The Dark Side of Learning: Negative Brain Plasticity

By on November 26, 2017

The term ‘brain plasticity’ is one that has received a lot of attention in the media in the last decade. This relatively new discovery in neuroscience demonstrates that our brains are capable of growing, changing shape and rewiring themselves in response to training and stimuli. Accordingly, a cellist will have much larger and more potent areas of their brain corresponding to the sensation at their finger-tips. This is also why someone who becomes blind may develop greatly improved hearing – they begin to use this part of their brain more and as such it develops and grows more to compensate for the un-used visual cortex.

brain plasticity

As you might imagine, this is something that has generally been hailed as ‘very good news’ for our brain health and potential development. It’s something I’ve banged on about a whole lot here, too. It means that we are not ‘stuck’ with the abilities that we have and demonstrates remarkable potential for us to learn new skills and to adapt to new situations. It’s also good news for those with developmental disorders or particular injuries, as it means they may stand a much better chance of real recovery than previously thought.

But while brain plasticity presents a lot of very appealing implications, it’s important to recognise that it may also have a downside that we too often ignore. Brain plasticity actually has the capacity to degenerate your brain, and in all likelihood it’s probably doing exactly that right now…

Introducing ‘Negative Plasticity’


The point is, that everything you see, think or do will find its way into your brain and thus have an impact on your personality and on your future behavior. All of this will help to shape your brain whether you realise it or not, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Psychologist Norman Doidge provided a unique perspective on this in his book The Brain That Changes Itself by dividing examples of adaptation in the brain into those with positive and negative consequences. In the case of the blind patient who develops acuity in hearing, that’s an example of ‘positive plasticity’.

On the other hand though, the formation of negative habits leading obsessive compulsive behaviour with a neural basis could be considered ‘negative plasticity’. Likewise you could consider examples of brain areas shrinking through lack of use to be ‘negative plasticity’ in some cases – which is a real risk for many of us.

brain-upgrade

In other words then, your brain will adapt and change shape depending on your habits, your surroundings and even your thoughts – and this won’t always be a good thing. And it happens fast too – in one recent 2005 study it was discovered that medical students’ brains would develop significantly more grey matter in their posterior and lateral parietal cortices over a matter of months during exam periods.

How Negative Plasticity is Affecting Your Brain

In a very short amount of time then your brain can change and bad habits can form both behaviourally and in your thoughts.

This can happen actively if you are constantly worrying or letting yourself become easily distracted. Each time you worry about something that is unimportant in the grand scheme of things, and each time you let yourself be distracted you will be enforcing that behaviour and your brain will develop in accordance. This is how a number of different maladaptive behaviour patterns can form, so it’s important to recognise the impact that your behaviour and thoughts are having on your brain and to avoid letting bad habits form.

neurons2

Essentially, negative plasticity could describe learning any incorrect or maladaptive response or even belief. For instance, say you were to wear ankle weights on your wrists and ankles 24/7 like Piccolo does in order to build more strength. Now you might think this would make you super-fast and a great fighter. In fact though, it could also impair your dexterity and cause you to become easily unbalanced. Why? Because your brain would rewire itself to adapt to the change and when you removed the weights, you’d be moving incorrectly. You’d be using the wrong amount of force and you’d be compensating for weight that was no longer there.

A more real-world example would be the potential impact of the web on attention span. The concern is that we have become overly accustomed to being able to pull up any information we want in an instant and to access it in bite-sized chunks. No longer do we need to patiently read through large books. Throw in the constant bombardment of information from adverts, instant messages and more, and you have a brain that has become fantastic at skim reading and pulling out details but that has lost its ability to sustain attention (that’s the theory, anyway).

Atrophy

Brain plasticity is generally agreed to follow Hebb’s Law:

“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

This explains how repeating any behavior eventually leads to said behavior becoming more instinctive and deeply ingrained.

But you also need to consider how you are passively contributing to negative brain plasticity. Because likewise:

“Neurons that fire apart, wire apart.”

Any area of your brain that you stop using will degenerate and thus you can end up losing the associated skills.

This is actually another problem in the digital age: we will too often ‘outsource’ skills that we would have previously relied on our brains for. For example, while notetaking apps may be very helpful for helping us to avoid forgetting things and letting us store much more information, they actually run the risk of undermining our brains’ own ‘note taking’ abilities. If you never use your brain to store information in the long term, then eventually you risk letting that ability deteriorate. It has similarly been suggested that the mere existence of Google may discourage us from feeling the need to commit information to memory.

Batcomputer

Likewise, with maths – if you never perform sums without using a calculator or app then you may find your maths abilities dwindle. This might also result in the loss of some associated abilities – such as the capability to hold and work with abstract information in your short term memory.

Negative Plasticity and Age Related Cognitive Decline

This process may explain a lot regarding the gradual loss of cognitive abilities as we age. In our infancy our brains are highly ‘plastic’ and adaptable and can easily change shape in response to new things. At first the baby’s brain is too chaotic with too much unfiltered information coming in, which is partly why we can’t remember our early childhood. As they get older though, children learn to focus on the things that matter to them (both internally and externally) and thus start to develop important cognitive abilities.

craig chess

Our brain slows down in its plasticity as we age and eventually by the time we reach around 25, it tends to gradually begin to degrade again. A big part of the reason for this is that at that age we stop seeking out novel experiences, stop learning and start instead to settle into behavioural patterns. Our work often starts to become repetitive meaning we can perform tasks on ‘autopilot’ and our evenings tend to be spent in front of the television. This lack of new stimulus means that our brain has no reason to grow further and many of our existing faculties can end up dwindling.

Movement is particularly important for our brains as I’ve discussed on this blog before. We visualize movement in order to understand things that people say to us and learning new ways to adapt to our environment is one of the primary roles of our brains in the first place. This also explains age related cognitive decline. Very often, mental deterioration follows swiftly on from physical deterioration. When we stop going outside and stop being able to move, we lose much of the stimulus that encourages new neuronal growth. We start to lose existing connections, and this causes us to become more detached from our reality.

Einstein

But then I think of someone like my Grandma who is unable to get out of bed but is still sharp (in wits and in tongue!). The only explanation I can think of, is that she might be using her premotor cortex for others tasks such as visualization (she reads a lot) and that this is enough to keep her brain firing. The same goes for someone like Stephen Hawking.

More Implications

This negative plasticity also gives cause for concern when assessing things like TDCS and nootropics. TDCS is ‘transcranial direct current stimulation’ and this essentially means running a very mild current through your brain in order to enhance the excitability of neurons potentially leading to increased plasticity. By stimulating different areas of the brain, proponents believe they can enhance specific skills in both the short term and the long term and there are even commercial products available to heighten games performance or motor control. The problem? Placing pads on your skull is guesswork at best as to which brain area you’ll be affecting. Who is to say that every motor cortex is located in precisely the same place in every brain, in every skull (it’s not). And so, what if you are in fact increasing the excitability of brain regions you perhaps don’t want to beef up? Negative plasticity is my main beef with TDCS.

brainpower tdcs

And this same argument can be made against nootropics used to enhance plasticity. I’m all for plasticity-enhancing noots like lion’s mane, CILTeP, magnesium threonate etc. for more quickly picking up new skills (in theory, anyway). But if you use those and then engage in negative behaviors, it will increase your likelihood of learning those equally! I talked about this a little in my last post on the long-term implications of nootropics-use.

I have several times proposed the use of VR for brain training and the same for computer games. But the usefulness of either in developing certain transferable skills may be predicated on the quality of the game. For example, researchers now know that the brain has a mental model of real-world physics; an inner ‘physics engine’ if you will, developed over years of interactions during our development no doubt (study). But if you immerse yourself in a game where the physics are ‘off’, or a VR environment, could that not actually lead to poorer hand-eye coordination?

VR Arrow Training

Put it this way: if I become amazing at the VR table tennis game ‘11’, that could make me better at table tennis in the real world theoretically. But if the ball is slightly more weighty or doesn’t move 100% accurately, then I might also have some unlearning to do.

What to do With This Information

So, what do you do about it? You probably already know what I’m going to say: keep using your brain! Don’t be tempted to give in and become lazy – find new ways to challenge yourself whenever you can and to learn new skills. Treat your brain the same way you treat your physical fitness and put the time in to develop it. Ultimately, you will slow down and possibly even reverse age-related cognitive decline and you may find you can tap into whole new abilities.

This doesn’t mean you have to stop using Evernote either – it just means you need to be aware of what that’s potentially doing and you need to find other ways to exercise your brain. There are plenty of great opportunities out there for doing that, and even using specific brain training aps and games can be effective. But nothing is better than using your body.

Silhouette of a man with hands raised in the sunset concept for religion, worship, prayer and praise

Silhouette of a man with hands raised in the sunset concept for religion, worship, prayer and praise

Likewise, be aware that all behavior is habit forming. Be strict and forbid yourself from falling into negative patterns. Be mindful of how every action wires your neurons and affects your future brain.

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I’m an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I’ll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.