Sam Wang
Neuroscientist, Princeton University

Experiences Can Change the Brain

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Studies in neuroscience over the last few decades have confirmed an idea originally suggested by philosophers and psychologists: how much the brain can change in response to our experiences.

Sam Wang

Sam Wang is an associate professor, Department of Molecular Biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. 

Wang grew up in California and studied physics at the California Institute of Technology. Seeking his Ph.D. at Stanford University, he switched to neuroscience. He has worked at Duke University as a postdoctoral fellow and aided political leaders as a Congressional Science Fellow. After completing his postdoctoral studies, he spent two years at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., where he learned to use pulsed lasers to study brain signaling before coming to Princeton.

Wang, who has published more than 40 articles on the brain in leading scientific journals. His educational reach extends past the laboratory and classroom in his books, popular articles and efforts to convey neuroscience to interested nonscientists.


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.