“Neuroplasticity” is an umbrella term for the revolutionary discovery that the brain has, in the words of psychiatrist Norman Doidge, “the ability to change its own structure and learn to replace lost functions.” The brain is resilient, in other words. Adaptive. Creative.
You can, too, teach an old dog new tricks.
Read an amazing tale of brain-recovery here. Dr. Doidge recounts of a “hopeless case” who, through neuronal input through her tongue, of all things, recovered from a life-destroying loss of balance function caused by maladministration of antibiotics.
But neuroplasticity doesn’t have to be that dramatic. Anytime we learn something new, we are drawing on our neuroplastic abilities.
We can learn – by books, by others’ modeling conduct we admire, by travel, by experience, by FELDENKRAIS®.
Cats can learn. Bugs learned. He and I started out life together in an uneasy truce. We both grew up. Here is an intermediate stage of our progress, which I re-post with apologies for a wise-ass writing style I hope I’ve grown out of. Plus I was still benighted enough, at that time, to think that a squirt-bottle would be a legitimate peace-keeping tool.
Here Bugs shows how he has grown into his essential sweetness.
Barney has learned. It used to drive me nuts that to get to kitchen-bed, he would jump up from the floor, hurtle across the stove-top – the stove-top, right? – and thus land in the bed. He hasn’t pulled that caper in ages. I think he learned not to from a combination of freak-out from me, plus the burners rattle when his impressive weight hits the surface and he’s probably not overly fond of that noise. Who cares why, really. The thing is, he’s learned not to do it any more. So far.
[Unduly optimistic. He’s still doing it, one year later. –Ed.]
Here’s Barney, always sweet even when he was jumping on the stove. [is jumping on stove. –Ed.]
So, cilantro. Did you know that a taste for cilantro apparently depends on genetic factors? And those who hate cilantro might have a genetic make-up that affects taste and smell to the extent that those poor souls think cilantro tastes like soap, or smells like bedbug-infested sheets?
One of those poor cilantro-hating souls actually learned to appreciate the herb (from which herb, incidentally, the excellent coriander also derives. Who knew?).
Though the word “neuroplasticity” doesn’t feature prominently in a New York Times article about this cilantro enlightenment, here is neuroplasticity at work, in a less-dramatic fashion than loss of balance but still pretty impressive. Neuroscientist Jay Gottfried was originally a cilantro-hater. He explains why this experience was one of survival: “If a flavor doesn’t fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the . . . potential threat to our safety. We . . . throw the offending ingredient on the floor where it belongs. . . . When your brain detects a potential threat, it narrows your attention. You don’t need to know that a dangerous food has a hint of asparagus and sorrel to it. You just get it away from your mouth.”
But Dr. Gottfried learned to like cilantro. He explains: “My brain must have developed new patterns for cilantro flavor from . . . experiences [including] . . . the sharing [of food] with friends and family. . . . So I began to like cilantro. It can still remind me of soap, but it’s not threatening anymore, so that association fades into the background, and I enjoy its other qualities. On the other hand, if I ate cilantro once and never willingly let it pass my lips again, there wouldn’t have been a chance to reshape that perception.”
So let us never be too quick to dismiss that which we interpret as a threat to our safety. Miracles can happen.
Of course, miracles could be maladaptive, too. I’d just as soon not learn to love the sassy, astringent notes of, say, arsenic.
Life. A balancing act between adventuresomeness tempered by caution. A complicated business.