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Question: What is neuroplasticity?

Sam Wang: Well, people have known that experience can change the brain ever since it became known that the brain was the seat of consciousness, thought, and experience. And so, I would say that for hundreds of years, it’s been known implicitly that the brain must undergo change because, of course, if the brain is the physical object by which we generate our consciousness and ourselves, then there must be some physical change happening in the brain.

So in that sense, I think neuroplasticity has been known implicitly for centuries. But I think it’s really been in the last few decades become really appreciated exactly what happens in the brain. So about a little over 50 years ago, a Canadian psychologist named Donald Hebb suggested the specific idea that experience could change the brain in ways that perhaps there’ll be some pathway that gets activated in an order of events that gets turned on when we experience something and then, when we recall it, we are, perhaps, playing it back, and have suggested that. Before him, the pioneering psychologist William James suggested it.

And you can even find the suggestions of this in writings of Thomas Hobbes and even Aristotle. So it’s been in the last 50 years or so that this suggestion that’s been around for a millennia has turned into a very concrete suggestion about neural pathways. So that’s neuroplasticity in the adult brain. Then, there’s also neuroplasticity in response to injury and also during development. And all these things are facets that have been studied facets of neuroscience that have been studied over the last few decades and it’s becoming really appreciated how much the brain can change.

 

More from the Big Idea for Sunday, May 08 2011

 

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