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Neuroplasticity: What the Heck is a Plastic Brain?

When I first heard these terms I almost dismissed them because they sounded too strange. However, as time has gone by I have heard of neuroplasticity more and more and learned about some amazing changes in people's lives....

Plastic Brainbecause of plastic brains.  Peoples' heads are not filled with the bright primary colored stuff that toys are made of but our brains are plastic in the sense of the dictionary definition: "capable of being shaped or formed".

During the 19th century a theory about the brain was proposed and (unfortunately) became accepted as fact.  The theory, known as localizationism postulated that a specific part of the brain was responsible for a specific part of the body.  For example, it was thought that a defined area of the brain was responsible for moving each muscle such that a map could be drawn of the brain that indicated which part moved the tip of the right finger or the top of the left thigh or where ever.

This theory was leant support after experiments in the 1930's conducted by Wilder Penfield.  When electrodes were attached to specific areas of the brain and then a part of the body was stimulated - for example the right finger - it was found that electrical activity increased in the part of the brain responsible for the right finger.  After studying a number of patients a map was drawn of the brain that showed which areas were responsible for which part of the body.

That then seemed to be that, the map was drawn and localizationism was "fact".   Maybe there's something about maps that makes us think boundaries are fixed even though they might not be (my old atlas shows a great big country in Eastern Europe called USSR and we have obviously found that map hasn't been any indicator of permanence).

In the 1950's and 60's localizationism was challenged by scientists such as Paul Bach-y-Rita, Michael Merzenich, V.S. Ramachandran, and others.  Through theoretical and practical experimentation it was found that different areas of the brain, under the right conditions, can take over the work of other areas and literally change the map.

Bach-y-Rita 's father suffered a severe stroke that left one side of his body paralyzed.  He worked at exercises designed to help him learn to reuse his affected side and eventually ended up with full function and returned to his occupation of college professor and his hobby of hiking.  After he died (of a heart attack, age 72) an autopsy found a large lesion in his brain from the stroke.  The existence of the lesion and the fact that he had recovered function indicates that the role of the damaged areas had successfully been taken over by other areas of the brain.

I have taken this example from "The Brain That Changes Itself" by Norman Doidge.  The book contains many fascinating and inspiring stories of where brain plasticity has resulted in triumph over a wide variety of conditions including dysfunctions of the brain, balance, mental processing, and pain.

Brain plasticity is at the heart of my work with the Anat Baniel Method.  In this work we seek to create conditions for the brain to become plastic and create new neural connections, patterns and pathways.  This then leads to new possibilities for movement, thought and feeling.

Since the brain is responsible for almost everything we do we have to make changes to the brain in order to change the way that we do things.  Changing the brain in one area of function (such as movement) is very likely to change it in other ways such as the way information is processed (thinking) or how we react to our surroundings (emotion).

It may be that a child cannot move his legs in a way that leads to a useful action because of cerebral palsy or some other condition that affects the brain.  If he moves both legs at the same time it is likely that his brain's map represents the legs as a single unit and not two separate legs.  For purposes of discussion, we will assume that there is nothing wrong with the physical structure of the legs.  (If they are small or underdeveloped that is likely to be because they haven't been used - use creates structure not the other way around.  That is why strengthening muscles without learning how to use them is rarely effective but that's another story.)

The use of the legs can be learned with the help of a practitioner moving them in ways that present options to the brain.  The movements may be individual parts of the legs or the movement of other parts of the body that would normally be part of leg movement - pelvis, low back etc.  The ability of the back to move well is always important as is the ability to position the head.  It is likely that learning to move one leg in relation to the other requires learning how to move a lot of things other than just the leg itself.

As the ability to move one leg independently of the other is achieved, the brain's map of the body will change.  The most obvious change will be that the map of the legs will change to reflect that the legs are two separate parts rather than just one.  The brain's image of anything that moves when the leg moves will also change, and so the representation of the back, pelvis, spine, ribs, head etc will also be affected.

The way that the body moves will make more sense to the child's system as a whole; the brain will have put order into disorder and so will be functioning at a higher level.  The brain's ability to perceive differences will have improved and this ability is a fundamental building block of intelligence - the better that we perceive differences in one area the better we perceive them in other areas.  That is why mental function and the ability to relate to the world improve when movement improves.

There is no question that the brain is plastic and can change to adapt to circumstances.  The question is how to create the right conditions for maximum plasticity and maximum outcome.  This is done by getting the brain into a learning state using slow subtle gentle techniques that improve the brain's ability to perceive differences.  The Anat Baniel Method is based on using techniques that create these conditions and applying them in the way that best suits any given child in any given situation.

When we are able to harness neuroplasticity and get the brain to work better, fantastic things happen.  Children learn to do things that may have been thought impossible because of brain injuries or other challenges.  As physical abilities improve so does the ability to process information, form intention, and take action.  Since intentional action delivers meaningful results, the world makes more sense and emotional differentiation prospers.  In other words, the brain functions better and its owner is able to more fully enjoy life.

When this happens we see things that might look like miracles but are really just the application of a strangely named phenomena known as neuroplasticity.