Thursday, November 08, 2007

Charles Darwin's Neuroplasticity

Thanks to Alvaro at SharpBrains for this fascinating peek into how Charles Darwin's thinking changed over his adult life.
I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the
last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond
it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray,
Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great
pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in
Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also
said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very
great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a
line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and
found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also
almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets
me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on,
instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine
scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it
formerly did. On the other hand, novels which are works of the
imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years
a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all
Darwin's Autobiography

Darwin's own writing style apparently changed over the years--to his own satisfaction.
Formerly I used to think about my sentences before writing them
down; but for several years I have found that it saves time to
scribble in a vile hand whole pages as quickly as I possibly can,
contracting half the words; and then correct deliberately.
Sentences thus scribbled down are often better ones than I could
have written deliberately.

That is a technique that I have found useful as well, even in short comments. The first sentence I write is often useful as a summary, after I work through the ideas a little better. It helps to put the ideas out in the open first for modification and reconstruction.

Darwin's brain experienced neuroplasticity and modification from the "overuse" of some faculties at the expense of other faculties--such as appreciation of poetry and music. His observations of the natural and human worlds may have gained a certain rigour and precision in this process of "selective cultivation" of cortical real estate.

If Darwin had been given the opportunity to relive his life, and thus was able to carry out his plan-in-hindsight of listening to music and reading poetry at least once a week--would his scientific writings have been as clean and precise? An interesting question.

While the neuroplasticity of both motor and sensory cortex following strokes, other denervation, and amputation, are well documented, the neuroplasticity of the associative cortex--prefrontal lobes etc--still requires study to delimit the possibilities. The old saying "you are what you think" is likely to be proven truer than many people would like.

You can find Darwin's works free online here or here.

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