Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Does brain plasticity have implications for the idea of progress?

I have not long finished reading Norman Doidge’s book, ‘The Brain that Changes Itself’ (2007). Doidge is a research psychiatrist and has written a highly readable and informative book based on interviews of scientific pioneers and people who have benefited personally from the new science of neuroplasticity.

The main message that I get from the book is that the computer analogy of brain function – the contribution of nature corresponds to hardware and the contribution of nurture corresponds to software – is somewhat misleading. The machine metaphor of the brain as an organ with specialised parts cannot fully account for the capacity of the brain to perfect its circuits to make itself better suited to the task at hand. More information about the book is available here.

Norman Doidge has relegated his discussion of plasticity and the idea of progress to an appendix. This may be because he does not want his comments on this controversial subject to detract from the main themes of his book. Nevertheless, Doidge’s conclusions about the implications of neuroplasticity for progress are cautious. He writes: ‘while it is true that the history of Western political thought turns in large part upon the attitudes that various ages and thinkers have held toward the question of human plasticity broadly understood, the elucidation of human neuroplasticity in our time, if carefully thought through, shows that plasticity is far too subtle a phenomenon to unambiguously support a more constrained or unconstrained view of human nature, because in fact it contributes to both human rigidity and flexibility, depending upon how it is cultivated’ (p 318).

Doidge suggests that while neuroplasticity teaches that the brain is more malleable than some have thought, ‘calling it perfectible raises expectations to a dangerous level’. The history of Western political thought referred to by Doidge includes the contribution of Condorcet, the French philosopher and mathematician, who was a major participant in the French revolution. Condorcet argued that human history was the story of progress and that human nature was continually improvable in intellectual and moral terms. The idea that the imperfections of human nature are a consequence of social arrangements leads to the belief that revolutionary changes in social arrangements will lead to a transformation in human nature. When this doesn’t happen revolutionaries tend to resort to additional coercion to change human behaviour to fit in with the new social arrangements that they have created.

Steven Pinker has questioned whether the idea of a malleable human nature deserves ‘its reputation for optimism and uplift’. He suggests that if it did, B F Skinner would have been lauded as a great humanitarian when he argued that society should apply conditioning to humans in the pursuit of utopian ideals. Skinner’s critics pointed out that no-one doubts that behaviour can be controlled; putting a gun to someone’s head or threatening him with torture are time-honoured techniques. Pinker comments: “The issue is not whether we can change human behavior, but at what cost” (‘The Blank Slate’: 169).

It seems to me that the idea of a malleable human nature may have become associated with socialistic utopianism merely because of an accident of history. The views of John Locke, who originated the concept of the human mind as a ‘blank slate’ written on by experience, certainly cannot be described in those terms. Locke viewed liberty as freedom from the violation of natural rights (including rights to possessions as well as to life and health) and indispensable to the proper pursuit of happiness.

Norman Doidge suggests that Rousseau, one of the originators of the view that humans are perfectible, used the term perfectibility in an ironic sense. According to Doidge, Rousseau understood that if the human mental and emotional life are malleable there can be many different kinds of development and we cannot be certain what a normal or perfect mental development would look like. To my mind this view highlights the arrogance of Rousseau’s revolutionary followers in attempting to impose their peculiar views of utopia on other people.

What kind of society is most likely to promote the development of human brains in ways that will relax the constraints of human nature that limit our virtue and our wisdom? Is it a welfare state that aims to minimize the economic challenges that we have to face? Is it a rent-seeking society in which the extent to which individuals and groups prosper depend on their skills in playing a political game of obtaining preferment at the expense of others? Or is it a free society in which people prosper by engaging in mutually beneficial exchanges?

At one point in his book, Norman Doidge writes: ‘To keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus’ (p 88). When I read that I was reminded of what Israel Kirzner has written about the benefits of freedom to society. Kirzner points out that losses from denial of freedom extend beyond those associated with preventing people from attaining known goals. He writes: ‘A free society is fertile and creative in the sense that its freedom generates alertness to possibilities that may be of use to society’ (“Perception, Opportunity and Profit”, 1979: 239). Perhaps we should be open to the possibility that the exercise of entrepreneurial alertness improves human nature.


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Martin Walker said...

This is fascinating, Winton.

Grappling with such dissonant viewpoints from strong and eloquent minds it is easy to lose sight of the central question with regard to freedom and progress.

Can we have progress without freedom? The answer, both in abstraction and reality, is surely, no.

A lack of freedom implies constraint, and constraint limits development, thereby impinging upon progress.

In the real world this means that any attempt to constrain the greater part of a society will constrain that society's overall progress.

In order to understand whether the history of human society reflects progress we need only look backward. Dip into the history of pretty much any society and one will find quantifiable evidence of progress over the long haul.

But we need to be able to define "progress." Progress must be defined in an objective way before it can be quantified.

My own definition of progress is a movement in favor of "that which ultimately promotes persistence." Sometimes a difficult thing to measure or predict, but not always so, and always concrete.

(I've outlined all of this in my book - LIFE! Why We Exist... which is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.)

Lastly, how does this relate to the scientific findings of brain plasticity?

As you have pointed out, brain plasticity can lead to productive or unproductive changes in the way our brains function. It is "progress neutral" in that regard. But, so is essentially any new mode of influence of humanity. Art is progress neutral. Education is progress neutral. Philosophy is progress neutral.

But when human beings have the freedom to choose and guide such new potentials they tend to use them and guide them in ways that promote progress, i.e., "persistence."

We'll always have the misguided and malignant actors who go the other way and seek to limit freedoms, but overall, I believe, we tend to ultimately seek our own persistence and the persistence of those we care about - which for many extends to the whole of humanity.

Martin Walker

Winton Bates said...

Thanks for your comment, Martin.

I see the merit of persistence, but progress must also depend at times on our ability to cut our losses and change direction. Perhaps what you are saying is that from an evolutionary perspective the developments that represent progress - those that are best suited to the world we live in - are those that persist.

Anyhow, I'll know what you mean after I have read your book. I've ordered a copy.