The plastic brain

Out of the most terrible of tragedies some good may come. The troubles in Romania a score of years ago brought us face to face with children who from the earliest years had suffered parental neglect. The children, without care and stimulus, had not developed physically, intellectually or emotionally. That crucial first three years of family life in which the formation of the brain normally takes place were missing.

So important is this early development that progressive politicians enthusiastically sponsor programmes designed to ensure that this period is fruitful. But what the Romanian experience taught us is that the development of the brain continues well beyond this period. Neglected children, adopted soon after birth, of course developed normally. But children adopted at, say two, were isolated, in-turned and of low intelligence. To the surprise of orthodox opinion, most of these children largely caught up, mentally and physically, over the next several years. While no one doubted the value of good early experience, we learned that the capacity of the brain was not fixed. It could still grow.

In fact, the potential for growth remains throughout life, and this heralds the possibility of discovering more efficient ways of training the brain to be more effective. Indeed, there has been something of a boom in brain games – without, as yet, the evidence that these produce any marked general improvement. But interesting work is being done in developing exercises which are claimed to assist in learning difficulties such as dyslexia. But it is well established that memory connections and span can be increased.

I have previously mentioned the increased hippocampus of the taxi driver who has mastered the streets of London. On a smaller scale the part of the cortex which controls left hand movement will be enlarged in the professional violinist. And I have no doubt, without the need for a scan, that the range of scientific reading I have needed to write on a wide range of scientific subjects for this column has broadened the contents of my memory – without being the slightest help in my finding my snuffbox or the screwdriver I put down five minutes ago.

The knowledge that in adolescence the brain has growth spurts in the areas concerned with planning and social interaction suggests, for instance, that the opportunity to teach these skills may be important at this stage. I can confirm from anecdotal experience, while working with young people, that these areas are ones to which they instinctively respond. But do they appear in the school curriculum?

The capacity to develop the brain has called into question the mantra of self-esteem: the educational approach which holds that students should be given great confidence in the excellence of their own achievements. This, it is argued, encourages them to go further. But this is now questionable. It is those students who are congratulated and supported in their hard work of learning, rather than in their actual achievements, who tend to do best. How many people excuse themselves from mastering even elementary mathematics on the comforting grounds that, since they are not a “maths person”, it doesn’t matter? The truth is that even those who find maths difficult can, with a bit of hard work, make rewarding progress.

There is in fact a whole science of the methodology of learning, from the techniques for reading and digesting a text, to the various ways in which material can be remembered or complex information analysed, to the methods of revision which actually work. When I made an audiotape on the subject some years ago, a senior teacher who was providing a voiceover said to me: “I wonder why I was never taught this in teacher training.” Indeed.

Another area of interest is the neurotransmitter dopamine. This is a powerful aid in enabling learning through stimulating brain connections. If we can harness it effectively it may well enhance our learning rate considerably. Current experiments show limited success, but there is real potential there.

The brain has many tricks at its command. For instance, some damaged functions can be replaced by the development of new, equivalent structures. The brain appears to have an innate tendency to repair or substitute faculties which have been damaged. The visual cortex of a blind person can take over part of the auditory cortex, promoting a sensitivity of hearing and providing a spatial sense. Perhaps a less welcome phenomenon is the claim of some schizophrenics to hear voices. But it’s more than a claim: neuron response in the auditory cortex confirms that the voices are actually heard.

The ability of the brain to grow and change, known as its plasticity, is a new discipline, dating back for no more than about 15 years. And the neuroscientists rightly regard it as a field which can bring enormous benefits. I hear reports of schools which keep even their young pupils abreast with neuroscience. It is believed, and I think reasonably so, that understanding how the brain learns is a valuable aid, enabling the learners to use and develop approaches which maximise and respect the power of the brain – and to recognise and manage its limitations.

While we may be inclined to see neuroscience as a potential threat to our freedoms it is rewarding to study an area which suggests that our growing knowledge has much to offer. Brains which can continue to develop, and which have self-healing and repair facilities, and which we can learn to employ more constructively, give us hope for the future.

With some knowledge of neuroscience our early reaction is that perhaps we are servants of our brains – at least to a substantial degree. But discovering that the brain grows and develops is encouraging. Although we know little about as yet it does seem that we will gradually learn how to train our brains. They may yet become our servants rather than our masters.


About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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16 Responses to The plastic brain

  1. Ion Zone says:

    “Out of the most terrible of tragedies some good may come.”

    Words to live by. I’m reminded of many great tragedies that have been blessings in disguise, and vise versa. It seem almost inherent, out of war comes innovation selflessness and bravery, out of wealth and comfort comes greed, selfishness, apathy, and sloth, as well as the degeneration of our ability to react when trouble does come.

    “I have previously mentioned the increased hippocampus of the taxi driver who has mastered the streets of London.”

    Indeed, people seem to think that people doing jobs like this are thick, I’ve met plenty who seem smarter than the guys at my uni. You need brains for a job that requires you to memorise an entire city and predict traffic flow through it.

  2. Nektarios says:

    We might add a thing or two on this later, but what do you mean by train the brain?
    Apart from what we do already which is causing so many problems to the brain and the mind,
    what do you mean, train the brain?
    Consider first, it is a structure like no other; it has taken billions of years to come about if one believes evolutionists, and are you suggesting we, applying our brains are going to train the brain – do do what?
    This is truly terrible arrogance of man don’t you think?

    • Quentin says:

      No, not arrogance, just common sense. Here are a few examples: furnishing your brain with a mnemonic to assist recall; the whole discipline of cognitive behavioural therapy; the use of hypnotism to influence attitudes; changes in the structure and performance of the brain through forms of meditation. That’s just off the top of my head. I expect to return to this in my columns.

      • Nektarios says:

        We damage our brains with all kinds of shocks and stimulations. The brain is so bruised it cannot find order
        The brain is of nature. That nature is order.
        Out of our disorder would you impose seeming order? In fact, such ideas proceed out of our own disorder, and disorder cannot produce order.
        Though there is something to be gone into and said about nature’s way of changing the disordered structure of the brain to bring order through meditation.But that requires a deep understanding of meditation practically unknown or practiced in the West.

      • Quentin says:

        While we don’t in the West have a tradition of meditation it is in fact widely practised. Much work has been done, and will continue to be done, on the relationship between meditation and the ordering of the brain. This not just measured by subjective report but also by examining physical changes in the brain after, relatively, short periods of practice in meditation.

    • Horace says:

      Quentin states that the potential for growth remains throughout life, and this heralds the possibility of . . training the brain to be more effective.
      The important point is the potential for growth in the brain throughout life, which has only recently been recognised.
      To teach people is surely not arrogance – neither is it arrogance to teach people how to use their brain more effectively.

  3. Horace says:

    Quentin says:- “Perhaps a less welcome phenomenon is the claim of some schizophrenics to hear voices. But it’s more than a claim: neuron response in the auditory cortex confirms that the voices are actually heard.”

    This reminds me of some comments that I made on (“Scientific and Medical studies on the Apparitions at Medjugorje.” René Laurentin & Henri Joyeux)
    [The full version can be found at ]

    . . . the notion of “angels imprinting an image on the retina” put forward by Poulain [Fr Augustin Poulain,SJ] is, at least theoretically, testable by observing conduction in the optic nerve.

    This is closely analogous to:- ” . . neuron response in the auditory cortex confirms that the voices are actually heard.”

    • Quentin says:

      I assume that the principle would be the same. It might be difficult to set up though because the subject would have to be claiming to be seeing the phenomenon at the time of the scanning. And of course what you would expect to get would be a rush of undifferentiated optical activity. But, going by your link, you are fairly deeply into this sort of thing.

  4. Vincent says:

    I am not disagreeing with the point that Quentin makes about self-esteem. Clearly self-esteem must have a realistic objective basis if it is not to prove a trap. Nevertheless it will often be the confidence arising from self-esteem which triggers our action. There is certainly a danger in the kind of religiosity which makes us too humble to get off our backsides.

  5. John Candido says:

    Neurological research, any scientific research for that matter, is a terribly important undertaking on everybody’s behalf. I have heard that our knowledge of the brain and its nervous system was described by one scientist or doctor as mankind’s final frontier. Virtually anything that we learn about the brain will be useful to society in a plethora of ways.

    Improving the mind through the use of additives or medicines such as dopamine, or some other substance, will be something that any person can utilise. Finding the best methods of study for not only students at school or University but anybody and everybody will be of immediate benefit. People never stop learning throughout their lifetimes. Making study easier that is based on sound science is a useful pedagogical end.

    I think that we can forget mad wishes to turn everybody into Einstein’s of music, math, science, or art. That is to be thoroughly pooh-poohed. Society needs everybody to be at variance with one another. In any case, genetics will place humane limits to neurological enhancements. Viva genetics!

    • John Nolan says:

      I wish I could be so sanguine.

    • Nektarios says:

      John Candido

      So the ends justifies the means eh?
      But whose end, whose means and for what?
      If history is anything to go by, it seems there may well be advancements in certain directions, and as in the past be used destructively, but the propaganda you write, John,
      sound so good to be almost plausible.

  6. Iona says:

    I suspect that the final frontier is going to keep moving away, the nearer we get to it. Or, seem to get to it.

    • Nektarios says:

      This idea of the brain being the final frontier is nonesense and more in line with science fiction.
      Ever thought, that we came from God, knitted together (including ones brain) in our mother’s womb was born into this dimension of Time. That all this is one movement through Time, till death comes and we return to God from whence we came.
      Of His Kingdom, there is no end. Of our Heavenly Father, the Alpha and the Omega, in Whom, there is no beginning or end. So we who came out from Him and return to eternity, are of Him and like Him?
      It does make the issue of the brain, important place is in us here, but it is surely, nowhere near the end game, nor the final frontier?

      Can we begin to imagine what sort of place heaven is; What we will be there;
      What having our place for all eternity means? What being God -like means?
      I think for most of us, we will only comprehend the final frontier when we arrive at it – don’t you?

  7. tim says:

    ” In any case, genetics will place humane limits to neurological enhancements. Viva genetics!”

    John, I don’t understand what you’re saying. Genetics is a science, and science doesn’t place limits – that is for lawyers and politicians. I think you must mean that ‘genetics’ will give us information that we can use to determine what limits on neurological enhancements are appropriate. But even that seems difficult to understand. How? Can you give us an example of the sort of ‘genetic’ experiment that will give us such information? I don’t need an actual example, a hypothetical one would help me understand what you’re driving at.

    • John Candido says:


      What I am trying to say is that we are all limited by genetics. We cannot all be astronauts or brain surgeons, which is expedient for the work of community. We need people to be rubbish collectors, train and bus drivers, labourers, cleaners, etc. It is axiomatic that we are all a product, of genetics, and the environment. Of course, this is the subject of controversy and debate, but by and large most people agree with this.

      If scientists find ways of enhancing people’s intellectual capacity, and these methods prove to be not only advantageous but quite safe to apply, then we should receive them as an aid to people’s inherited intelligence. They will help us to improve ourselves intellectually, according to an individual’s genetic inherited potential.

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