UPDATE: The Tao of Brain Plasticity

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There’s not a month that goes by that I do not receive a brochure on yet another workshop on how all manner of mental health therapy has the potential to change the brain, “rewire brain circuitry” is the metaphor most often used. These brochures conjure up images of psychotherapists wearing tool belts and sporting butt cracks (male or female) as they go about their business of rewiring the brain. “Ahhh … just a bit more electrical tape, sir (maam), and I’ll be done.” All of this brain rewiring activity brings to mind a very philosophical question—one worth contemplating: how can you change or rewire the brain without such “remodeling” leading to changes in personality and even identity? Put another way, how can you rewire the brain and rest assured that the self will remain the same?

I posed the above question in my post of January 25th, 2012, wherein I completed my blog series summarizing neurologist Elkhonon Goldberg’s book entitled The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World. According to Goldberg, the brain is simultaneously plastic and stable. Really? How strange that I do not receive an equal number of brochures on brain stability (actually, I do but they’re not framed this way—more on this in a moment). But I guess remodelers of all stripes would not be able to make money on stability. Without plasticity, there’d be no plastic (as in credit card). Here’s what Goldberg has to say about the plastic/stability duality of the brain:

The brain is somehow able to acquire new information without the loss of previously acquired information. It can learn how to deal with new challenges without “unlearning” how to deal with previously encountered situations. The brain can exhibit the properties of plasticity AND [my emphasis] stability at the same time. Although we take this dual ability for granted in our everyday activities as brain users, we are confounded by this ability as brain researchers.

In today’s post, I’d like to offer up a quick update concerning the dual nature of the brain.

I just started reading neurobiologist Antonio Damasio’s 2010 book Self Comes to Mind—Constructing the Conscious Brain. I’m a big Damasio fan. I’ve read his three previous popular books on brain, mind, body, and consciousness—Decartes’ Error, The Feeling of What Happens, and Looking for Spinoza. In the first few pages of Self Comes to Mind, Damasio too uses the remodeling metaphor (apparently very popular with brain workers). Lets listen in as Damasio tells us that

throughout the life span, a continuous restoration is going on rather than genuine remodeling. No, we do not knock down walls in our body house; nor do we build a new kitchen or add a guest wing. The restoration is very subtle, quite meticulous. For a good part of our lives, the substitution of cells is so perfectly achieved that even our appearance remains the same. But when one considers the effects of aging relative to external appearance of our organism or to the operation of our internal system, one realizes that the substitutions become gradually less perfect. Things are not quite in the same place. The skin of the face ages, muscles sag, gravity intervenes, organs may not work quite so well. And that is when a good Beverly Hills plastic surgeon and efficient concierge medicine should enter the picture.

What a truly bizarre concept: aging represents or maps restoration (although for some of us aging may feel more like it is remodeling). Looked at another way, restoration through cell replacement is like copying a copy of a copy of a copy. Over time, the current copy just isn’t as sharp or well defined as the original. So, any fountain of youth would be defined by a process of restoration where each copy was an exact duplicate of the one before. Hold that thought because we’ll come back to it.

So, do all parts of the body go through restoration? How about brain-based therapy with its focus on brain elasticity? Is it a form of restoration as well? Well, not exactly. Consider this observation by Damasio from Self Comes to Mind:

Although we lack a complete understanding of how neuron circuits maintain memories, division of neurons [e.g., restoration] would probably disrupt the records of a lifetime of experience that are inscribed, by learning, in particular patterns of neurons firing in complex circuits. For the same reason, division would also disrupt the sophisticated know-how that is inscribed in circuits by our genome from the get-go and that tells the brain how to coordinate the operations of life. Division of neurons might spell the end of species-specific life regulation and would possibly not allow behavioral and mental individuality to develop, let alone become identity and personhood. The plausibility of this dire scenario is in the known consequences of damage to certain neuron circuits as caused by stroke or Alzheimer’s disease.

So, there you go. On one level the brain must remain relatively stable. If it did not display stability, such things as species-specific life regulation, memory patterns, personhood, and even identity would be at stake. And as Damasio points out, such maladies as stroke, dementia, and Alzheimer’s point out what does happen when stability is compromised. For illustration, consider the following example of stability that Damasio offers up from Self Comes to Mind:

If cells [within the heart] were to divide (even only one sector at a time, a bit like the carefully planned remodeling of a house), the pumping action of the heart would be severely compromised, much as it is when myocardial infarct disables a sector of the heart and unbalances its chambers’ fine coordination.

So, no remodeling or even restoration for the heart. It would appear that the same holds true for the brain as well. So, how exactly does all of this brain plasticity take place? Well, that’s the proverbial $64,000 question that Goldberg asks above: how is it that the brain is both elastic AND stable, can add new information without threatening our sense of self? Well, turns out that Damasio offers up a possible explanation to the “mind-self-body-brain problem,” a theme that shoots through all of his popular books: “[T]he brain maps the world around it and maps its own doings” (quoting Damasio from Self Comes to Mind). In essence, the brain maps the body, and, as a result of this mapping process, creates a virtual body or surrogate body in the brain. It is through this mapping process that “body and brain bond” (quoting Damasio, his emphasis). Hmmmm?—body and its life regulating mechanisms (like attachment) bonds with brain through maps that reach the level of a surrogate body. Sounds like Bowlbian attachment theory with its mantra of

Safe and secure early attachment relationships between mother and infant can (if all goes well) lead to the formation of an open and flexible Inner Working Model [e.g., body map] that then allows for an autonomous self to emerge.

If we put a Damasian spin on Bowlbian attachment theory, it would appear that external bonding experiences play a role in how internal bonding takes place, that is to say, how the bond that forms between body and brain developes. And as body bonds to brain, no doubt external bonding processes will be affected. My guess is that a dynamic feedback loop is created (feedback loops being one of Bowlby’s focus areas).

Throughout his popular work Damasio often refers to this virtual or surrogate body as an as if body. “What’s an as if body good for?” you may well ask. For one, the brain can use the as if body to run simulations as if it were actually in the environment. Using the as if body to run simulations exposes the “as real” body to fewer action attempts that might bring about bodily harm. To drive the point home, consider the following analogy: a financial analyst running as if investment scenarios using a spreadsheet model before exposing actual funds to risk. “[N]etworks of neurons … come to mimic the structure of parts of the body to which they belong,” writes Damasio in Self Comes to Mind. He continues, “They end up representing [emphasis in original] the state of the body, literally mapping the body for which they work and constituting a sort of virtual surrogate of it, a neural double [my emphasis].” Damasio gives us this “bottom line”: “Importantly, they remain connected to the body they mimic throughout life. [The brain] mimicking the body and remaining connected to it serve the [management of life] function quite well.” As Damasio reminds us, the brain’s purpose and the body’s purpose are inextricable: to stay alive and, hopefully, thrive.

So, here’s one possible answer to the brain stability/elasticity mystery: the strategies that the brain comes up with to bring about life regulation may be open and flexible (elastic) but it does so with one stable purpose in mind: enhance the body’s chances for survival. The brain may change but it never “changes its mind” (so-to-speak) with respect to the brain–body bond. Well, maybe not.

Most brain-based therapy I am aware of primarily uses talk. Two people (typically) sit around and talk. The body is rarely asked to participate. At most, the as if or surrogate body is asked to participate. The same is true in the world of psychopharmacology (pulling from Ernest Keen’s work here). The body really does not enter into the picture. You take your pill, the brain is changed, and off you go—“Artificial Happiness” anesthesiologist Ronald Dworkin calls it. Both of these modalities tend to weaken the body–brain bond. In contrast, body-based therapy modalities tend to respect the stable relationship between body and brain (and I do get brochures for these types of workshops). It really should be “Brain Elasticity & Body Stability Therapy,” but I never get these types of brochures. But what if there is a “method to the madness” of weakening or even breaking the body-brain bond. What if we could move Damasio’s “body in the brain” over to a new body, one that requires no restoration. (For more on this theme, see the article Merging Man and Machine in the January, 2010, issue of National Geographic.) What if we could move the as if body over to, say, a machine. Is this not the fountain of youth? Don’t laugh, that’s what the Singularity is all about: that point in time (estimated to be 2045) where biological brain can be placed in mechanical brain, which, in turn, controls mechanical body thus transcending the bounds of biology. (For more on the Singularity, see my post of February 11th, 2011). Following the Singularity, how freeing it will be for a brain to be no longer bonded to the biological body and its constant, incessant need for survival—nutrients, warmth, regulation, safety, etc. So, maybe brain-based therapies are really about creating wetware whereby the actual brain is cybernetically augmented, that is to say, increasingly interfaced with machines. I would suggest that we can see these wetware detachment zones (décollement) being formed all around us:

  • Psychopharmacology
  • Brain-based therapy (those at least that do not have a body focus)
  • “Social” networking
  • “Home-alone America” (the title to Mary Eberstadt’s book)
  • “Bowling Alone” (the title to Robert Putnam’s book)
  • High levels of distractibility and an inability to focus
  • No Child Left Behind (which is really Every Body Left Behind)
  • Our cultural obsession with youth and defying the effects of time
  • The Internet
  • Our increasing fear of the natural environment

Little by little body is separated from brain. But proponents of a posthuman world effectively say that this is a good thing. What better way for brain to protect body than by making body into machine. As Francis Fukuyama points out in his book Our Posthuman Future, such things as the widespread use of behavioral drugs (especially with kids) and genetically engineered “designer babies” (thereby eliminating the womb) map our collective progression toward posthumanism. In a posthuman world, attachment as Bowlby described and defined it would simply hold no value. It would be an outdated form of biological regulation. I guess after the Singularity there will be no more plastic/stability mystery: it all will simply be plastic.