At last, we may be seeing the start of a shift in the cultural Zeitgeist away from biological materialism, which has held us in thrall for two decades or more, and toward a truer, more balanced perspective that might be called (for lack of a better name) biological humanism.
This particular scientiﬁc and cultural pendulum swung in a great arc through the last half of the 20th century. In the 1950s and 60s, humanism and behaviorism ruled. The behaviorist pioneer B. F. Skinner and others claimed that humans were inﬁnitely malleable, that Nurture was all. They found the roots of mental illness in the family, trauma, unresolved conﬂicts, unconscious longings—anything except the machinery of the brain. On the grandest scale, they hoped that social engineering through experiments such as The Great Society could alleviate most ills of mankind through improved education, social spending, and enlightened legislation.
By the 1990s, all that had changed. The Great Society lay on the fabled ash heap of history beside Freudian analysis, behaviorism, communism, and almost anything else that hinted of utopian aspiration to alter the human condition. In its place, the 1990s gave us the Decade of the Brain, and in more ways than one. Psychopharmacology ruled. Psychology, even the seemingly hard-headed cognitive psychology, was on the ropes. The air crackled with news reports of a biological basis for personality, mood, attractiveness, musical ability, aggressiveness, sexual identity —for virtually any human attribute formerly viewed as a product of environment. And the master blueprint for all these allegedly hardwired traits, the human genome, was being deciphered at a jaw-dropping rate.
If the astonishing results of genetic and neuroscience research laid the foundation stones of biological determinism, still more powerful forces aligned to erect the grand ediﬁce. Drug companies angling for billions in proﬁts found in biological materialism the perfect sales pitch: It’s not what you do or how you relate to people, but your brain that is at fault for everything from sexual inadequacy to depression to anxiety to addiction. Biological materialism was also easy to take. Easy for the afﬂicted, for whom pills, not interminable and painful therapy sessions, were the answer. Easy for families, who could blame the brain for whatever might be ailing a suffering relative. Easy for insurance companies, for whom neurotransmitter-based treatments were far cheaper than extended psychotherapy. But the keystone in the magniﬁcent arch of biological materialism was simply that, for a great many people, it worked. The Prozac worked. The Ritalin worked. The Zyban worked. And the Viagra worked.
SHIFTING TECTONIC PLATES
Given the momentum and entrenched inﬂuence of these forces, it may seem laughable to suggest that the paradigm of biological materialism is less than secure. But I think it is not. Even now, I hear the low tectonic moaning of ideological plates as they grind, catch, and slip. I suspect that the earthquake will come and that biological determinism will fall—as it rightly should.
Among the signs of trouble is the publication in recent years of several books that argue forcefully for a middle way between the extremes of the past half-century. Their common threads are a critical attitude toward the faulty premises of biological determinism and attention to the humanist ideas that have been in eclipse. Ian H. Robertson’s Mind Sculpture: Unlocking Your Brain’s Untapped Potential is the latest such volume.
Mind Sculpture has the effect of loudly snapping ﬁngers in the face of a hypnotized person. We have been so entranced by news about how our brains are our destiny that it is mildly shocking to be reminded in chapter after chapter that this is not true. Our brains set the stage for a performance that is very much in our control. Robertson’s core message is that we are learning creatures; our phenomenal capacity to learn (and unlearn) is nature’s precious gift to us. The “untapped potential” in the book’s subtitle is our capacity consciously to enhance the ways we learn. Although he never quite says it directly, Robertson implies throughout the book that our potential may be untapped because we have been brainwashed, by decades of biological materialism, into thinking that (at least without a drug) we can do nothing about the challenges that beset us. He writes:
Evolution’s gift to us is that we are no longer slaves to our biology. Very little of the important things we do are pre-programmed and preordained in our genes. The cultures we create through the meeting of human minds, the societies that emerge from this culture— these are what make us do what we do.
TREMBLING WEBS AND TRIMMING SAILS
Mind Sculpture is written for a lay audience to explain and make vivid a basic principle of neuroscience, one known for at least 40 years: Learning is possible because the brain physically changes to store information. In his ﬁrst chapter, Robertson—a British researcher in brain rehabilitation and a practicing psychologist—explains the basics of neurophysiology and learning, summarized in the dual aphorisms “cells that ﬁre together, wire together” and “when cells ﬁre apart, wires depart.” Explaining these concepts in enough detail to satisfy but not overwhelm the curious reader is not an easy task. Robertson succeeds, though not with quite the elegance of some others (George Johnson did a particularly ﬁne job in Palaces of Memory).
Throughout the book, Robertson leans on analogies to color and energize his material, but often he leans too heavily. An analogy can work well on ﬁrst use but lose power when endlessly repeated. When he ﬁrst referred to the brain’s interconnected networks of neurons as a “trembling web,” I was tickled. It is a nice turn of phrase. Unfortunately, “trembling web” becomes his personal synonym for the mind and crops up so frequently that it goes stale. At other times the analogies obscure rather than clarify, as in this passage: “The electric ‘you,’ born of love and experience, soothes your inherited biology, trimming its sails for the soft winds of human relationships and civilization.”
Despite the occasional awkwardness, Robertson’s explanations will help lay readers understand their own capacity for learning. Certainly his constant hammering at the central analogy of the book—the plasticity of the brain—helps erode the biological determinist agenda that views brain wiring as destiny. He says toward the end of the ﬁrst chapter: “Let’s cast off the notion that we are pre-programmed clusters of brain modules doomed to behave according to ancient plans while deluded by the notion that we act through free will!”
THE MENTAL GYM
After his primer on the neurological basis for learning, Robertson explores research showing the value of mentally rehearsing physical activities such as sports, performing surgery, or making music. Building on the core idea that learning is fundamentally a physical event, triggered by the simultaneous activation of networks of neurons, he shows how purely mental rehearsal can improve performance. Robertson calls this the “mental gym” and suggests that it can be used proﬁtably by all of us, not just topﬂight sports stars or musicians. Not only can we maintain or even improve the ability to perform a task by mental imagery and rehearsal, but we can accelerate recovery from injuries or illness by mentally “exercising” the affected body parts. This is possible because our mental imagery physically stimulates neuronal networks that our injury has temporarily starved.
Robertson is careful not to go too far, though: Mental practice can improve performance because it physically changes the brain, but it cannot actually strengthen muscles. Unfortunately, this subtlety was lost on the promotional copywriter at the book’s publishing house who claims on the book jacket that Robertson shows “how you can become physically stronger from the comfort of your armchair by carrying out mental exercises in your imagination.”
In the next several chapters of the book, Robertson goes into more detail about the mind’s ability to overcome physical damage. As he does in other chapters, he recounts an actual case study to bring home his points. One such case was Jessica Mantzaganian, a talented and intelligent college student hit by a car. Within seconds, she was unconscious; by the time she arrived at the hospital, she was in a deep coma. Robertson describes her slow, almost miraculous recovery from this brain injury, making this important point along the way: Brains that have been well trained and educated have a greater resiliency in responding to damage than do relatively untrained brains. The reason? More wires. More connections. “The more brain cells that have become wired together through ﬁring together, the more likely it is that the skills and memories woven into these wired connections can be recovered.”
Robertson knows too much, though, to leave us with unqualiﬁed optimism about brain healing. He reminds us again and again that there are limits to learning, limits to healing, and limits to the power of education and environment. He writes: “There are some nets that simply get torn too much, and repair is not possible. Though damaged networks of brain cells can survive with as few as 10-20 percent of their neurons, if brain damage destroys this minimum reservoir of cells, then repair embroidery of the tattered net is out of the question.”
This balance between lively explanations of underappreciated nurture and careful reminders of the continuing, unavoidable power of nature typiﬁes recent books about the brain. It serves as a welcome contrast to the lopsided stridency of many books written in the past decade (most ﬂamboyantly, those of Peter Breggin), which tried to combat pure biological materialism with a barrage of pure environmentalism (in the psychological sense). Fighting extremism with extremism generates great heat and little light. Thankfully, it is a tactic that Robertson and other recent authors assiduously avoid, though this balance is not always recognized by extremist proponents on either side of the nature/ nurture debate.
FINGERPRINTS ON THE BRAIN
Continuing his exploration of the mind’s capacity to learn, Robertson examines aging. He ﬁnds much cause for optimism, the basis for which can be boiled down to “use it or lose it.” People who use their brains, either in academic work or more mundane cognitive exercises such as crossword puzzles, are less likely to suffer memory problems and more likely to resist age-related declines in cognitive abilities. He also points out that older people are better at some things than younger people. Learning takes time, after all, and it can take many years to master some of the world’s complexities. “The accumulated knowledge of decades may be essential to navigate the bewildering complexities of human behavior as manifested in case law or politics,” he writes. “Publishers and editors, wine-tasters and art historians are just some examples of jobs where the cool wisdom of experience beats the hot blood of youthful mental speed.”
At the other end of life’s continuum, Robertson ﬁnds valuable lessons in research on learning and neurological development. In one of his more effective analogies, he characterizes a parent’s impact on a child as putting “ﬁngerprints on the brain.” His point, conveyed by vivid case studies and personal observations, is that parents can make an enormous difference in the cognitive and emotional health of their children. Contrast this assertion with the gist of another recent book, Does Parenting Matter?—a classic of biological determinism that argues for the irrelevance of parents’ teaching. Robertson ably takes this argument apart. He shows us the difference between an attentive parent—alert to the child’s verbal and nonverbal cues and appropriately responsive to those cues—and an inattentive parent, who cannot or will not attend and respond in ways that support the child’s learning. Extending his brain-sculpting analogy, Robertson shows how the actions of an attentive parent can physically build neuronal networks, while the actions of inattentive or abusive parents can retard or even erode those networks.
As powerful as these ideas are, Robertson misses an opportunity here to explain a paradigm just emerging into popular consciousness: the feedback loop between nature and nurture. This paradigm is part of the larger shift from the either/or view of nature and nurture to the notion that the two are inseparable aspects of the human condition, two sides of the same coin. The feedback loop, or spiral of cause and effect, appears to be powerful in human development, amplifying effects—for good or ill—of both neurological and psychological development. Robertson gives the example of an inattentive parent who makes it much harder for a child to learn, actually affecting the number and strength of the synaptic connections created in that child’s brain. This much Robertson tells us. But over time, feedback kicks in: The reduced capacity to learn and frustration felt by the child of an inattentive parent can create behavior patterns in the child that can make it harder for a parent to be attentive. Such children may become “difﬁcult,” leading parents to spend less time with them. This, in turn, can set up further learning difﬁculties, dangerously amplifying the cycle.
Of course, feedback loops can be positive, too. A loving parent’s patient encouragement can stimulate the child’s learning and boost self-esteem. As brain networks grow in complexity, new skills and knowledge can lead to behaviors that are appealing and rewarding both to parent and child. Adding material on the research into these feedback loops would have further strengthened Robertson’s solid explanation of how the parent’s attention affects the child’s developing brain.
In his chapter on pediatric mind sculpture, Robertson skillfully debunks the notion that “geniuses are born, not made.” His bottom line comes closer to Thomas Edison’s famous dictum that “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Basically, Robertson says, the key to unusual achievement lies not in an unusual genetic endowment but in an unusual capacity to practice. He points out that Mozart’s father coached and trained him practically from birth and later served as his chief publicist and promoter. Research on other high achievers shows that what sets them apart is not high IQ or some other measurable difference, says Robertson, but simply that they practiced the most.
With his customary balance, the author acknowledges that the capacity to sustain attention and motivation may themselves have genetic roots, so that top achievers still owe something to their biology. In summary, says Robertson, “Though there are some limits imposed by the brain on how well a skill can be learned, the fact is that almost every human skill—including those measured by IQ tests—can be improved by training and practice.”
EVENTS CARVED IN THE BRAIN
Turning to the impact of emotions on the brain’s capacity to learn and remember, Robertson reviews recent research on the neuroanatomical bases for emotional responses. Like the research itself, Robertson pays particular attention to the amygdala, the almond-shaped “fear center” that responds to perceived danger or threats with an immediacy and heart-thumping force honed by millions of years of evolution. Robertson covers ground recently covered more extensively by Joseph LeDoux’s The Emotional Brain. Here, Robertson’s goal is modest: an explanation for why emotional events are carved with such particular force in our neural substrates and what we might do to use this power to our advantage— linking emotional responses to material we want to remember, for example, or preventing negative emotional memories from overwhelming us, or using therapy to extinguish maladaptive associations.
Drawing in this chapter on his own experience as a therapist, Robertson describes cases of phobias and obsessive compulsive-disorders that were successfully treated without drugs. His point is that both phobias and OCD are at some level disorders of learning—disordered mind sculpture—and that both can be corrected, wholly or in part, with the right type of re-education program or therapy.
I must point out that Robertson is not antidrug. He frequently alludes to the importance of drugs in successful therapy. He does not dwell on the point for the very good reason that the utility of drugs for treating depression and other mental maladies has been abundantly covered—even gloriﬁed—by others. Robertson focuses instead on what we can do without drugs, and on our often-ignored potential for changing our brains through learning.
The book ends with a survey of research on the importance of love in development and adult mental health. The perspective here is not Darwinian; it is not about love as a preprogrammed set of responses honed by natural selection to ensure successful mating and the rearing of children. Robertson is not interested in the current vogue of viewing love, attraction, sex, and ﬁdelity through the reductionist (and rather dehumanizing) lens of biological determinism (a.k.a. sociobiology). Such views are valid, but they are rather beside the point when it comes to life as lived by actual human beings. The ﬂower of love may well have genetic roots—but it is the ﬂower that captivates us and, as Robertson explains, that ultimately heals and gives life. “So, while deprivation and neglect can cause trembling webs to shrink and mental and emotional faculties to wither, at least some of this loss can be made good by stimulation, attention, and—most of all—love.”
WHAT’S THE STORY?
Mind Sculpture is full of important ideas, many more than I can summarize here. Robertson’s expertise as clinician and therapist gives the book an authority it might lack if it had been written by a journalist. His case studies are usually well drawn and illuminating. He has made the book readable, too—though probably only for the slim minority of readers with the education, time, and motivation to engage with a popular science book about learning.
Robertson’s book suffers from a problem shared by a great many other books (including my own) about the brain. They are books about an idea, or a cluster of ideas, instead of a story. Therein lies a fundamental difﬁculty, one to which Robinson himself alludes.
We attend to, and remember best, things that are emotionally arousing. Emotions prime our memories, activate the “trembling web.” Stories work because they involve suspense, uncertainty, plot, conﬂict, and resolution—all generators of emotion. That is why people can recount in startling detail the plot, story line, and even snippets of dialogue from yesterday’s television sitcom but need to memorize laboriously the difference between the cerebrum and cerebellum.
The subﬁeld of writing dubbed literary journalism has long advocated using traditional ﬁction devices such as plot, character, scene, and dialogue to tell nonﬁction stories. As I read Mind Sculpture, I could not help wishing that Ian Robertson were a practitioner of literary journalism so that his book could have hooked me and pulled me from page to page, the way the best examples of that genre do. I say this because the book’s fundamental message is extremely important and long overdue. We need to be reminded that genes are not destiny; that drugs—as vital as they may sometimes be—are not the ﬁnal answer; and that what we most cherish in life are the gifts not of a ﬁxed and determined biology but of that magniﬁcent and mysterious fruit of biology, the human mind. I fear that its lack of narrative power and absence of a single, powerful story line dooms Mind Sculpture to an audience far smaller than it deserves.
Still, its appearance conﬁrms my feeling that change is in the air. Mind Sculpture joins other books with similarly balanced perspectives, and everywhere in science and medicine there are articles that herald the end of the nature/nurture “debate” (for example, see “Cancer—Nature, Nurture, or Both” in the July 13, 2000, New England Journal of Medicine).
I expect that this shift away from biological determinism will be slow-going. In the end, however, I suspect that nature’s fundamental pragmatism will win out. People eventually will discover for themselves that life is basically a ﬁfty-ﬁfty proposition when it comes to biological versus environmental inﬂuences. They will ﬁnd that the drugs work, but are not the whole answer. That therapy works, but is not the whole answer. That genes are important, but what we eat and how we live are equally important in determining our health or illness.
For readers who want to explore this new paradigm now, while it is still in the making, books like Mind Sculpture are fresh and informative.
From Mind Sculpture: Unlocking Your Brain’s Untapped Potential by Ian H. Robertson. © 1999 by Ian H. Robertson. Reprinted by permission of Fromm International
MINDS SCULPT THE HUMAN BRAIN, AND HOW THEY SCULPT it determines the measure of love and cruelty, intelligence and stupidity, creativity and slavish habit, that we dispense to the world. Yes, biology can bequeath a limited intellect, a propensity for aggression, butterfly attention, a faulty memory. It can endow us with these tendencies and a thousand others. But along with these, it has bestowed on us the gift to shape the trembling webs in which these inclinations are embroidered, and to modify them.
The intelligence of the human mind has discovered—using the science it invented— the principles and the technologies to engineer its own substratum: the human brain. Our evolutionary success is based on our ability to learn. What we learn moulds the soft plastic of the brain. That yielding plastic is evolution’s parting gift to us—a parent’s coming-of-age present to a young mind stepping out to a self-determining future.
So please let our poor parent off the hook, here. We are cast out from the Garden of Eden and must make our own way. As individuals, as families, we can—if we are allowed—mould our brains in a near infinite number of ways. Mind can in many ways learn to make brain yield to its intentions. Always within biological limits, of course: the mind is impotent in facing the ravages of brain disorders like Huntingdon’s, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease, for instance.
It is not impotent, however, when it comes to disorders such as depression, to take just one example. Even though depression can have its roots partly in the malfunctioning of brain chemicals, mind can help to reshape these malfunctions and restore a normal mood–for instance, through inventions of the human mind such as cognitive therapy.
Even though dyslexia may in part arise from a quirk of biology, the human mind has devised ways of teaching itself to tame the faulty brain into acquiescence. So it is for intelligence. Even though age gnaws at the biological roots of our intellect, mind’s inventions can stem this tide and preserve a portion of that intelligence. And give us a child whose brightness poverty and neglect have dulled, then we human beings can polish that intelligence—if we have the will.
That is the crux of it: if we have the will. The problem is that will is often sapped by distortions of Darwin’s theory and the fatalism they induce. When a gene is discovered that is correlated with some complex human attribute—say intelligence—some think that this means that the environment cannot then be a factor in determining intelligence. Not so, of course. That gene may only explain a small percentage of the variation in human intellect; and of course, the expression of many genes is only possible given the right kind of experience. The same is true for scores of other complex human behaviours for which genes apparently have been discovered.
So let us not be meanspirited as to blame that benign parent evolution for the ills that beset us. Violence and murder can no more be blamed on that parent than Hitler’s father and mother can be blamed for the Holocaust. Nor can we shift responsibility for the corrosive effects of poverty on intellect on to our biological progenitor. Darwin suffered at his magnificent theory being so wrongly applied; in our culture, there is no such thing as natural selection in humans any more, now that the human mind has had its freedom.