I was pondering this question while reading David Eagleman’s book, Livewired: the inside story of the ever-changing brain. Eagleman is a neuroscientist, writing about neuroplasticity for a popular audience. My interest in brain plasticity was aroused over a decade ago when I read Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself, and speculated about some implications of his assertion that “to keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus”.
Eagleman prefers “livewired” to “plastic” because the latter term may bring to mind plastic molds rather than flexibility. He suggests that we need the concept of liveware “to grasp this dynamic, adaptable, information-seeking system”.
By the way, Eagleman’s book has left me thinking that in 50 years’ time, people who are shown the above cartoon will still be able to see the humor in it.
The livewired brain
In my view, the most important point that Eagleman makes is that the human brain arrives in the world unfinished: “despite some genetic pre-specification, nature’s approach to growing a brain relies on receiving a vast set of experiences, such as social interaction, conversation, play, exposure to the world, and the rest of the landscape of normal human affairs”.
Experiences during early childhood are to a large extent determinative. If infants don’t have appropriate social and sensory interaction, their brains become malformed and pathological.
As brains mature, neural maps become increasingly solidified. As brains get good at certain jobs, they become less able to attempt others. Adult brains keep most of their connections in place to hold on to what has been learned, with only small areas remaining flexible. Nevertheless, even in the elderly an active mental life fosters new connections.
Eagleman distills the main features of livewiring into seven principles:
- Brains match themselves to their input, e.g. when a person is born blind the occipital cortex is completely taken over by other senses.
- Brains wrap around the inputs to leverage whatever information streams in. It is possible for one sensory channel to carry another channel’s information, e.g. with appropriate equipment, the brain is able to learn to use information coming from the skin as if it is coming from the eyes.
- Brains learn by putting out actions and evaluating feedback, e.g. that is how we learn to communicate with other people, how we can learn to control machinery, and how a damaged spinal cord can be bypassed using signals passed directly from a brain to a muscle stimulator.
- Brains retain what matters to them; flexibility is turned on and off in small spots based on relevance; what is learned in one area is passed to an area in the cortex for more permanent storage; the cortical changes involve the addition of new cellular material; brains have a different system for extracting generalities in the environment (slow learning) and for episodic memory (fast learning). “Everything new is understood through the filter of the old.”
- Brain lock down stable information. Some parts of the brain are more flexible than others, depending on the input. Brains adjust themselves depending on how you spend your time. When learners direct their own learning, relevance and reward are both present and allow brains to reconfigure.
- Plasticity arises because different parts of the system are engaged in a competitive struggle for survival. Competition in the brain forest is analogous to the competition between trees and bushes in a rain forest. The principles of competition poise the brain “on the hair-trigger edge of change”.
- Brains build internal models of the world; by paying attention, our brains notice whenever predictions are incorrect and are able to adjust their internal models.
Eagleman argues that the computer hardware/ software analogy tends to lead people astray in thinking about brain function. He suggests that as neurologists illuminate the principles of brain function, those principles will be gainfully employed to create self-configuring devices that use their interaction with the world to complete the patterns of their own wiring.
The book ends with this thought:
“We generally go through life thinking there’s me and there’s the world. But as we’ve seen in this book, who you are emerges from everything you’ve interacted with: your environment, all of your experiences, your friends, your enemies, your culture, your belief system, your era—all of it.”
That could be interpreted by social engineers as an invitation to seek to modify our brains by shaping our environments. I prefer to see it as an invitation to individuals to think about their belief systems and the choices they make that influence their personal environments because their beliefs and choices can have a profound impact on their own personal development. I will explain later the links between personal environment, social capital and individual flourishing.
The idea that individuals can make choices about their personal environments implies the existence of free will. Eagleman is somewhat skeptical about the existence of free will but he speculates that it may be a property of the whole brain as a complex network or system. He acknowledges that organisms display the property of free will in their interactions with their environments. Self-direction seems to be implicitly acknowledged in the discussion of some topics in Livewired. For example, there seems to be implicit acknowledgment that individuals may choose what they practice in the discussion of the ten-thousand-hour rule concerning the need for practice to acquire expertise. Self-direction also seems to be implicit in choices many elderly people are making to keep their brains active.
More fundamentally, if brains learn by putting out actions and evaluating feedback it seems reasonable to expect such behavior to encompass actions that are consciously self-directed as well as those occurring without conscious awareness. The idea that by paying attention our brains notice whenever predictions are incorrect and are able to adjust their internal models seems to me to suggest a role for conscious self-direction. If humans are capable of building robots which can adjust their internal models in the light of experience, it seems reasonable to expect individual humans to be capable of using some of the principles of brain function to create better versions of themselves.
The knowledge that human brains are livewired suggests to me that it is not unduly optimistic to believe that individuals begin life with huge potential for self-directed personal development and that this potential in never entirely extinguished as they grow older.
Directing attention to achieve cognitive integrity
Self-direction implies an ability to direct one’s attention sufficiently to consider the consequences of alternative courses of action. An ability to direct one’s attention is a meta-cognitive capacity – it entails a degree of control over one’s own thought processes.
You might be thinking that exercising control over thought processes is difficult enough for psychologically healthy people, so it must be impossible for people suffering from addictions, obsessions and delusions. However, in a Psychology Today, Gena Gorlin, a psychologist, has pointed to evidence that people who appear to have a diminished capacity for rational deliberation in some aspects of their lives, can actually be helped by therapies which help them to exercise agency and acquire relevant knowledge.
In a scholarly contribution, published in 2019, Gena Gorlin and a co-author introduced the concept of cognitive integrity to describe “the metacognitive choice to engage in active, reality-oriented cognition”. (Eugenia I. Gorlin and Reinier Schuur, ‘Nurturing our Better Nature: a proposal for Cognitive Integrity as a Foundation for Autonomous Living’, Behavior Genetics, 2019, 49: 154-167. Independent scholars may be able to obtain access by following links on Gena Gorlin’s web site.)
Cognitive integrity is both a state of mental activity and a trait-like disposition. It stands in contrast to passive cognitive processing – being driven by unconsciously activated intention – and active pretense, or self-deception. The pretense of cognition occurs when we procrastinate and make lame excuses to ourselves to avoid doing things that we have chosen to do. Among other things, self-deception can also involve negatively distorted self-assessments, inaccurate causal attribution for life events, and false memories. Those cognitive biases are common among individuals with depression and anxiety.
Gena Gorlin posits that people who engage in repeated exercise of cognitive integrity earn self-trust. By contrast, those who engage in frequent self-deception are likely to harbor an increasing sense of insecurity about their own abilities.
It seems to me that there is a strong overlap between people who practice cognitive integrity and people who are self-authoring and self-transforming, according to definitions adopted by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow. A self-authoring mind is self-directed and can generate an internal belief system or ideology. A self-transforming mind can step back from and reflect on the limits of personal ideology. You can read more about that and how I see it as linked to personal integrity in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing (pp 171-173). There is also relevant discussion on this blog.
Personal development as a multi-stage process
The information we have about the livewired nature of brains is suggestive of substantial potential for individual personal development throughout life. The process of personal development can be seen as a multi-stage process involving interaction between a person’s family and social environment and the degree of cognitive integrity they achieve.
In Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I make use of an analytical framework proposed by the economist, Gary Becker, to propose that the extent to which an individual flourishes at any time during her or his life, is a function of personal capital and social capital.
Personal capital includes all personal resources, natural abilities, skills acquired through education and on-the-job training, and preferences, values and habits acquired from past experiences. For example, habit formation causes previous consumption patterns to have a large impact on current preferences. Those habits can either enhance or inhibit an individual’s flourishing.
Social capital incorporates the influence of other people—family, friends, peer groups, communities. People want respect, acceptance, recognition, prestige, and so on from others and often alter their behavior to obtain it. Social capital can have a positive or negative impact on an individual’s flourishing. For example, peer pressure on a teenager could lead to sexual promiscuity, or to healthy exercise.
This framework recognizes that present choices and experiences affect personal capital in the future, which in turn affects future flourishing. It is difficult to modify the social capital of the networks to which individuals currently belong, but they may have opportunities to leave networks that damage their prospects of flourishing, and to join other networks.
“The journey of life is a multi-stage process. At each stage, the extent that we can flourish depends on effective use of personal capital we have developed in earlier stages, and alertness to opportunities for further investment in personal capital. Investment in personal capital can help us to forge mutually beneficial relationships with others and, if necessary, to enter more favorable social networks. As we flourish, our priorities may change, bringing about changes in preferences and behaviors. At each stage of adult life, flourishing requires values consistent with wise and well-informed self-direction.”