For 400 years clinicians were taught that the brain was like a machine with parts.
An electronic version of this metaphor is still with us when we think of the brain as a computer and are told it is “hardwired,” as though its circuits are finalized in childhood. Most clinicians trained in the second half of the twentieth century were taught a version of this model. Some still are.
This hardwired-machine model of the brain had devastating consequences for children and adults with learning disorders. It gave rise to a fatalism about their condition, which meant that they were in all cases, necessarily, condemned to live with their disabilities because machines can’t rewire themselves. At best, we could teach these children to find ways to work around their problems.
About 30 years ago, a number of major neuroscience experiments were conducted that overthrew this view of the unchanging brain. Often they went unnoticed; sometimes, when noticed, disbelieving scientists trapped in the earlier machine model assumed that these experiments were based on sloppy methods, or that the results applied only to animals, or if to humans, only to small parts of the human brain. These experiments showed that the brain is neuroplastic, meaning that it is changeable, and that mental experience, and mental exercise, could alter its very structure.
It took 20 years for mainstream neuroscience to begin to accept that these experiments were sound and applied to humans, and not only to part of the brain, but to all of the brain, all of the time. Today we can say these experiments have been replicated thousands of times. Research and clinical trials throughout the world have shown that neuroplastic approaches can be used to treat traumatic brain injury, stroke, obsessive-compulsive disorder, learning disorders, pain, aspects of schizophrenia, and other afflictions. Neuroplasticity is suddenly much spoken of, is a “hot” term, and many marketers are putting old wine into new bottles — taking various simple brain games and rebranding them as “neuroplasticity exercises.”
When tackling brain processing problems, however, as with so much else, the devil is in the details. One must have an intimate understanding of the pace at which the brain changes, how to “dose” the exercises, and which brain function to target. The latter is important because a simple problem, e.g., a reading problem, can actually be caused by a weakness in any number of different brain areas, and only one of these need be weak for a person to have a reading problem. So, what is required is not just an all-purpose brain exercise (which does not exist) but a brain-based assessment of the person’s difficulties. These assessments and exercises often require years of refinement. Realizing that neuroplasticity has huge implications for education, neuroscientists at labs all over the world are getting their feet wet developing this work.
One woman began applying neuroplastic principles first to herself and then to students, just after the first experiments were done 30 years ago. The future in neuroplasticity arrived in a one-room schoolhouse in Toronto about a third of a century ago when Barbara Arrowsmith-Young and the team at her lab school began applying neuroplastic principles to learning problems. Barbara’s own story — which I recounted in a chapter entitled “Building Herself a Better Brain” in my book The Brain That Changes Itself(2007) and which is movingly elaborated in this book — is truly heroic, on par with the achievements of Helen Keller.