Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Re-wiring the Brain
That title isn't very clever, but brain "re-wiring" has long been a subject of great interest to me -- how the brain physically changes over time to reflect altered habits and learned behaviors, including one's basic psychology and abilities. When a friend who is similarly interested in the subject recently sent me an email about his success in changing his running style after a lifetime of habit, I offered my own comments:
Let me approach his question of brain re-wiring from a very different perspective. When I was 34, I suffered a minor stroke from snapping my head back while going for a lob in a tennis lesson. A minor artery tear (a dissected right vertebral for the Doc's), a small clot formed, and a day later broke loose. I narrowly avoided going blind -- the clot zipped into my cerebellum rather than heading up the sub-clavian artery into my visual centers. The cerebellum controls automatic fine motor movement and balance. The damage was about 2cm of tissue -- gone.
I had problems making my eyes move together without effort, and at the beginning I felt like I was riding one of those roller coasters that spin you every direction. Complete disorientation. Day and night, no respite even when I slept. I could overcome this to some degree by intense, brain-cracking conscious control.
Over some days the symptoms alleviated perhaps 10 - 20%. After a week -- maybe another 9%. After a month -- another 8%. You can see the pattern: slower and slower, but trending better. The entire process was very up and down because after a stroke brain tissue continues to die from secondary effects. (Extremely demoralizing, and many fits of severe depression from first feeling better and then getting worse, over and over again.)
But all told: after about 10 years, my symptoms were almost completely gone. Fortunately for me, the cerebellum has about 10 times more neuron density than any other part of the brain, and "re-wires" itself more readily and quickly. But this is probably the part that my friend was re-wiring to run differently.
Ironically, at the time I had the stroke I was interested in exactly the question that my friend was interested in, and had been doing a lot of reading on brain function. So I was able to approach my injury from a somewhat intellectual perspective, and peppered my neurologist with questions. It kept me sane.
For non-motor "retraining" of psychological processes, I have a very rough rule of thumb: it takes about as many years to retrain a deeply automatized capacity as it took to form in the first place. Much depends on consistency and repetition, however. Or the complexity of what's being automatized. (Driving a car is a very simple skill, for instance.) Every time you slip, you regress.
For instance, if you were a severe introvert for 20 years, and then got a job as a salesman (though all introverts by definition would cringe at the thought), it pretty much requires the opposite psychology, and it's going to take you years before you feel comfortable and at ease and happy doing the job, under a best-case effort, even though you can consciously force yourself to do the job quite well in much less time. Just too much to re-wire. Introversion is really basic psychology. The same principle would apply if you developed a bad habit playing tennis or the piano or typing, though to a lesser degree.
I observe that with time the effort to overcome past automatization becomes gradually less and less. Eventually it becomes effortless. It goes from being loathsome, to unpleasant, to milldly distasteful, and finally to mildly pleasant and then really enjoyable when the automatization is complete. At that point, it feels natural and it feels like "you".
I think this is crucial to psychiatry. People tend to not want to change and do what feels "abnormal" to them; they have to understand that personality and psycho-epistemology can be changed to a great degree, but that it will feel unnatural and uncomfortable for years and years, though gradually lessening with time.
In my view, I think the same applies to intelligence, or should I say more accurately: intellectual capacity. To some degree, I think the very nature of a conceptual consciousness demands that we can become smarter over time by acquiring concepts and automatizing rational processes of cognition. Again, years are involved. I think of each concept we learn as a sort of new "third eye" for seeing things in the world, and those can be acquired relatively easily, but automatizing patterns of thinking is much more time-consuming.
The end result of all automatizing, however, is reflected in modified brain structure. New/deleted dendritic/synaptic connections. Re-wiring. Physical changes.
Some people will start out life with a nice set of synaptic connections. Things work a little more smoothly for doing certain things -- math, art, sports, what have you. We call them "smart". And because they're good at them, they often tend to put more effort into refining those talents -- remember, for them it's easy and fun. So their connections get even better and they seem even smarter by the time they're in their teens. We call them "genius". But if the smart ones didn't begin enhancing those connections, a more average person of greater diligence and passion might quickly pass them by -- making their brains re-wire to become smarter.
There are limits of course. The further your initial brain wiring is from what it needs to be, the longer it will take to get there, with more effort (like my stroke). That could get very tiring to sustain over years, but I'd say in principle someone of sufficient determination and insight and ruthless dedication to rational thinking could take an average intelligence and achieve great things later in life. (And they have.) Effectively, what we colloquially call "genius".
Of course, someone who starts out smarter will always be ahead of you with the same dedication. This is one reason that passion is so important to being good at anything. And part of one's initial wiring as a child is the passion you feel for certain things that are easy to do.
People do start out with vastly different capacities, and you may not be able to overcome a really crappy initial set of synaptic wiring for certain skills (not all of us are meant to be a concert pianist), and someone with abnormal brain formation at birth (say, Downe's syndrome) is going to have severe problems, but I've long thought the IQ tests were one of the most flawed and destructive concepts ever developed for average people. How many people gave up at something they loved because some idiot told them they didn't have the capacity or "aptitude"? It's the old "zero-sum" concept applied to intelligence.
Not that there aren't true "outliers" -- people of truly exceptional ability at some thing. But I don't think this is captured well in intelligence tests.
I'll give you another personal anecdote to prove the point. I could point out a lot of personal deficiencies in certain abilities -- I was absolutely horrible writer for half my life. Complete inability to grasp grammar, for instance. Terrible student. Average to lousy athlete. High school dropout (10th grade), though I read a lot. But I had very good "spatial skills".
In fifth grade, I was IQ tested. The tests were puzzles -- different shaped blocks that you had to quickly fit together. And a guy with a stopwatch measuring how fast I could do it. I was kind of fast. Maybe off the charts. They tested me over and over again over a period of some months, and I suppose I baffled them cause I didn't give a damn about school (I only put out when I respected a teacher, and by 4th grade that bus had left the station.)
Then years later I figured out why. Get this: my parents did puzzles. From when I was born. Many, and often. We always had a card table in the house dedicated to the latest puzzle. As young as I can remember, I was helping them do puzzles. We did small puzzles, big puzzles (5000 pieces or more), and I was always there, looking for the pieces that fit with the right shapes and patterns and colors, and being delighted when I could find a piece that my parents couldn't. The puzzles were fun (I still like doing them) and they got more fun as I got better at them. Some serious re-wiring going on, I suspect.
Then throw in the Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs, Legos and various other puzzle-type toys I always got for presents. (My father was an engineer, and guess what I do?)
Was I really "smart"? Or did I just learn how to do puzzles that closely matched the idiot IQ tests? I think I probably just started out a very normal, average kid and became "smart" at one thing -- at puzzles. Because I damned sure wasn't smart at much else.
I'm simplifying a lot here, but that's a little of my thoughts on the subject of "re-wiring".