“You can’t teach old dogs new tricks.”
This dictum is based on the now discredited belief that the human brain circuitry is fixed after a certain age and will not grow or change anymore. The functions of one set of neurons cannot be replaced or taken over by other neurons or parts of the brain.
Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley, in their fascinating book, “The Mind and the Brain, Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force,” explained: “This dogma held that if the brain sustained injury through stroke or trauma, then other regions could not step up to the plate and pinch-hit. The function of the injured region would be lost forever.”
Studies that challenge this paradigm were either conveniently explained away or regarded as erroneous. And yet studies after another showed, in no uncertain terms, that stroke-related brain injury is not always permanent.
“Someone who suffers an infarct (i.e. blocking of supply of blood) in the region of the right motor cortex responsible for moving the left leg might nevertheless regain some control of that leg.”
The antiplasticity camp did not budge, according to Schwartz and Begley. “The possibility that the adult brain might have the power to adopt or change as the result of experiences was dismissed.”
But now, perhaps only the most die-hard and most ignorant skeptic would refuse to accept the fact that brain cells can regenerate themselves. They call this “neuro-genesis” or “neuroplasticity.”
The brain is capable of modifying itself throughout a person’s life.
Psychiatrist Paul Bach-y-Rita’s most notable work was in the field of neuroplasticity. He is considered as the first to propose the concept of sensory substitution to treat patients with disabilities, often those caused by neurological problems.
In 1959, Bach-y-Rita’s father, Pedro, suffered a cerebral infarction (stroke) which caused paralysis to one side of his body and damaged his ability to speak. He succeeded in treating Pedro so that he was able to lead a normal life, despite the opinion of several doctors that this was impossible.
When Pedro died, an autopsy, performed by Dr. Mary Jane Aguilar, revealed that Pedro had suffered a major stroke and suffered severe damage to a large portion of his brain stem, which had not repaired itself after the stroke.
The fact that he had made such a significant recovery suggested that his brain had reorganized itself, providing evidence for neuroplasticity.
Like a hologram
Another big breakthrough in our understanding of how the brain works was made by the neuroscientist, Karl H. Pribram, emeritus professor of psychology and psychiatry at Stanford University who died two years ago.
In his study of where memory is located in the brain, Pribram found that it is spread all over the brain like a hologram and does not lie in a specific location.
He developed the Holographic Theory of the brain, after studying the work of John Eccles and Emmett Leith.
Pribram proposed the hypothesis that “memory might take the form of interference patterns that resemble laser- produced holograms.”
Holograms, it is known, “can store information within patterns of interference and then recreate that information when activated.”
It provided for Pribram the metaphor for brain function.
Dr. Pribram worked with Karl Lashley in the latter’s experiments with memory among rats. Dr. Lashley made a small incision, then cut off large portions of the rat’s brain, but it had little effect on memory.
The rat still found where food was located at the end of a maze despite the fact that most of its brain matter had been removed.
Lashley died before finding out the answer, which was supplied by Pribram’s theory that the brain is like a hologram, i.e. the part contains the whole. Memory is nonlocal but is spread throughout the brain.
I met Pribram in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in the mid-’90s, when we were speakers at an international conference on alternative healing. We also observed the ceremony by the indigenous mystical group called “Umbanda.”
Umbanda has been described as a Brazilian folk religion combining elements of Macumba, Roman Catholicism and South American Indian practices. It likewise has African Shamanic influences.
I had the rare opportunity of discussing with Pribram his holographic theory of the brain, and he directed me to go to his office at the Stanford University in California to get copies of his non-technical papers on the holographic theory of the brain.
It is said that Pribram has dissected more human brains than any other neuroscientist.
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