You’ve heard about it in advertisements for the brain-training company Lumosity — that through games based on the science of neuroplasticity, the brain can be retrained and even rewired for greater performance.
Whether Lumosity’s offerings actually achieve this is still up for debate, but the idea that new tricks can be taught to older and even damaged brains is gaining a lot of traction in scientific circles.
In 2000, American neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel won the Nobel Prize in neurophysiology for his research revealing new ways to study how the brain functions.
He also showed how there’s really no separation between what we call the mind and the physical brain that houses it. In a 2013 op-ed in the New York Times, Kandel wrote:
This new science of mind is based on the principle that our mind and our brain are inseparable. The brain is a complex biological organ possessing immense computational capability; it constructs our sensory experience, regulates our thoughts and emotions, and controls our actions. It is responsible not only for relatively simple motor behaviors like running and eating, but also for complex acts that we consider quintessentially human, like thinking, speaking and creating works of art. Looked at from this perspective, the mind is a set of operations carried out by the brain.
Neuroplasticity tells us that the mind is not only dependent on the brain but its potential master as well.
A Nov. 17 story at the British Website Mosaic Science recounts the tale of a North Carolina woman who woke up with brain damage after a failed suicide attempt. Despite a year of rehab, she still had slow, slurred speech, poor memory and thinking skills, and low energy.
It was around this time that she tried a new treatment called neurofeedback. She was required to have her brain monitored while playing a simple Pac-Man-like game, controlling movements by manipulating her brain waves. “Within ten sessions, my speech improved.” But Debbie’s real turnaround happened when her neurofeedback counsellor recommended a book: the international bestseller The Brain that Changes Itself by Canadian psychotherapist Norman Doidge. “Oh my God,” she says. “For the first time it really showed me it was possible to heal my brain. Not only that it was possible, that it was up to me.”
After reading Doidge’s book, Debbie began living what she calls a “brain-healthy” life. That includes yoga, meditation, visualisation, diet and the maintenance of a positive mental attitude. Today, she co-owns a yoga studio, has written an autobiography and a guide to “brain-healthy living” and runs the website thebestbrainpossible.com. The science of neuroplasticity, she says, has taught her that, “You’re not stuck with the brain you’re born with. You may be given certain genes but what you do in your life changes your brain. And that’s the magic wand.” Neuroplasticity, she says, “allows you to change your life and make happiness a reality. You can go from being a victim to a victor. It’s like a superpower. It’s like having X-ray vision.”
Until very recently, conventional wisdom was that, as a brain ages, it increasingly loses the ability to reshape itself and create new neural connections. So, if a brain is also damaged or diseased, there are limits to recovery.
But according to the tenets of neuroplasticity, through adhering to specific thoughts and actions, one can not only increase mental speed and acuity, but also actually alter the brain’s structure and perhaps help it overcome such things as Parkinson’s disease, autism, stroke and traumatic head injury.
Speaking to the UK Guardian in early 2015, Doidge — a Canadian scientist, medical doctor and psychiatrist, who started out as a poet and philosophy student — said:
Most neuroscientists don’t come from a philosophical background. They basically believe that mind is merely what the brain does. But I have a problem with that because none of these people can really define what mind is or what thought is. The statement that “the mind is only what the brain does” is a statement that only makes sense in a pre-neuroplastic era. Now that we know that mind also changes brain, should we not equally say that “the brain is what mind does”?
Doidge emphasizes that, although some of the cases he’s investigated seem miraculous — such as a man who was able to restore eyesight lost to an autoimmune disease — he’s kept his feet and theories planted on solid biological ground.
When people hear this story they feel that it is miraculous, but at the same time I knew that this could not be a miracle. I knew that there must be something in nature that allowed this to happen. I really think we have come through an age where science is funded by government and granting agencies and you get a grant by doing the bidding of those bodies. I am not contemptuous of that. But truth be told, the real scientist begins not with a particular task but a sense of wonder at how the world works. I became comfortable with wonder, writing both of these books – it triggers curiosity and pulls you towards it, but it triggers anxiety at the same time because you don’t know what is behind it. I have tried to explain over and over again how mind changes brain structure and function but nobody alive has yet properly defined mind and no one has explained properly how so-called ethereal thought can change so-called material structure. The whole subject is filled with wonder.
Here’s a 2013 TEDx talk on improving your brain’s plasticity: