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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Silly Putty of Memory: Neuroplasticity

About three years ago, my husband Jose took a spill down the basement stairs which resulted in a traumatic brain injury.  It was terrifying and fascinating. After several generally non-responsive days in the hospital, they advised that I put him in an adult care home. I knew there was no future there and took him home to heal.  He started to improve within days, but we ended up going through six weeks of amnesia together.

Jose remembered his languages and could respond to questions in English, Portuguese, Spanish and French, but everything else was slow: how to move around, talk, think. A native Brazilian, Jose had been in the States for about twelve years at that time,  but he didn't remember it. As he began to talk more, I learned that he thought he was in Sao Paulo. He was angry that I wouldn't drive him to his home in Rio. He knew the dogs (of course) and he knew that he should know me, but it took a long time before he began to put all the pieces together. Slowly, his life took shape again. He's fine now, except for a diminished sense of smell.

I've been reading about the brain ever since. I highly recommend The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science, by Norman Doidge. The author recounts remarkable stories of people who have overcome enormous physical and mental disabilities through the emerging science of neuroplasticity. There's the woman who, after an injury to her inner ear's vestibular system, feels herself in a perpetual free-fall, unable to walk or perform any task which requires a sense of balance, a stroke victim deprived of the use of his right arm, even an amputee suffering from phantom limb pain. Through the efforts of pioneers in emerging brain-mind science and the experiential exercises they devised, all were able right themselves.

Doidge goes even further, though, as he demonstrates that our thoughts can change the structure and function of the brain and its limitations. In education as in other fields, we've learned that the brain is essentially unchangeable. We've generally been encouraged to help students - especially the learning disabled - to find strategies that leverage their existing abilities rather than changing the brain itself. Part of the problem, he argues, arises out of the common metaphor which compares the brain to a machine, and prompts us to use such terms as "hard-wired" and liken synapses to permanently connected circuits.

In the book's preface, he states:
[Neuroplasticians] showed that children are not always stuck with the mental abilities they are born with... In the course of my travels I met a scientist who enabled people who had been blind since birth to begin to see, another who enabled the deaf to hear; I spoke with people who had had strokes decades before and had been declared incurable, who were helped to recover with neuroplastic treatments; I met people whose learning disorders were cured and whose IQs were raised; I saw evidence that it is possible for eighty-year-olds to sharpen their memories to function the way they did when they were fifty-five.

I know what you're thinking, but Norman Doidge is not just some neuro-scientific version of Shirley MacLaine. He is on the Research Faculty at Columbia University's Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, in New York, and the University of Toronto's Department of Psychiatry. The scientists whose work he explores are leaders in their fields, often Nobel laureates.

I find Doidge's book enormously liberating for myself (perhaps I am not stuck with my mental short-comings) and for the field of education. Finding that the brain changes physiologically as a result of experience makes me even more committed to such approaches as project based learning, but it also prompts concern that we are not exploring the possibilities and implications of experiential learning to the extent we should. Are we limiting efforts by focusing primarily on content standards? Are we ignoring the standards of the mind?


  1. Great blog. I worked with 'learning challenged' kids for years re-wiring the brain using auditory, visual, and kinesthetic modalities and specialized programs. The brain is a muscle and can be changed. Hard wired? Hardly. I have seen it with my own eyes hundreds of times. It can take a lot of hard work, but it does WORK. Thanks for bringing this to people's attention.

  2. It's a big deal, isn't it? Our preconceptions need a little plasticity. I taught in public schools (English, writing) for seven years, and it seems that another big factor in helping students overcome difficulties was the belief that they could. I should add this to my PD repertoire. My other self is at: (in process).