Friday, November 4, 2022

Response to the Question of Neuroplasticity

Community Member Question:

"With the increase in awareness of neurodivergence, where does science stand on neuroplacticity?  It's great people are embracing difference but 10 years ago we were being told we could retrain our brains.... has this gone by the wayside or has its effects been understood as more limited?"

My Reply:

A reasoned conversation is going to need to be had about the limits of neurological explanations for human emotional and cognitive distress. As a starting point - there is no mechanistic explanation for how higher-level cognitive functions, including learning abstract concepts, experience emotion, and so on, emerge from neural networks."

This has at times been labeled the Hard Problem of Consciousness.

At best, neurology relies on correlation. A person reports trauma and we see differences in various measures of their neurology. But we know that correlation does not imply causation.

As such, we can only rely on individual reports of experience. And those accounts seem to show that some things feel more "hard-wired" and unchanging, other things don't, and some things feels a bit more in the middle.

We can compare psyche experiences to other sensations. Our sense of taste seems innate (we like what we like and to some extent don't choose). But it changes over time. Similarly, one's sexuality seems innate ((we like what we like and to some extent don't choose). But it changes over time.

Some things are trainable. We can go the gym and make amazing strides in increasing strength and flexibility. We can likewise train certain things in our mind, such as learning and applying new concepts (math, language, etc.)

Some things seem wholly unchangeable. Our height throughout adulthood is what it is. Apraxia (difficulty with motor planning to perform tasks or movements) is a lifelong condition. Various forms of colorblindness are lifelong conditions.

The most honest truth to answer these questions is probably - "we just don't know". To me, that means we should've ever proclaim authority in insisting that certain behavioral traits MUST change, and likewise should stop insisting that change or growth MUST be impossible.

Open-ended, open-minded curious inquiry that's respectful of the individual experience seems like a useful starting point, as does relying on lived experience wisdom and anecdotal account as equally valid and valuable as more formalized institutional research methods and their own strengths and flaws. 

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