Norman Doidge is a leading edge thinker, and communicator, in brain plasticity research. His book, The Brain that Changes Itself, entered the notion that our brains are not static organs into the mainstream media spotlight. Doidge is, of course, indebted to a long line of researchers who did the difficult work of disproving the static-brain theory, but arguably he has been the most successful communicator of this work to date.
Fortunate Canadians were able to catch a documentary version of Doidge’s book on the CBS show “The Nature of Things” in late November. Regrettably, even YouTube videos of the show are not available to us in the States, but here’s the link so you can try to access them (I tried and failed. If anyone is aware of another means to view the show, please let me know, or mention in the comments section).
The National Post online published an article by Doidge that sets the stage for the show by outlining the major phases of thought that led to the brain plasticity discovery and its implications. I was especially interested to read the section on the interplay of culture and brain plasticity. From the article:
Plasticity requires that we re-examine culture, too. Most think the relationship between the brain and culture is a simple one: The human brain produces culture. In fact our culture also moulds our brains. Just as children with learning disorders can develop new processors, different cultures cultivate different kinds of brains, en masse. The Sea Gypsies, a tribe off the coast of Thailand, learn to see clearly underwater, diving 10 metres in their hunt for food — an example of a whole culture that has developed a super-sense.
As Richard Nisbett shows in The Geography of Thought, when Asians look at still life pictures they see the relationships between the objects very clearly, but the main object less clearly. Westerners see the opposite. These perceptual differences are not based on a difference of opinion about what to focus on, but on involuntary, unconscious brain processing wired into the subjects by their culture, and alterable by emigration. Thus many of the differences between cultures and civilizations need not be seen as based on either genetic (biological) or experiential differences. Cultural experience shapes biology, and no doubt biology shapes cultural experience. These discoveries promise to reshape, in the most profound way, our understanding of cultural acquisition, conflicts, immigration tensions and even the rates at which we, in a globalized world, can expect each other to change.
Tip credit to Neuroanthropology