Wednesday, January 24, 2007

How the brain rewires itself.

This is only one of the articles in the recent Time Magazine issue featuring the brain. It contains links to the rest of the articles, all worth glancing over.


  1. Anonymous8:28 PM

    Great article. I was never convinced that the brain was immutably 'wired,' even when this was more or less the accepted belief.

    The notion of mutability has always affected my thinking about psychotherapy, underscoring for me the implausibility of popular notions of psychotherapy as cure by 'aha' moment -- a notion that, by the way, no credible analyst or psychotherapist has accepted for as long as I’ve been in this field.

    While the processes are different in some important ways, the slow and arduous nature of change in psychotherapy is, in some respects, similar to rehabilitation after a brain injury or, perhaps, similar to the practice one engages in to develop a skill. This is understandable once one is thinking in terms ‘wiring’ changes and pathways that develop incrementally as opposed to some notion of completed architecture already in place and ready to be used simply by discovering a previously blocked pathway that is magically opened by lifting a neural obstacle with the ‘aha’ of an insight.

    In connection with the Time article, one experience that sticks with me and comes to mind sometimes in my work as a clinical psychologist was my experience taking piano lessons while I was an undergraduate student at Northwestern over thirty years ago. I studied briefly with a jazz teacher, Alan Swain, who was a music professor who also taught jazz piano privately in small school he established in town. Prior to taking lessons with Swain, I had studied music for 9 years as a child with only slightly better than typical mediocre results.

    Swain's method leaned heavily on theory in ways that invited certain types of mental practice even when I wasn’t at the keyboard. Although I don't recall if he specifically urged mental practice, I engaged in it heavily and it seemed to have an extraordinary effect on my ability to play. I found myself bringing things to the keyboard that I’d worked on away from the keyboard.

    While there was more to the method than the intellectual component that I brought to my mental practice, it seemed indispensable to my rapid progress at the time. Of course, only a study using controls could begin to determine whether or not I'm full of malarkey, but my hunch is that mental rehearsal really did make a difference in my progress. Just what types of skill development could be enhanced by mental practice and what kind of mental practice might be involved go well beyond anything I would speculate on, but there are many interesting questions to be explored here.

  2. There is a whole literature on how the imaging of a skilled athletic or musical activity can be more effective in refining and training than actual physical practice. During the imaging it is easier to detect extraneous or opposing efforts than during the performace itself. I certainly find this to be the case for my piano performance work. It is possible to sort out adn subtract the elements of a learned motor sequence that are not useful. This has to be demonstrating plasticity in procedural memory learning. Of course, there is also the dramatic example of plasticity provided by the fact that the amount of motor cortex devoted to the hand in pianists is general larger than in average people... and, cab drivers in London, who have to essentially memorize the A to Z guide, have a larger hippocamus than normal.

  3. Anonymous5:26 PM

    I too studied jazz piano with Alan Swain throughout the 80's. I concur with your estimation of the power of his suggested methods including repeated programming of learning material.

    Hank Milligan, New Milford, CT