The idea of what a brain is and what it does has drastically expanded over the last few decades. During my medical school training (mid-90s) we learned nothing about the brain’s plasticity (then an unknown concept to me) and focused on studying its anatomy and physiology that was mostly static. “Not much changes over time, and if does, it is usually a loss” – was the gist of the thinking from that era.
Last few decades brought the explosion of neuroscience and with it our understanding of the brain’s function and role.
One of the first books that came out that eloquently described the concept of neuroplasticity was “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge, MD.
In the recent years, the concept of neuroplasticity has made its way into neurology, neuropsychology and psychiatry and also my field, pain medicine, where it is recognized as a key underlying mechanism responsible for the experience of chronic pain and neurobiology of addiction.
At its most basic understanding, brain plasticity is the idea that the brain changes itself (the change may be beneficial or maladaptive) and adopts to the evolving environment: internal and external.
But it wasn’t until I came across the newest and beautiful book by the prolific David Eagleman (“Livewired”) that writes about it with such clarity and deep insights, illuminating our understanding of evolution, human interactions, love, health and disease.
“Our machinery (I.e. the brain – MC) isn’t fully preprogrammed, but instead shapes itself by interacting with the world. As we grow, we constantly rewrite our brain’s circuitry to tackle challenges, leverage opportunities, and understand the social structures around us.”
“Our species has successfully taken over every corner of the globe because we represent the highest expression of a trick that Mother Nature discovered: don’t entirely pre-script the brain; instead, just set it up with the basic building blocks and get it into the world.”
The book is remarkable. So is our ongoing history of coming to understand who we are.