Train Your Brain: The new mania for neuroplasticity

By Meghan O’Rourke at

… Welcome to the age of neuroplasticity: the notion that adult brains are more adaptable, capable of reprogramming themselves, than was once thought. As a host of popularizers have begun to argue, neuroplasticity has enormous implications not only for our physical health but for our mental health. One recent example, Sharon Begley’s Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential To Transform Ourselves, aims to harness the self-improving yen of aging baby boomers while couching the desire in highbrow guise (offering up a dash of Buddhism, a short history of Tibet, a little biology). Even more than evolutionary psychology—yesterday’s brain cause du jour—neuroplasticity has become fundamental to how we try to understand the brain, and ourselves.

This new perspective is grounded in (somewhat) recent, solid scientific findings. For decades, it was assumed by many neuroscientists that adult humans had a “hardwired” brain that did not generate new cells and could not significantly change. As the Spanish neuroanatomist Ramón y Cajal put it in 1913, the adult human brain was “fixed, ended, immutable.” Scientists believed that if an adult lost her sight, her visual cortex (the area in the brain where visual stimuli are processed) would become a neuronal black hole, as it were; if she lost feeling in her arm, the section of her cortex allotted to arm sensations would go silent. Only children had malleable brains, capable of readily absorbing information (like new languages), and receptive to whatever programming (Mozart, Baby Einstein, an affection for smoked mozzarella) instrumental-minded adults tried to cram into it. The rest of us were stuck with our creaky memories and our paltry mastery of French; there was no way to stop and call for a “do-over.” …

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