I decided to postpone my post summarizing my recent work on the importance of variety as a basis of change advocacy because of a blog item by Jon Lieff, M.D. on new information about brain plasticity. In the post he referenced an overview article that he did a few years ago about brain plasticity. Jon’s articles are typically very dense and technically daunting, but this overview article was much more accessible and it triggered some thoughts from my distant past (well, 4 + decades ago).
Plasticity of brain function has become a popular topic in the last few years. There has been an explosion of websites and software that promise to improve brain flexibility. But there are significant problems with simple mechanical approaches to making use of the plasticity of our brains for new learning, and they arise out of a lack of appreciation of how it is that our brains learn and develop. Dr. Lieff’s article points to some of those with a clear overview of what research tells us, and the research is fascinating.
Plasticity is at the basis of all our new learning, even memories, and it is the reason why recovery works, whether rehab is effective or not, and whether our change efforts actually affect individual lives. So, though not usually considered in our change advocacy, engaging the plasticity of individual brains is an important component of success, and understanding how that engagement works is an important dimension of building effective change interventions.
When I began interacting with individuals who had severe brain injuries in 1970, the conventional wisdom was that recovery from such injuries was entirely up to the individual and if they showed no improvement in 3 months, they were a “lost cause”. Improvements after that time were described as “anomalies” or “miracles” and families of persons with severe brain injuries were told they were unrealistic outcomes and shouldn’t be considered. Over the decades, the time frame for possible improvement after brain injury has stretched out to the “rest of your life”, and the frameworks of neurological and neuropsychological rehabilitation and recovery have also dramatically expanded.
Even in the 70’s, there were those who felt that significant improvement was possible, and their way of thinking about this improvement was very different from the conventional medical view. As an example of that thinking, there was a general model of rehabilitation that said you should engage the individual in every kind of activity that might support the valued outcome and only fade supports after the person could do the activity well enough for it to be useful. This was the exact opposite of typical medical treatment, which requires failure in the cheapest solutions to an issue before considering the value of more comprehensive approaches.
So which one of these models do you think fits our growing understanding of neural plasticity better?
As Dr. Lieff points out, the larger the neural circuit engaged in the learning process, the better the learning outcome. You engage larger circuits by using more of the brain’s capabilities during the learning process. He points out, for example, that just squeezing your right fist while memorizing words and squeezing your left fist while recalling those words improved performance. And we all know of our personal support activities that improve our learning, such as listening to music (or for some, definitely not listening to music).
If you want an easily observed example of engaging the largest neural circuit possible to maximize learning outcomes, you need look no further than 3-year olds just going about their daily business. They automatically shift to engage the largest learning circuit they can.
The reality of plasticity has profound implications for how we approach, for example, building the ability to manage our personal symptoms of mental illness in our daily lives, and it also has implications about how we include engagement with individuals in our change initiatives. Are our change activities actually helping our targets to learn a new way of dealing with expanding the freedom and choices of our community?
I hope you will take the time to read Dr. Lieff’s summary, and reflect on how you might use the new knowledge to impact your personal and social change efforts.
Next Post: Another Try at the Summary of variety as a change tool.