I’ve just read Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life by Michael Merzenich, PhD. Dr. Merzenich is considered by many to be the “father of brain plasticity.”
After nearly five decades of research at the University of California – San Francisco into the functional organization and rehabilitation of the brain, Dr. Merzenich is one of the key scientists responsible for our current understanding of brain change across the lifespan.
“Soft-wired” implies that we can learn how to help our brains become more alert, more focused, more motivated, more empowered to learn, faster and more accurate in processing experience, more reliable in predictions, more capable of reconstructing events, less distractible, and more socially adept – all essential to resiliently deal with the complexities and the unknowns of human existence.
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Dr Merzenich’s Ten Fundamentals of Brain Plasticity, excerpted from the book, Chapter 10: How Does a Brain Remodel Itself?
- Change is mostly limited to those situations in which the brain is in the mood for it.
If you are alert, on the ball, engaged, motivated, ready for action – the brain releases the chemical modulatory neurotransmitters that enable brain change. When you’re in a learning mode – alert, concentrated, and focused – the brain’s plasticity switches are turned “on” and ready to facilitate change. If you’re disengaged, inattentive, distracted, sleeping, twiddling your thumbs, doing something without thinking about it, or performing an action that requires no real effort to succeed, your switches are mostly turned “off.”
- The harder you try, the more you are motivated, the more alert you are, and the better (or worse) the outcome, the bigger the brain change.
The machinery that enables brain changes has a dial on it that can mean “ready” or READY and “save it” or SAVE IT. If you are paying just a little bit of attention, are half-trying, do just a tiny bit better than the last time, or receive a penny for your success, then only a small dose of modulatory neurotransmitters are released and the attempt results in only very small and ephemeral changes.
On the other hand, if you’re really intensely focused on the task, are trying as hard as you can to get it right, do it a lot better than on your last attempt, and receive $100 for your success, neurotransmitter release rises dramatically – and large-scale and long-enduring changes will result.
- What actually changes in the brain are the strengths of the connections of neurons that are engage together, moment by moment, in time.
Your brain’s primary trick is to select all of those activities that contribute to a successful behavioral try, for each important moment in time during that attempt. It does that by simply making the connections between brain cells (neurons) for all of the simultaneous momentary activities contributing to a little more success just a little bit stronger. Going through these rewiring change cycles a large number of times (we call that “practice”), inducing changes in millions or billions of nerve cell-to-nerve cell connections, and your brain has created a “master controller” that can implement this or any other practiced behavior with astounding facility and reliability.
- Learning-driven changes in connections increase cell-to-cell cooperation, which is crucial for increasing reliability.
Imagine that you are sitting in a large football stadium, and that all the fans in the stadium are clapping at random. A low dull roar rises from the stadium. Now imagine that 100 of those fans begin to clap out a rhythm in unison. Rather remarkably, you can hear that rhythm as a distinct “signal” that rises above that background nose. An analogous growth in brain cell coordination is exactly how your brain is generating representations of the things and relationships and actions of the world.
As you are listening to those people clapping in unison, imagine how the clarity of that rhythm would grow if they were even more precisely coordinated. Or imagine how the clarity would grow if the numbers of simultaneous clappers slowly increased. The recruitment of “team members” and a steady increase in the coordination of their actions is exactly what your brain is up to when it’s in a learning mode. As with those clappers, more nerve cell team members acting in greater unison equates with growing power and reliability in how that message can rise above the din.
- The brain also strengthens its connections between those teams of neurons representing separate moments of activity that represent little parts of an action or thought.
Things that we see or hear usually have many complexly related parts – for example, the successive sound parts of words in a syllable, the syllables in a word, the words in a phrase, the phrases in a sentence, or the sentences in a narrative. The brain strengthens its connections between its neurological representations of successive things that reliable occur in serial time. These linkages are critical for the brain’s ability to predict and control the flow of all of your perceptions, thoughts, and actions. Without this continuous associative flow, each word and momentary thought and every other action would drop into the abyss; your glorious “stream of consciousness” would be reduce to a series of separate, stagnating puddles.
- Initial changes are just temporary.
Brain change only becomes permanent if the brain judges the experience to be inherently fascinating or novel, or if the behavioral outcome is a good (or bad) one. The brain has the remarkable ability to first record the change, then make a determination – after the fact – of whether it should make that change a part of the permanent record. It does this by storing the change temporarily, then releasing modulatory neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) as soon as it is reasonably certain that the behavior has, or is likely to have, a good (or bad) outcome. The release of these chemicals turns the brain plasticity switch “ON,” which converts the temporary plastic change into a permanent, enduring, physical change. During a success or reward, this chemical spritzing also induces the sense of pleasure or joy – or given failure or punishment, the displeasure or sadness.
- The brain is changed by internal mental rehearsal in the same ways, and involving precisely the same processes, that control changes achieved through interactions with the external world.
You don’t have to move an inch to drive positive plastic change in your brain. Your internal representations of things recalled from memory work just fine for progressive brain plasticity-based learning. All of the principles of brain change apply for mental practice just as they do for improving your operations as a receiver of information from – or as an actor in – that external physical world.
- Memory guides and controls most learning.
Remember when you first learned to use chopsticks? You held these long sticks in your hand. You understood your goal, which was to deliver food you your mouth. You made a clumsy try. No food got anywhere, except on the tablecloth. Your brain remembered the goals, which you didn’t come close to achieving. It said, “Don’t save that try.”
You made some adjustments for the second attempt, and some food – the reward – did reach the mouth. Your brain interpreted this try as positive when it referenced it to that remembered goal; it also referenced its own complex models of good chopstick use, which it had earlier established by observing proficient users and from your trying it yourself. At this marginally successful try, the brain told itself, “Save this one.” Progressive change required all that remembering.
With another several thousand or two attempts, with continuous reference to your remembered goals and your models of good chopstick use, you can expect to become a chopstick master. This is equally true of all skill learning: without the remembered goals and strategy models that are required to define and guide positive incremental progress, you cannot progressively improve – or ultimately master – any new skill.
- Every moment of learning provides a moment of opportunity for the brain to stabilize – and reduce the disruptive power of – potentially interfering backgrounds or “noise.”
The change processes in your brain do a wonderful second thing every time they strengthen the connections in your brain to advance your mastery of any given skill. After each moment of synchronized activity that leads to connectional strengthening, the same machinery takes the next moment in time to weaken other connections, just a little.
The brain’s goal is simple. Its positive, connection-strengthening plasticity is increasing the power of connections on and between all of the brain cells that fire together at each moment of time, burning in those changes only if their actions contribute to success. Its negative, connection-weakening plasticity is reducing the power of the connections coming into the machinery or from other neurons that did not fire at that important moment. After all, a lack of response at just the right moment in time was pretty good evidence that they had not contributed to your success.
Positive and negative plasticity work in concert. Positive plastic brain changes work to create a brighter and sharper picture of what’s happening. At the same time, negative plastic brain changes are erasing a little of that irrelevant and interfering haze or noise that frustrate the construction and recording of a clear picture.
- Brain plasticity is a two-way street; it is just as easy to generate negative changes as it is to produce positive ones.
There are winners and losers in the game of brain plasticity. It is almost as easy to drive changes that can impair one’s memory or slow down one’s mental or physical control as it is to improve one’s memory, or speed up the brain’s actions.
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How to do all this? Merzenich has developed computer-based brain training programs – Posit Science and Brain HQ – to “exercise” the brain in all of the above forms of brain change. www.soft-wired.com. The cost is minimal; I have found doing the exercises, and experiencing the rewards of improved brain functioning, to be thoroughly delightful.
In the book, Merzenich also offers an entire chapter of Daily Activities that Contribute to the Maintenance of a Healthy Brain. Among them:
- Develop a habit of careful conversational listening. See how much you can remember about particular conversations in person or on the telephone, soon after and again a few hours after that conversation has ended. The goal is to remember what you just heard with progressively greater accuracy, in progressively greater detail, and remembering conversations over progressively longer spans of time.
- Do jigsaw puzzles to improve everyday operations in vision. Doing a jigsaw puzzle requires close, focused attention; You must make fast decisions based on shape and color and visual textures and the mental rotation of the pieces. You must continually shift your visual attention from the detailed piece (engaging local attention) to the wider picture (activating global attention). Finding a correct piece is substantially rewarding for the brain. You can complete progressively more difficult puzzles, use different search strategies (form, color); you can increase the speed with which to do the puzzles. Your brain will appreciate the challenge.
- Try playing the “how many things fit into this category?” game. Example: As you hold your toothbrush in your hand, you might review your long history with toothbrushes, what colors you have owned and favored, and given their past what you might expect toothbrushes of the future to look like. Or you might tabulate in your mind all of the things that have been invented, like the toothbrush, that are designed to improve your dental hygiene or health.
- With friends, brainstorm 100 ways to use a brick (or any common object). Strengthening the brain’s capacities to associate new ideas from suggestions you’ve just heard helps strengthen your imagination and creativity, and can be enormous fun with your friends.
As Dr. Merzenich says, “Your job out in the real world is to work actively to grow these precious neurological resources, to make certain that they are more richly incorporated into the fabric of your daily life. Learn to learn again. Celebrate every small step in progress, because small steps can lead to big achievements and the pleasure that accompanies them.”