Can people change?
It’s a loaded question. If affects our views on philosophy, religion, psychology, sociology and biology – just to name a few.
What if I told you there was scientific research that strongly suggests that the answer is yes? Think about that for a second. Think about the hope that lies at the heart of much of this research. I was fascinated by the concept of neuroplasticity when I first learned about it. Not just the information itself, but also the fact that I had never heard of it before.
Over the course of my life, I’ve seen so many movies and television shows that wrestle with the question of whether or not people can change. It seems like something that a lot of us wonder about. We hear it in our music and in our stories. If you’re the philosophical type, it occasionally dominates our conversations over coffee.
If there is research out there that seems to strongly suggest a definitive answer, how come most of us have never heard about it? I have some thoughts about the answer, but they are far beyond the scope of this article. Instead, let’s focus on the research.
As we said in a previous post, the brain is made of millions of cells called neurons. These neurons are linked to each other into complex networks.
In 1913, a Spanish neuroanatomist proposed the idea that these neural networks were fixed in adults. They couldn’t change. He won a nobel prize for his work and it was accepted as scientific fact for the next 70 years. The idea was that the brains of children were somewhat malleable and adaptable, but as adults our brains became static and fixed.
There was only one problem with this. It isn’t true.
There were rumblings of dissent here and there. Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb proposed an alternate theory in 1949. American psychologist Edward Taub started working on some interesting research in the 1970’s. But a lot of this work was considered controversial and was not readily accepted.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the idea started gaining serious traction. After some interesting results in work with monkeys, psychologists began studying violinists and cab drivers. MRI results of violinists showed that the parts of their brains that process fingering grew stronger and larger in the part of the brain responsible for the fingering hand over the bow hand (because the bow hand doesn’t use as much finger movement).
The same was true for London cab drivers. At one time, in order to become a licensed cab driver in London, you had to take a series of classes and tests that covered every single intersection in the city of London. As a result, the cab drivers showed more growth in the parts of their brain where directional memories originate than other similar areas.
A shift in how we think about thinking…
Thus the idea of neuroplasticity started to gain traction. The research began to show that our actions – especially repeated actions – had a significant influence on how our brains wired and developed over time. Not just in children, but also in adults.
“Neuroplasticity” is the idea that the neural networks in our brain are not static – but they are plastic. They can be changed and molded over time. For the first time, researchers began to show – scientifically – that change is possible.
Ok… so what does any of this have to do with how we live our lives today? Most of us aren’t professional cab drivers or violinists.
Probably the biggest impact it has on our daily lives is hope. Properly understood, these findings can instill tremendous hope in us that we can change. Do you wrestle with depression? Anxiety? Body image? An addictive behavior? Conflict with your spouse? This research suggests that, by reaching out to a trusted professional, you can harness your brain’s neuroplasticity. You can use the brain’s ability to change and grow over time to improve these areas of your life.
In the next post, we’ll talk about some specific ways that you can increase your brain’s capacity for change on your own.
Eric McClerren, MA CIT
emcclerren @ growcounseling.com