Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Rewiring the brain not that easy

The brain does have plasticity - it can change - but you need great will and commitment. Photo / Thinkstock
The brain does have plasticity - it can change - but you need great will and commitment. Photo / Thinkstock

Politicians are getting turned on to neuroscience. Last week Labour justice spokesman Andrew Little gave a soundbite about how 21-year-old Hastings aggravated robber Elijah Whaanga needed help to "rewire his brain".

This sounded trendy and enlightened. Who knew, fixing criminals could be a bit like plugging the Xbox into the TV.

Oh, I admire Little's optimism. It is far better than writing the chump off as a hopeless case. But if only rewiring one's brain were that simple.

Last week, my 82-year-old dad came to my house for the first time. It was tricky because there are steep stairs to the toilet at my old house and dad needs the toilet a lot but can't walk very well. So he didn't stay for long. We had a cup of tea and a Toffee Pop.

Dad has had a stroke and cannot speak.

The left side of his brain where language comes from has been damaged. But he seemed to enjoy patting Spotty, the elderly Dalmatian. He kissed his grandchildren's heads as they played Minecraft, something I don't think Dad had ever seen before.

Dad indicated he was grateful for the outing by bowing with his hands together, like Gandhi. I wish I could rewire my dad's brain, so he could regain the ability to speak or communicate in some way. I'm not expecting that he would be able to start holding forth about string theory like he used to - I don't miss that. But even the ability to eat a Toffee Pop without getting it all mushed up into his beard would be a great achievement.

My father was a neurologist. If there was any way to get Dad to re-learn how to talk and read, we would do it. But the desire to do it has to come from him. And, sadly, my dad is probably more like Elijah Whaanga in that respect than it is comfortable to admit. The brain does have plasticity - it can change - but you need great will and commitment in order to do the gruelling slog to make it happen.

As Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, the author of The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, says, this is endless, harrowing work.

"I was experiencing a mental exhaustion like I had never known," she said, when she spent eight to 10 hours a day doing brain stimulation exercises trying to help her to be able to grasp basic concepts.

Researchers have found that lab rats given a rich and stimulating environment, with playwheels and toys, developed larger brains than those kept in a bare cage. The researcher Mark Rosenzweig concluded that the brain continues developing, reshaping itself based on life experiences, rather than being fixed at birth: a concept known as neuroplasticity.

This is an uplifting finding, sort of. If this is the case, shouldn't prisons be a rich environment full of stimulating and interesting activities, so prisoners like Elijah could be rewired? The truth is we still don't know how to make people want to change.

What is the strongest drive in a human being? Many might answer the drive for survival, but I would say our strongest drive is towards the familiar. That is why some people will kill themselves rather than have to change.

This gets into the spiky area of free will. Many left-wing thinkers believe we have no "agency" or ability to make conscious choices. And until we can work this one out we are not going to make much progress with rewiring criminals.

As Professor Jim Flynn says, "unless people are free to choose between one thing and another they are not morally praiseworthy".

So not much point putting Elijah in jail when he simply couldn't help it. Or could he?

We might have new scientific breakthroughs which help us to understand the parameters of brain plasticity, but until we understand how to get people to want to change, the happy rats could be reading the Wall Street Journal and singing opera but it wouldn't help Elijah Whaanga much. Or my dad.

- NZ Herald

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