Why Plastic is Fantastic

Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself is already inspiring me to get off farcebook and engage in mental gymnastics, and I am only on page 92. In his book, Doidge documents cases in which people have benefited from the plasticity (the ability to change) of the brain.

Let’s take the example of Cheryl Shiltz, because hers is a nice-sounding name. Because of damage to the area of her brain dealing with balance (or the vestibular apparatus), Cheryl constantly feels as if she is falling. So great is the sensation that she is unable to sustain a career or maintain a conventional daily routine. Along comes the researcher Paul Bach-y-Rita and gives her a hat, as well as a thin strip to wear on her tongue. Attached to the strip are small electrodes and inside the hat is a device called an accelerometer. The accelerometer sends signals to the electrodes and both are connected to a computer.

Most of us keep our balance because tiny hairs in our cochlea, or inner ear respond to movement in the fluid canals that surround them and communicate this movement successfully with a clump of neurons, whicn in turn tell our muscles which way to move in order to maintain balance. Since the tiny hairs in Cheryl’s cochlea are not working properly, the accelerometer in the hat detects movement instead and conveys this information to her tongue, which then sends the signals to the specialised clump of neurons in her brain which then advise her muscles which way to move. The journey simply changes from the conventional Hair – Neuron clump – Muscles to become Hat -Tongue- Neuron clump – Muscles. In other words, the hat and the electrodes attached to her tongue allow her to stay balanced.
Nobody wants to hang out in a construction hat and attached to electrodes though. The marvelous, wonderous thing is that with repeated wearing of the hat, Cheryl’s brain developed a residual effect of increasing time periods, until eventually she learned to balance herself without wearing the hat. What this means is that her brain managed to change itself to find new pathways to that clump of neurons. Nice one.

Cheryl’s case illustrates what every road-tripper knows: if you miss your turn, you can take a roundtrip and still reach your destination.

The idea of brain plasticity was long contested among neuroscientists because of their success in assigning areas of the brain to specific functions. This idea, known as localisation assumed that the areas of the brain associated with specific tasks were fixed and that once certain critical periods were passed, if certain cognitive feats had not yet been mastered, they would never be.

Now that I’m curled up, hanging out with Cheryl and many others with inspiring stories, I am thinking about the possibilities of the human mind and that maybe some day, I really will master Arabic. As soon as I get my hands on that €13 teach -yourself set my boyfriend found but did not hold on to while he was stacking books into a pyramid at work, I’m on it. I may be unemployed and not up to much, but that is no excuse not to learn to turn mental somersaults in the middle east. Never before have nerds been so plastic.

10 thoughts on “Why Plastic is Fantastic

  1. Presumably then this a chance to reevaluate the theory that language acquisition is only possible in the early stages of development. Great news. I know that you plan to use the knowledge to learn a third language but just imagine how exciting it would be for those missing a first : )


  2. Good article illustrating that we need to start learning from young.
    However, I would like to point out that perhaps only beyond a critical point of maturity, understanding what we want – then we will be more focused in the learnings we truly have a passion for. Most of us go through a quarter or half our life or even whole life not knowing what we want. As such, when we learn something new, we do not really grasp the fundamentals/logic and thus unable to apply the knowledge/skill in our practical life.

    Do keep up with the efforts/thoughts to learn Arabic! I am trying to set up a discipline routine as well to pick my german back – it has somehow turned rusty!


  3. I supply programmes of neurodevelopmental stimulation for children who have brain injuries and for the past 25 years, since I first started in neuroscience research, the medical profession and other associated professions have scoffed at the idea of brain plasticity, (some of them, despite all the evidence, still do)! We all exhibit plasticity when we learn a new skill, – the brain slowly builds the neural architecture to support the function for which we supply a demand. Were this not so, then I couldn’t recently have learned to juggle, people wouldn’t be able to learn to play musical instruments, etc. This is the guiding principle in the programmes I provide; – Increase the environmental demand for developmental function and in time the brain will respond by building the architecture, – the neural networks to support the function.

    A well written article, interesting and to the point.


  4. @nathanjon – critical periods in language learning do exist, in which explosions in vocabulary and grammatical understanding occur. The reason behind this is that children’s learning of their native language(s) happens largely without conscious effort. That pretty much means that during the period in which children are ‘sponges’ they are constantly intellectually aroused; they need to be so because they haven’t figured out yet what around them is important and what isn’t. When we grow up we know that we can safely ignore the sound of a lorry outside but not the fire alarm. BUT neuroplasticity is so encouraging because it shows that infinite routes can be taken to reach the same destination. The only difference is that past critical periods, there needs to be conscious effort employed in learning; that will encourage that same spongey, flexible ability we possessed as young children. It makes me happy 🙂


  5. @clariice I think you’re right that what we learn when we are young is really important. I miss the freedom of never worrying about ‘what’ I *should* learn and what is “worthy”. On the other hand, there is a whole new kind of freedom in the fact that the brain is always rewiring itself: we can learn to accept difficult situations, to have a new relationship with our past, to juggle six oranges and three apples and to love ourselves. It’s a mightily encouraging thought and a concept I now understand because of my brain’s plasticity; its ability to make new connections. 🙂


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