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.