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The Plastic Mind by Sharon Begley

1/09/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy The Plastic Mind in the USA - or Buy The Plastic Mind in the UK

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pub: Constable Robinson. 353 page indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84529-674-2.

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If you’ve ever thought that your brain is set in its ways once you reach adulthood then you would be sorely mistaken after reading this book, ‘The Plastic Mind’. Author Sharon Begley examines both early experiments of how in experimentation how the brain re-orientates its connections where nerve endings are severed to how learning something new changes the structure of your brain. It’s only in recent decades that developments (sic) in this area have changed dogmas associated with this subject. More so when the Dalai Lama lent his support seeing similarities between this and how people in his own religion have developed their own abilities through meditation.

The subject itself is called neuroplasticity by the way and if you think you’re immune to change, think how quickly you learnt the use of your computer or even mobile phone. The more you learn, the more adaptable you become. By that definition, we’re all becoming more flexible so why should we be surprised that this is a study subject for scientists. As SF readers, we’re used to looking at changes and less phased by it in the real world with technological shock so maybe we have our take on this subject.

I was curious about the Dalai Lama’s viewpoint on animal experimentation that was carried out in all of this but the Buddhish point of view is not to exploit suffering when discovering benefits which was rather illuminating.

There are lots of things I learnt from this book. What the scientists have found is just how massive these changes in our brains are as they are not down to just minor tweaking. Amongst them is that depressed people have a smaller hippocampus (that’s part of the brain in case you didn’t know) and fail to recognise anything new. If you can remain relatively upbeat or optimistic then this is less likely to happen. If you thought the blind can enhanced senses to compensate for their lack of vision, tests appear to prove that a lot of it is neural re-routing into other parts of the brain. One thing the blind probably never have to worry about when describing something is the colour.

If you’ve ever wondered about ‘phantom limb’ sensations in amputees, it is the brain redirecting sensation elsewhere so something like an itch can be dealt with by, say, scratching the cheek. A similar thing happens to stroke victims who have to regain control of their limbs.

One thing I was aware of when young and glad to see that I was right is that it’s far easier to teach children under ten a foreign language than when they are older. The same also applies to musical instruments and presumably anything else that requires tactile skills. This doesn’t mean you can’t learn such things as adults, apparently the age of twenty-five is seen as the tail-off point, just that it is a lot harder. I did wonder where typing comes into this, especially as so many of us do this on the Net and many learn how to use more than two fingers later in life. I was typing in my teens and take it very much for granted now but for any of you struggling, it is still something that can be mastered providing you’re prepared to look at the lessons the professional typists learn to teach their fingers the keyboard.

There is some interesting discussion about good nurturing of the young makes for stable off-spring which in light of current social problems that should be required reading.

In the penultimate chapter, there is an examination of how Buddhists’ brains are under meditation and far from being totally relaxed, they have very active brains mostly because of the concentration involved to stay focused. It certainly shows when they do some tests and thought them simple and straight-forward.

This is an interesting book and if nothing else will encourage you to learn new skills if you’re prepared to work at it. You can learn new tricks which is always encouraging and that you’ll never stop learning.

GF Willmetts

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