Sunday, 14 September 2008

our plastic brains

There's a photo in the South Australian State Library showing a group of children playing with plasticine. Looking at it takes me back to those restful moments in my classrooms when all the children were busy (and happy) rolling out sausages of plasticine and creating fantastic sculptures with the untrammelled imaginations of childhood.

Plasticine, a soft modelling clay, was invented in 1897 and teachers loved it because it didn't stick to children's hands and it could be used repeatedly without going hard. I presume its name was based on the concept of its plasticity.

I've been thinking about the word plastic since I listened to
All In the Mind yesterday on Radio National. It was called The Power of Plasticity and was one of the most reassuring programs I've heard. The basic point was that our brains are capable of development as long as we are alive.

We long ago realised children's brains are malleable. That's why we concentrate so much of our resources on schooling in the younger years. But recent research indicates that our brains are plastic all through life. What we think about actually builds the structures in our brains. A thrilling concept. Since I listened to the show I've been walking around saying, 'I have a good memory. I have a good memory.' I hope I can remember to keep doing it...

I digress. Back to plastic. The Online Dictionary has the word being used as far back as 1632 in the sense of something capable of being shaped or moulded. The noun meaning 'solid substance that can be moulded' is dated from 1905- originally dental moulds.

The modern usage, a 'synthetic product made from oil derivatives,' seems oddly non-plastic to me. If I pick up a plastic container, I don't expect it to be malleable, especially if it's holding hot liquids. If I give it any thought at all, I would presume the plasticity was a necessary part of its formation into its present shape.

In terms of my brain, I hope the formation process never stops. 'Use it or lose it'. It comes down to that, I suppose.

One especially interesting aspect of the radio program was the statement that the brain and the mind are not the same - a challenging concept for me.

Yesterday's program was only part one. I'll be tuning in to part two.


Vincent said...

"Brain and mind not the same": and a similar statement is "body and soul are not the same".

I believe "not the same" here does not have to mean "separable".

Brain and mind are different categories. When properly used brain refers to the grey matter inside the cranium whereas mind means the source of consciousness. Neuroscience seems to be establishing close links between the two, yet Antonio Damasio, in books such as Descartes' Error, claims that consciousness is more distributed, and that mind is bound up in many complex ways with the whole body and not just brain.

parlance said...

Vincent, thanks for the reference to Descartes' Error. I'll have a look for it in the library. I've heard everyday references to this idea - I can't remember where - and sometimes I wonder about the relevance of it to organ transplants.