Going Back over Old Ground
From Lehrer’s account in his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, we can pick up the story from the point in the previous post on this topic when Elizabeth Gould, much to her surprise, had found long discounted evidence of neuroplasticity in the literature. She began to explore it in depth.
She realised [they] all had strong evidence for mammalian neurogenesis. Faced with this mass of ignored data, Gould abandoned her earlier project and began investigating the birth of neurons.
She published new data over the next eight years (ibid.):
Gould’s data shifted the paradigm. More than thirty years had passed since Altman first glimpsed new neurons, but neurogenesis had become a scientific fact.
By 1998 ‘even Rakic admitted that neurogenesis was real.’
The implications of neurogenesis are of extreme importance (page 42):
What does the data mean? The mind is never beyond redemption, for no environment can extinguish neurogenesis. As long as we are alive, important parts of the brain are dividing. The brain is not marble, it is clay, and our clay never hardens.
It is Norman Doidge‘s book, though – the one I bought at the same time as Lehrer’s, completely unconscious of their close correspondences – that expands upon the human cost of the arrogance that buried the evidence for thirty years. His whole book The Brain That Changes Itself is an accessible but authoritative explanation of the multitude of ways that neuroplasticity impacts upon us – how belief in it promotes healing and scorn of it has prolonged suffering.
I got the heads up about this fascinating book from a friend at a Bahá’í meeting. Standing absolutely upright at over six feet in height, he looked me straight in the eye and said with absolute conviction, ‘You really must read this book. I’m 75 years old now and I’m functioning better mentally than I was at the age of 60 purely as a result of doing the exercises it talks about.’ After a recommendation like that, how could I resist. I’m almost 70 trying to pretend I could keep up with myself at 50. It was a no-brainer.
I’ll just take a few points from one chapter – Redesigning the Brain – to illustrate just how poisonous the dogmatism of science has been in this critical area.
He discusses the work of Michael Merzenich (page 49):
In a series of brilliant experiments he showed that the shape of our brain maps changes depending upon what we do over the course of our lives.
At first his interest in brain plasticity had to go on the back burner. After remaining underground for a few years with his ideas, he had an opportunity in 1971 to research them using adult monkeys. His findings were dismissed: they could not possibly be true. He was opposed by the most influential figures in the field. This was not just frustrating at a personal level (page 62):
“The most frustrating thing,” says Merzenich, “was that I saw that neuroplasticity had all kinds of potential implications for medical therapeutics – for the interpretation of human neuropathology and psychiatry. And nobody paid attention.”
People previously seen as beyond help could form new maps in the brain and live more normal lives (page 63) – ‘people with learning problems, psychological problems, strokes, or brain injuries’ – but only if the idea was accepted and became the basis for widespread interventions.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Merzenich was able to develop a deep and accurate understanding of how positive changes could be facilitated. He teased out the importance of motivation (page 66), how individual neurones got more selective with training (page 67), how they came to operate more quickly (ibid) and perhaps most importantly of all (page 68) ‘that paying close attention is essential to long-term plastic change.’
It wasn’t until 1996 that he, along with a number of colleagues (page 70), ‘formed the nucleus of a company . . . that is wholly devoted to help people rewire their brains.’
A Costly Case of Dogma
Even if you only date the start of a belief in neuroplasticity at 1962 – and there is some evidence it could fairly be backdated earlier than that – 34 years seems a long time to wait for such a clinically vital concept to surface into general practice.
I can testify to that from personal experience. From when I first studied psychology in 1975 until I qualified as a clinical psychologist in 1982, the conventional wisdom was that the adult brain had virtually no capacity to change itself. I cannot exactly remember when it became respectable to doubt that dogma, but I am fairly sure it was well into the 90s. And even then it was a qualified scepticism only. We were into the new century before I became aware of the wide ranging and radical possibilities that people like Schwartz (See Mind over Matter link below) have written about.
It is horrifying to contemplate the human cost of such resolute intransigence in the face of compelling data. It testifies, in McGilchrist’s terms, to the power of the left-brain to shut out the evidence of experience in order to keep faith with its often misguided maps. If a huge body of carefully accumulated and completely credible evidence such as this took so long to make a dent in this particular dogma, how long is it going to be before science will take serious steps to investigate spiritual realities. Anyone who attempts any such thing at the moment has almost certainly killed their career and will have their evidence subjected to an onslaught of nit-picking that no findings could ever survive.
Thus does science make it impossible even for its own practitioners to investigate, let alone to understand, what it has decided in advance is impossible. So much for its spirit of genuine enquiry. This has to change if human thought and society is to grow beyond the current straitjacket of materialism.
The Master and his Emissary by Iain McGilchrist