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The doctrine of the unchanging human brain has had profound ramifications. For one thing, it lowered expectations about the value of rehabilitation for adults who had suffered brain damage from a stroke or about the possibility of fixing the pathological wiring that underlies psychiatric diseases. And it implied that other brain-based fixities, such as the happiness set point that, according to a growing body of research, a person returns to after the deepest tragedy or the greatest joy, are nearly unalterable.
But research in the past few years has overthrown the dogma. In its place has come the realization that the adult brain retains impressive powers of "neuroplasticity"--the ability to change its structure and function in response to experience. These aren't minor tweaks either. Something as basic as the function of the visual or auditory cortex can change as a result of a person's experience of becoming deaf or blind at a young age. Even when the brain suffers a trauma late in life, it can rezone itself like a city in a frenzy of urban renewal. If a stroke knocks out, say, the neighborhood of motor cortex that moves the right arm, a new technique called constraint-induced movement therapy can coax next-door regions to take over the function of the damaged area. The brain can be rewired.
The first discoveries of neuroplasticity came from studies of how changes in the messages the brain receives through the senses can alter its structure and function. When no transmissions arrive from the eyes in someone who has been blind from a young age, for instance, the visual cortex can learn to hear or feel or even support verbal memory. When signals from the skin or muscles bombard the motor cortex or the somatosensory cortex (which processes touch), the brain expands the area that is wired to move, say, the fingers. In this sense, the very structure of our brain--the relative size of different regions, the strength of connections between them, even their functions--reflects the lives we have led. Like sand on a beach, the brain bears the footprints of the decisions we have made, the skills we have learned, the actions we have taken.
SCRATCHING A PHANTOM LIMB
AN EXTREME EXAMPLE OF HOW CHANGES IN the input reaching the brain can alter its structure is the silence that falls over the somatosensory cortex after its owner has lost a limb. Soon after a car crash took Victor Quintero's left arm from just above the elbow, he told neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran of the University of California at San Diego that he could still feel the missing arm. Ramachandran decided to investigate. He had Victor sit still with his eyes closed and lightly brushed the teenager's left cheek with a cotton swab.