When I was growing up it was believed that the adult brain was done learning and only inevitable death from neuronal pruning would result. This was how we understood Alzheimer’s Disease worked – the decaying brain. It was thought that what you knew as you entered adulthood was all that you could know.
Clearly this is wrong. However it was the human biological model that was taught for a few hundred years – pretty much since it was recognised that the seat of consciousness was the brain and not the heart.
Research as early as 1923 by Karl Lashley was starting to buck the trend (his research was on rhesus monkeys showing changes in the brain pathways), however the momentum of assumptions took almost 60 years to shift. By the late 1980’s the idea of neuroplasticity was becoming real. With the advent of fMRI and direct brain observation via direct electrodes to the brain, the idea of the adult brain actually changing because of experience was receiving recognition.
So what does this mean to us?
The first bit seems kind of obvious. We can continue to learn as adults. We instinctively know this because if you can remember yesterday, then you have learned things. Learning involves creating memories and using those memories to solve problems.
The next bit is a bit let obvious. Changing the brain’s software changes the brain’s hardware. That is, if we change our behaviour we change our brain pathways and chemicals. If we can change our brain pathways, then we can learn to be less anxious, learn to not be psychopathic and we can learn to recover from many brain injuries.
There are limits though. We can only go forwards, we cannot go backwards. What this means is if we have lost a memory, it is gone. We can’t go back to how we were. This may seem sad and not what we want, but really, growing means going forwards, not backwards. We grow up, not down. So go forwards to a new you.
Not all things can be learned new, some things just need to be compensated for. For example, one of the spectra for autism is not being able to pick up the social cues of others very well. Some people with autism do this quite well, some do it very poorly. An person with autism can learn to do this better with good coaching, but will generally not learn it well enough for reading social cues to be effortless.
What neuroplasticity tells us is that you can change the way your brain works. Change the software, you change the hardware. To do this well takes a good therapist, a good rehab worker or some dedicated research and effort on your own behalf.
There is no locked in stone and hopeless case. If you want to change – you can.
More can be learned at WikiPedia