February 15, 2017

On Neuroplasticity

Try and remember the last time someone said something you had never thought of before. Maybe it was Malcolm Gladwell’s reveal that while Paul Revere famously rode off in one direction to warn people the British were coming, there was another guy who rode off in the other direction. A guy most of us have never heard of. Gladwell asked what made Paul Revere successful on his midnight ride. It was a great question.  Certainly one Judah had never thought of before. As Gladwell  began to lay out his answers, that Revere was X Y AND Z, Judah  began to feel the sensation of new ideas and the excitement of new understanding. To use a tried and true analogy it felt like a lightbulb going off. That feeling is an emotional response to a physical reality. 


Here’s what happened inside his head. His mRNA sent instructions to these little factories called tRNA. The factories starting stacking amino acids in a specific order, on on top of the other. When the strings were built they broke off and folded just so to create a protein. These proteins were used to create new neurotransmitter receptors. These new receptors enabled brand new connections between neurons. These new connections create the physical strcutures that are new thoughts.  The experience of these new thoughts was one of wonder.


Neuroplasticity gives us the ability to experience wonder. It is the physical ability inside our brains to actually understand something completely new and give us that sense of wonder. 


But, you may be thinking, how many adults do you know who have maintained their sense of wonder? Not many. We stop seeing the new, not because there is nothing new out there but because we stop looking. As Antoine St. Exupery once wrote about the older people on the bus going to work, “Nobody grabbed you by the shoulder when there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.” 


Exupery was writing in the 1920’s. This loss of wonder and possibility is not a new phenomenon. And his choice of metaphor, of hardening clay, was more apt than he knew. As we grow up, if we stop learning new things, experiencing new things, our brain muscle for building new neurotransmitter receptors, which act as dendrite bridges, hardens, becomes not plastic. 


Exupery was working for the French Airmail service at the time. He was flying mail over the North African desert in cutting edge open cockpit airplanes at a time when only  handful of humans had ever flown. He would also later write “The Little Prince”, one of the most beloved stories of the Twentieth century. Needless to say Exupery had a very plastic brain. But it was plastic because he was keeping it plastic. We are all born with plastic brains. That’s how we learn to be humans. Its how we learn to walk and speak and swim and think and how to read a social setting so that we don’t burp at the dinner table. All of these things happen because our brains are plastic and are capable of building new dendrite bridges. Some people go on to fly airmail over the North African desert and a lot of others go on to jobs that ask little of them except to keep doing the same thing, to play their assigned role in keeping the organization going. The former keep exercising their bridge building brain muscles and stay plastic, the latter stop exercising and lose their plastic muscle. No different than going to a job where you sit all day means you can’t run as fast. 


Interestingly, physical exercise is one thing we know to help people think more creatively. But more on exercise later.


You may be thinking to yourself telling me what Astro Teller looks for is all well and good but he’s got Exupery’s walking into his office and I’ve got the people from his bus walking into mine. We would tell you that attracting the plastic people that go to Google X is not your first issue. Let’s imagine that Exupery did walk into your office. Or better yet, let’s imagine Astro Teller walked into your office to interview. And let’s say you recognized him as a first rate plastic brained innovator. How long would he last in your culture?