September 24, 2008

Brain Plasticity and Psychotherapy

Australia's terrific cognitive science radio show All in the Mind just had a two-part series called The Power of Plasticity in which host Natasha Mitchell interviewed psychiatrist Norman Doidge (Columbia University and the University of Toronto) and Jeffrey Schwartz (UCLA) about "neuroplasticians" (Doidge's term).

As Mitchell notes on the episode page, "the adult brain was a rigid, unchangeable organ, but that pessimistic perspective is now being radically revised;" she talks with Schwartz and Doidge about the many ways they know that the brain is, in fact, changeable and adaptable.

Schwartz discusses how people with obsessive compulsive disorder can take advantage of the brain's plasticity to actually change the wiring and minimize the disorder. He says that the part of the brain involved with OCD (the cordate nucleus) functions somewhat like the transmission in a car:
... what happens in obsessive compulsive disorder is you literally do get a stuck transmission and you get this error detection circuit coming in from another part of the brain in the front called the orbital frontal cortex locking, and you can't shift out of it and because you're locked in to an error detection circuit, you are bombarded with feelings that something is wrong, even though the rest of your brain and mind adequately can tell most of the time that even though this feels terrible it really doesn't make sense.
And apparently, according to Schwartz, "people could direct their own inner environment through this enhanced understanding. So I said [to myself] this is self-directed neuroplasticity."

Doidge talks about how psychotherapy can also change some of the brain's wiring; his analogy is to skiing:
plasticity is like snow on a hill in winter, if we're going to ski down that hill because the snow is plastic and pliable we can take many different paths down that hill, not an infinite number, there are rocks here and trees over there. And if we had a good pass down the first time, being human we will tend to favour a path close to that the second and third times and then because the snow is pliable and plastic we'll develop tracks which become ruts and we can get stuck in them, brain lock.
He adds that "many of the neuroplastic treatments basically find ways of setting up road blocks, so that you can get out of those ruts and learn about new pathways and grow new pathways etc."

Both Schwartz and Doidge tell some fascinating stories. The two episodes are well worth a listen, and you can read the transcript online if you prefer.

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1 comment:

Stephanie West Allen said...

This is the URL for Jeff Schwartz: