 2007  

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