The orthodox theory was that our neural pathways were set early in life but as one man’s journey shows, the brain can form new circuits after traumatic injury.
“Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.” A cherubic toddler pretending to ring a bell? Not quite. The speaker is actually Scott Matthews, a multi-media producer, sifting through what remains of his language to say “train” to his wife.
On a winter’s morning in 2013 Scott, just shy of his thirty-eighth birthday, was readying the kids for school when he found himself doubled up over the kitchen bench unable to see or talk. But he could still think, and two thoughts in particular made an impression: “I love my kids” and, “I’m going to die”.
Four weeks later, neurosurgeons, whose scalpels can shave away a person’s identity with each millimetre, were cutting a tumour from Scott’s brain. The surgery cost him four litres of blood, his peripheral vision and – a knife to the heart for the fan of Franz Kafka and William Blake – his ability to read and write.
But the routing of his language went further. Waking from the haze of intensive care, Scott’s word stock was trimmed to just a couple of expletives and, weirdly, the number “32”, a condition called aphasia. A course of rehab and 18 months later Scott’s vocabulary is popping back like spring buds but his conversation remains peppered with the circumlocutions that, like “ding, ding, ding”, stand in for the words that still won’t come.
We meet in Scott’s brightly renovated California bungalow. His coal black eyes fix on me from under a lank dark mop of hair and energy pulses from his diminutive frame. Scott is less disabled than I expected, plucking words from a free-flowing stream that is lucid at the surface but often turbid at its deeper reaches.
Across it all Scott’s slender hands gesture like a conductor’s baton coaxing sense from the jumble. A fine arts graduate, he soon leads me to a wall plastered with paintings of spindly fingers that lengthen and intertwine until they look uncannily like the trailing axons of brain cells.
It’s easy to picture Scott swinging down from his office in hip Balaclava to one of the nearby cafes for a chat and a caffeine hit, but when he passes me his iPhone it becomes clear this is a lost ritual keenly felt. The bright screen beams out the phrase at the top of his lexical wish list: “One espresso please”. These days he places orders with the barista in silence.
But a new science offers hope this simple request may soon be Scott’s to utter again.
Neuroplasticity describes how the brain’s branching and interconnecting network of cells re-organises in the face of new experience. Connections are made, links strengthened and new cells born in a rearrangement that could mean greater scope for adult learning than was thought possible.
The recent consensus was that plasticity only happened in early life; once critical circuits like sight and hearing were laid down and the gel set, that configuration was yours for life. But contemporary science, made palatable to the masses by Canadian psychiatrist Norman Doidge’s bestselling The Brain that Changes Itself and his just-released sequel The Brain’s Way of Healing, upends the orthodoxy.
It seems we sculpt new brain pathways well into adult life, and maybe right up till stumps. The research has spawned a slew of brain training games popular among habitual car key losers and others eager to fend off cognitive decrepitude. But it has also raised hope of fuller recovery from brain injury.
Read the full feature in the Age here