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".


  1. Robb,

    This was a fascinating post. I would like to ask you about a subject that is very popular in secular Right-wing internet circles and that is race and IQ. There is an entire section of the Right-wing internet called the "Human-Bio-Diversity" (HBD) movement that is obsessed with heritable traits and their association with race. The leading intellectuals here are Charles Murray, Richard Lynn, James Watson, Phillip Rushton and others.

    Their work has spawned the HBD movement. It is intimately connected with evolutionary psychology and sociobiology. The main internet guru here is Steve Sailer (Google him up to see what he writes on and his huge influence - that is if you don't know of him already). The HBD movement has as one of its premises that since the various human races evolved in different environments they have different intellectual capacities, different personalities and temperaments, and different sexual "reproductive strategies" (Phillip Rushton's r/k classification system).

    The argument for intelligence goes something like this, around the time of the Last Glacial Maximum, Caucasians and Northern Asians found themselves in cold, harsh climates. Thus, selection pressure resulted in greater intellectual capacities for Whites and North Asians that had to survive in hostile regions. The HBDers will use this a spring board for their favorite political issue: immigration with the idea being that Western nations should end all non-white immigration lest we inundate ourselves with a "low-IQ" citizenry.

    What do you make of this IQ obsession? There are some pretty serious intellectuals that treat IQ as the end all (Charles Murray for example). Ayn Rand once commented extemporaneously that a person could improve their IQ 30 points with the right philosophy. Now, whether or not that is true it does seem to me that a rational psycho-epistemology could do wonders for improving intellectual capacity (whether or not that would show up on IQ scores is another thing). This relates to what Dr. Binswanger refers to as the difference between "hardware" and "software". Perhaps a rational epistemology is like an operating system and the better the operating system, the better the intellectual capacity.

    Anyway, thanks for a really fascinating post.



  2. Thanks for the praise, D.

    I'd never heard Ayn Rand say you could improve your IQ by 30 points with the correct philosophy, but strangely, that's very close to my own estimate, which I've held for years. But even given a philosophy, I think it requires a rigorous method and dedication to achieve a true "re-wiring" -- ie, physical changes in the brain.

    Another example: I'm learning screenwriting. This is *so* different a way of thinking from engineering, which is my day job (when I'm working).

    Think about it: engineers work to resolve conflict, so things work. Story writers work to create conflict -- so things are interesting.

    I started with a correct philosophy, and I've had basic instruction in the right principles and methods from both Objectivist and non-Objectivist practitioners, but it simply isn't that simple. It's *much* more than that. I've been working at it for years and keep surprising myself with what I don't know, and how to go about it. I've fooled myself many times into thinking I understood it when I hadn't a clue.

    Storywriting depends on really deep psychology and extremely complex psychological processes that you've either got or can spend half a liftime trying to develop. On that loathsome to fun scale, after 15 years I'm somewhere on the plus side of zero, but not good enough to be a pro. But I've noticed a definite change in my psychology over that time. It has helped my creativity in engineering greatly, for instance. Even my handwriting has changed. Very odd -- and interesting.

    As for Murray & Co. -- I think their thesis is totally bogus. I think IQ differences in races stem purely from environment. Crappy exposure to sufficient number of concepts at an early enough age, poor cognitive activities (no puzzle solving) and other things. Good music for instance. (I think music at a very early age is very influential on brain development, though I don't subscribe to the "Mozart-in-the-womb" nonsense. But Tchaikovsky and Rossine at age 1 and up is good. Other songs with good melodies.)

  3. Robb,

    Thanks for an informative response. I too am inclined to think that the whole IQ or "evolutionary Right" is bogus. At some point, some intellectual giant in the social sciences with the right epistemology (ie Objectivism or what it leads to in the coming centuries) will have to rethink that entire realm from the ground up.

    Regarding screenwriting, I have been practicing as a side hobby too for a number of years and, yes, it is a fascinating thing to note the awareness of a greater understanding of psychology. I think this is why when we look at Shakespeare's plays they seem so damn psychologically poignant. When you focus on the details of human communication and human conflict, things start to "click" in your mind; connection are made (synapses fire - heh, that's your wife's blog title I think).

    Let me leave off by asking you what you think of today's screenwriting in movies and TV. You say that you barely consider yourself on the plus side of zero. But from what I have seen from Hollywood, there are *very few* good screenwriters. Hell, most of them are terrible. I can't help but think that if there were an Objectivist film studio out there (impossible right now I know), that bankrolled Objectivist written screenplays, that they couldn't produce movies that are *at least* as good as the crap that is out there right now. I mean at least 90% of the movies made are unwatchable if you are an educated, intellectually oriented non-leftist over the age of 35.

    I have outlines for movie treatments of 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress', Scipio Africanus (which would be better than Lord of The Rings), and a few of my own Sci-Fi stories that have heavy Randian elements. I *know* that they would *all* be successful movies. But, they could never be made today, not in the way I would want. They would be butchered. Just imagine which side Hollywood would take in the War between Scipio and Hannibal.

    Anyway, I "talked your ear off" enough for one day. Just so you know, I really appreciate and enjoy your blog. You, Gus Van Horn and the boys at the New Clarion are my favorite O'ist bloggers. You guys add some sanity into a (at present) insane world.

    Best wishes,

    D. Bandler

  4. Hi

    I just happened upon your post here while randomly Googling "neurons" and found it interesting. You note that you were an "absolutely horrible writer" for half your life, although you obviously overcame this deficiency. I'm wondering how one overcomes an inability to write, as it doesn't seem as naturally-learned a skill as some others. Also, you point to "passion" as a key element in motivating one to push past deficiency in certain areas. But what drives "passion" if there is no inclination or pre-wired proficiency in a certain area? How or why would someone pursue something despite its taking years to learn and its being against their natural comprehension? I'm guessing this is where environment and circumstance (as with your tennis injury) come in to the picture.

    Interesting stuff.


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  6. RM,
    I think the answer to your question is that passion really stems from ability or understanding, and one has to learn something sufficiently, or learn how to do something sufficiently, to develop a feeling of competence, and from the competence passion can grow. For instance, in a young child (say, Mozart), some natural ability very quickly germinates into that feeling of competence, and the joy of doing something well, with ease, is naturally enjoyable, and that becomes the passion. Not everything done well can generate passion -- it really has to stretch your mind in a way that's satisfying to one's own potential. What "stretches" your mind is different for every person. We all have different capacities (would Einstein have been stretched by arithmetic? But an accountant might).

    Rewards also play a factor (a big one) in stimulating passion. Activities that don't even stretch your mind too much can become a passion if you're well-rewarded for it (at least, for a time). If every time you tossed a basketball through a hoop someone paid you $1M, almost everyone would be fascinated for awhile as their bank account grew. It wouldn't be a true passion, though, in the lifelong sense. But often the prospect of great rewards stimulates a much greater level of thinking about how to improve the rewards. AKA, business, investment, etc. This pushes you to stretch your mind to the limits of it's ability, and that challenge is the kind of satisfaction that can turn the fascination of simple rewards into a life-long passion.

    All this is why, when people (usually younger people) ask me about how to decide on a career, because they have no idea what they want to do, I say: you have to learn *something* before you can know what you want to do -- just pick something. Science, engineering, accounting, medicine, law, whatever.

    Often you'll be able to at least exclude some thing you simply know you won't like, but that leaves a wide field. Maybe take some aptitude tests to narrow it some more, but at some point you're left with a field of possibilities --just pick something. You might get partway in and realize it's not your cup of tea, but that shouldn't be done too quickly. Really *learn* enough to be competent at *something* about the field before you decide. More often than not, the moment you arrive at some level of competence you'll find "wow, I think I enjoy this."

    Can that turn into passion? Harder question. But it might. But those who can discover their passions, and cultivate them properly, are ultimately the only people who have every changed the world -- or found the greatest joy in living, I'm tempted to say.


Comments must be polite and well-reasoned, but passion is allowed when directed at the subject matter and not someone who posts -- violate this, and your comment doesn't get posted. Comments may not post immediately -- I'm pretty busy and don't live on the web.