Of Marshmallows, Brain Plasticity and Attachment (part III)

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Part I introduced the reader to the work of Walter Mischel. Mischel developed the Marshmallow Test back in the 1960s. The Marshmallow Test is used to assess the psychological dimension known as “the ability to delay gratification.” Kids assessed as “high delayers” on the Marshmallow Test tend to go on to have successful lives. High delayers tend to secure for themselves such things as higher academic achievement and larger retirement accounts when compared to low delayers. In short, high delayers tend to put value on the future whereas low delayers tend to spend most of their time focused on the present. Mischel’s 2014 book The Marshmallow Test—Mastering Self-Control is the story of efforts to measure gratification delay in kids over the last 40 plus years of its history.

Part II profiles a 2003 summary article by Michael Thomas entitled Limits on Plasticity. I profiled Thomas’ article because at the end of The Marshmallow Test Mischel points to brain plasticity as a type of saving grace. According to Mischel, if you were a low delayer as a child, all is not lost. As an adolescent or even adult, you could learn to be a high delayer and increase the Executive Function skill of delaying gratification by using certain behavioral strategies. What allows you to change is the mind’s ability to be plastic or to change in response to inputs coming from the environment. I profiled Thomas’ article as a way toward finding out the extend to which the brain is truly plastic. Turns out that plasticity is highly variable and depends on a number of factors (talked about in part II).

Part III (which you are reading now) will look at the politics of brain plasticity. In this part I’ll profile a 2010 article by Victoria Pitts-Taylor entitled The Plastic Brain: Neoliberalism and the Neuronal Self. Let’s get started.

OK, I have to confess my ignorance. I find many political terms to be very confusing. As an example, I would expect that liberals would embrace neoliberalism. Right? Wrong! According to Wikipedia, neoliberalism—a movement that gained momentum in the 1970s and 80s—is associated with such staunch conservatives as Ronald Reagan and Margret Thatcher. Neoliberalism is about providing support for “extensive economic liberalization, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy” (quoting Wikipedia). So, why don’t they call it neoconservatism? Well, turns out there is such a thing as neoconservatism. Again, pulling from Wikipedia, neoconservatism is associated with names like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and both President Bush senior and junior. Neoconservatives tend to “advocate [for] the ‘assertive’ promotion of democracy and promotion of ‘American national interest’ in international affairs including by means of military force” (quoting Wikipedia). Man, it sounds like there are many conservative frames out there. OK, lets see how the frame of brain plasticity plays out within these various political frames.

Here’s how Pitts-Taylor defines brain plasticity: “Brain plasticity or neuroplasticity refers to the capacity of the brain to modify itself in response to changes in its functioning or environment.” Echoing my observations above, Pitts-Taylor makes this summary statement concerning the science of brain plasticity: “Plasticity has been correlated not only with early learning, but also with shifts in stress levels and hormones, with recovery from trauma and injury, and with learning new skills in adolescence and adulthood.” This agrees with the information that Mischel and Thomas provide (see parts I and II).

Pitts-Taylor quickly observes that all of this focus on brain plasticity has led to a rise in what she calls “neurocentrism.” Neurocentrism arises when the “brain is conceived as foundational of many aspects of human nature and social life,” writes Pitts-Taylor. Recall from part I that Mischel makes the following statement: “A silent revolution in the conception [e.g., framing] of human nature has been slowly building momentum over the past two decades, as scientists reveal the plasticity of the human brain.” Mischel is tipping his hat to the rise of neurocentrism. Pitts-Taylor points out that with the rise of the neurocentrism fame, we are witnessing a narrowing of what it means to be human. If we accept the neurocentrism frame, then “the ability to know key truths about the self and the social are dependent upon developments in neuroscience,” writes Pitts-Taylor.

Pitts-Taylor draws our attention to the fact that much of neuroscientific thought today expresses a conservative worldview that sees “various attributes of individuals and groups” as being “hardwired in the brain” (quoting Pitts-Taylor). This conservative frame tends to go along with the limited plasticity, evolutionary frame talked about in part II. Recall from part II the following statement: “The limited evolutionary model goes something like this: there’s an innate blueprint (e.g., no so-called blank slate), there are certain critical periods during development of the brain, a closing off of flexibility as the brain matures, ending with limited plasticity in the adult years.” According to Pitts-Taylor, liberals—especially liberals who believe in the postmodern and social constructivism frames—will have none of this “biological determinism” or “evolutionary hardwiring.” These liberals wish for a “no holds barred” approach to framing brain plasticity. They wish to use brain plasticity as a way of supporting a liberationist view. Using the work of Sean Watson as a background, here’s how Pitts-Taylor describes this liberationist view: “Throughout the brain there is a fantastic multiplicity of spontaneously erupting experimental responses to outside conditions, drive requirements and other stimuli.” This framing closely resembles the one Thomas presents (in part II) with respect to the permanently plastic frame: the overall brain system “retains hidden reserves available at any age to learn new skills or to compensate for damage, so long as the correct behavioral interventions are used” (quoting Thomas).

Pitts-Taylor now turns to a topic that I have run across before: how hypertext and the Internet are being used to support liberationist and postmodern worldviews. I first encountered this idea during my read of Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book entitled The Shallows—What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Consider this quote by Carr on the roots of hypertext as a postmodern narrative:

Hypertext would, [education reformers] argued, strengthen student’s critical thinking by enabling them to switch easily between different viewpoints. Freed from the lockstep reading demanded by printed pages, readers would make all sorts of new intellectual connections among diverse texts. The academic enthusiasm for hypertext was further kindled by the belief, in line with the fashionable postmodern theories of [the 1980s], that hypertext would overthrow the patriarchal authority and shift power to the reader. It would be a technology of liberation [my emphasis].

It’s times like these that I like to point out that postmodernism eschews cognitive models or frames of any kind. Here’s the irony: postmodernism is a model in that it is the model of no model, which, after all, is still a model. I also wonder: “liberation toward what?” Postmodernism appears to be about liberation for liberation’s sake. To bring this back around to the topic at hand, postmodernism appears to have an almost exclusive focus on the present. Liberation is no longer a means to an end (like it was during the civil rights marches of the 1960s); it’s an end in and of itself. It’s like a person released after many years of imprisonment having no idea what to do or where to go because nothing on the outside makes any sense (cinematically depicted in the movie Shawshank Redemption). Using work by Brian Rotman as a background, Pitts-Taylor tells us that

hypertexts are rewiring the very brain/minds that imagined them. In this way we are facilitating the emergence of a larger—collectivized, distributed, pluralized—“intelligence” by allowing ourselves to become more “othered,” more parallelist, more multi, less individualized—able to see, think, enjoy, feel and do more than one thing at a time.

Rotman’s vision, Pitts-Taylor reveals, is for a “progressive postmodern subjectivity” that sees an end to such things as “singular subjects and truths, linear history, and hegemonic dominance of singular ideas.” Apparently progressive postmodern subjectivities will be built from such things as “plurality of truths and futures” and “multi-directional itineraries.” Quoting Catherine Malabou from her 2008 book What Should We Do with Our Brain, Pitts-Taylor simply states that the postmodern agenda is about “a refusal to submit to a model.” Again, this is such poppycock because “submitting to no model” is a model. And if one is not submitting to a model, how then are they able to point to a model like neurology or brain plasticity for any level of support. And what will bring about this progressive postmodern subjectivity? why of course an infinitely plastic brain. Let me see if I can make either heads or tails out of this.

The mind (in contrast to the body) can express a so-called progressive postmodern subjectivity. The mind—land of the immaterial—can entertain many different ideas and possibilities at the same time. To use Rotman’s imagery, the mind is very parallel. In fact the mind can go in many different directions all at the same time. The mind is able to run multiple “what if” scenarios at the same time. But then there is the body: land of the material. For lack of a better way to look at it, the body is very serial. It can only go in one direction at one time. The body can only run one “what is” scenario at a time. In a modern world, the mind and body have to learn to work together. A postmodern world imagines mind completely divorced from body. Lets face it, the body is too singular, too linear, too limiting for postmodern sensibilities. Postmodern liberation is very much about mind once and for all separated from body. This is why many postmodernists have embraced the idea of a Singularity: mind now safely ensconced in a mechanical or cyborg body of some kind.

No one knows what will happen once mind leaves organic body and melds with a mechanical or cyborg body. This in part may explain why postmodernists cannot imagine the future. It’s unimaginable. But yet they know they wish to go there using the Internet and hypertext as some type of magic carpet. Personally I find similarities between the hippie movement of the 1960s and postmodernism. Both express attempts to dissociate mind from body. The hippies used mind altering psychotropics; postmodernists use mind altering digital technologies. And now we feed our children copious amounts of both. Our children are now on a steady diet of behavioral drugs and so-called smartphones. And as authors such as autism expert Russell Barkley and technology critic Nicholas Carr caution, both extensive digital technology and behavioral drug use work against development of Executive Function skills, those same skills a person needs to be successful in a modern world. What will happen if the postmodern world never fully materializes and large groups of people are ill-equipped to make it in a modern world. Who will pick up the pieces once postmodern dissociation wreaks havoc on our culture? Fortunately most 1960s hippies were able to return to a normal modern life. Let’s hope that children of postmodernism are able to do the same. Only time will tell. I digress. Let’s finish up by returning to neoliberalism and brain plasticity.

According to Pitts-Taylor, brain plasticity has been used to bolster neoliberal positions. Consider this quote by Pitts-Taylor:

Plasticity is deployed to encourage us to see ourselves as neuronal subjects, and is linked to the continued enhancement of learning, intelligence, and mental performance [which would be Mischel’s position], and to true avoidance of various risks associated with the brain, including mental underperformance, memory loss, and aging. While enforcing a view of the body/self which resists biological determinism, I find that popular discourse on plasticity firmly situates the subject in a normative, neoliberal ethic of personal self-care and responsibility linked two modifying the body. … Overall, brian potentiality [within a neoliberal frame] represents a competitive field in which one’s willingness to let go of sameness, to constantly adapt, and to embrace a lifelong regime of work on the self (and one’s children) are keys to individual success.

Pitts-Taylor makes the following observations concerning the neoliberal framing of brain plasticity and potential:

  1. risks are regularly shifted from the external to the internal
  2. attention is shifted away from the social and focused on the individual
  3. the individual is asked to handle risk as opposed to the social

With respect to number three, Pitts-Taylor cautions that as the individual is increasingly asked to handle the risks associated with maintaining a neuronal self, there is an increase in “reliance on expert discourse and the marketplace, both of which increasingly offer solutions.” Pitts-Taylor points to Baby Einstein DVDs—popular a few years back and pushed by such groups as Disney and Zero-to-Three—as representing “the beginning of whole lifetimes of brain-enhancement practices.”

Allow me to finish up with this summary statement by Pitts-Taylor, one that I think gets at the heart of the matter:

Much enthusiasm for the “new” neuroscience of plasticity by some psychologists, sociologists, feminists, and social theorists is shaped by the debates between determinism and social constructionism, with the former almost always being identified as a conservative force of biological thought, and the latter representing the more progressive framework that makes room for human agency and social change. Social constructionism has been preferred for many good reasons, but at the cost of under theorizing biological matter itself.

As I argue in my book Bowlby’s Battle, the rise of social constructivism spelled the end to a focus on such biological theorizing as Bowlbian attachment theory.

In part IV (which will bring a close to this blog series) we will return back to Mischel and I’ll try to bring out more of the connection between attachment and delaying gratification. I will do so using a background of Thomas’ scientific and Pitts-Taylor’s political framings of brain plasticity.