1.41 The Brain Changes, Part 1 of 3: Memories are Plastic

People never change. Memories are fixed. Connections are made, linking memories together in a patchwork, shaping an individual as the years pass. The brain adopts these experiences, plants unalterable roots. The opportunity for change reduces; the ability to form new connections recedes. As a child, everything about the world is new. Every incident is a virgin experience. Perspective narrows as these experiences begin to repeat, patterns become apparent and the child learns from mistakes. He becomes an adult. This narrowing of perspective dictates interaction with the environment, development of relationships and the creation of an interior landscape. The self is discovered but then stunted. Frozen.

Personality becomes an unmovable object. Opinions are communicated; beliefs are held and upheld. Realizations and revelations function at a minimum, mostly reinforcing the predetermined status quo. There is simply no room for further change. The only variant is the loss of memories as they fall fleetingly through the cracks of old age.

Stubborn as I am, the above three paragraphs were written with the utmost reluctance. Shock tactics. If science tells us that change does not happen, it must be true! However, recent studies have shown that the brain is more flexible and adaptable than we could have imagined. The brain not only continues to grow, but the older we get, the more complex the connections.

Research into neuroplasticity and adult neurogenesis has contradicted the beforehand belief that the only change with age in the brain was the decline of neurons. According to Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience: “[Neurogenesis] in the adult nervous system has led to the discovery that there are stem cells in the adult brain that generate new neurons. A stem cell is an uncommitted cell that, when it divides, can give rise to itself (self-renewal) and can also give rise to any or all of the three main cell lineages of the brain: neurons, astrocytes, and oligodendrocytes.”

I don’t know what astrocytes and oligodendrocytes are - I barely passed grade 10 science -  but I like the idea of self-renewal. Apparently, the brain not only continues to grow, but is incredibly resilient. Exercise and a healthy lifestyle can promote the generation of new neurons.

On the flip side, stress and tension have a profound affect on the brain’s ability to develop new neurons. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience discusses research that shows negative emotional experiences can lodge long-term traumatic events internally and slow the growth of the brain. Connections are made but the wrong kind of connections. Research has also shown that with certain therapeutic approaches, the brain can break these connections and forge new ones. Change is possible.

Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience continues: “Neuroplasticity is emerging as a fundamental and critical mechanism of neuronal function, which allows the brain to receive information and make the appropriate adaptive responses to subsequent related stimuli. These mechanisms include regulation of signal transduction and gene expression, and also structural alterations of neuronal spines and processes, and even the birth of new neurons in the adult brain.”

As we grow into adulthood, our memories – much like the neurons in the brain – change, fade away and recreate themselves. Those incorrectly labeled ‘firm’ connections become hazy. Maturity shapes memories into proof of how we define and redefine ourselves. Sometimes this definition can be fictional, a narrative based on faulty research. Change is required. Neuroplasticity shows us that nothing is random, the memories can assert themselves, change over time, reconform the definition into a truth that is closer to reflecting our internal beliefs. We can let go of the hold that some memories have over us, we can shape our experiences not into the person that is the sum of a series of collective connections, but into the person that we hope to be.

Memories are malleable plastic.


There was a boy. The boy was six years old. He lived in a suburb of a big city. There were always lots of kids around. Kids of all ages. For reasons not comprehensible to the boy at the time, his family had to move away. It was all fine with him. The boy remembered sitting in the backseat of a car, kids lined the street, hands upturned, waving good-bye. On the floor of the backseat was a toy to make the boy feel better about leaving. He turned his attention from the waving crowd and focused on the toy. The toy made him feel better about leaving.

The new city and new suburb did not offer the same kind of social life. There were not as many kids around. Toys became important: G.I. Joe’s and Transformers. Complex narratives were formed between good guys and bad guys. The boy placed himself as the leader of the good guys and the good guys always won. Elaborate battles were fought in the basement of the new house. There were assaults and missions against evil and injustice was rectified. They upheld what was right in the world.

The boy constructed a narrative with plastic soldiers and metal robots. They spoke for him, came alive for him. This was a valuable time where the boy was mapping out his interior world. He had little influence from the external world, he pulled inside. It was necessary.

At school, the boy made a new friend. The friend was bigger, more popular, better at sports and more at ease in social interactions. He was the boy’s Tyler Durden.

For some reason, Tyler took the boy under his wing. They visited each other’s house and school became much easier for the boy. One day, Tyler burned his right index finger on the hot coil of the stove. The boy could not remember if this was accidental or intentional. The skin covering the index finger made three bubbles, one for each partition. Tyler, being right handed, was unable to hold a pencil. The boy dutifully helped his friend complete required homework. Three days later, the boy watched as Tyler popped the skin bubbles with a thin pin. If there was pain, Tyler did not show it.

Transformers were robots that took on the forms of assorted planes, trains, cars and trucks. The boy acquired the latest Transformer. This latest development was a triple threat: The ability to transform into two different transportation vehicles (train and space shuttle) in addition to its robot form. No one in the neighbourhood had it.

The boy was at Tyler’s house with two other friends. The subject of the latest triple Transformer came up and the boy boasted that he had it safely at home. Tyler told him to get the toy, and the boy more or less did whatever Tyler asked of him.

After a short bike ride home, the boy found the toy and rushed back to Tyler’s house. The transformer was too big and he had to ride with one hand on the handlebars and the other holding the toy in the crook of his arm. One hand riding was not a strong activity for the boy. In order to quicken his speed, he attempted to lift himself off the seat to pedal faster. The excitement of displaying the Transformer to his friends clouded his mind. He didn’t think about how it was not the best of ideas to stand up while riding a bike with one hand on the handlebars. He immediately lost balance and tumbled. He – thud – slammed into the ground and elbows were scratched. The wind was knocked out of him. He made sure to curl into a ball in mid-air so the transformer would not be damaged. That was his only thought: Protect the toy. He lifted the dented bicycle in a daze, saddled it and continued on – seated – at a slower pace.

Tyler and the other boys did not notice the scratches. They did not notice the dilated pupils. They just wanted the Transformer. The boy handed it over, walked over to the grass lawn and sat under a tree. As they ignored him, he watched from the shade the tiny hands moving the movable pieces of the robot, transforming it first into a train and than a space shuttle.

With notes from Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, edited by Jean-Paul Macher, MD.