Friday, September 11, 2009

Neuroplasticity and life

More and more frequently the early stages of the academic career of young scientists are characterized by demands of mobility of unprecedented proportions. Simple examples taken from people among my own friends and colleagues explain easily what I am talking about: a Portuguese studies in England, then works in Germany, Australia, the US, Denmark and Poland; a Turk studies in Israel, Germany, France, then works in Canada, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands; an Indian studies in France and Germany, then works in Canada, France and the US; and so on. You get the point. These are by no means isolated cases. A young scientist can easily expect to tour a dozen countries in the decade that encompasses graduate studies and postdoctoral experiences, the latter covering a period varying between three and seven or eight years depending on circumstances. The strain imposed on people's personal lives by these extreme demands of international mobility is often cited as one of the main factors that causes a good number of postdocs to drop out of the race for academic positions and out of science altogether. Is this accelerated globalization of the scientific community good or bad for science? The extreme Darwinist viewpoint will appeal to the principle of the survival of the fittest, but is jet setting and the capacity for rapid social and intercultural adaptation really a prerequisite for being a good scientist? In the past certainly there have been example of scientists who had to travel just as much to be able to continue with their research: Kepler caught in the heat of the European religious wars is a good example in that respect, but one can on the other hand quote a long list of examples of famous scientists who lived their lives without ever leaving the familiarity of their country, and possibly town, of birth.

Perhaps a more appropriate question to ask is what is the difference, in the first place, between what I would refer to as a sedentary life, meaning one where the environment (linguistic, cultural, personal) one is embedded into does not significantly change over a significant part of a person's life, and a nomadic life, by which I do not necessarily mean the actual nomadic populations of the world, but simply a term indicating a life style where one's surroundings change frequently and drastically (speaking a different language, adapting to a very different culture, changing social and personal connections) over a person's lifetime. This is clearly a very approximate classification, since even people who do not physically move from one place to another can experience their surroundings change dramatically within a very short time, as the collapse of the Soviet block showed, or the events of wars, or even the longer scale but very visible effects of migrations of population and the resulting alteration of the composition of traditional society. I will, however, stick to the simplistic subdivision into the sedentary/nomadic categories referred to the individual lifestyles of people rather than to the larger phenomena affecting the evolution of societies. What is then the difference between the sedentary and the nomadic?

A good way to zoom in on the main issue is by focusing on the neuroscience point of view. A very interesting analysis was recently presented in the book "Brain and Culture" by neuroscientist Bruce Wexler (one more cool MIT Press book). The first part of Wexler's book provides experimental evidence from the field of neural and cognitive science for the mechanism that makes it possible for infants and children (or for the newborns of other animal species) to acquire through sensory stimulation an internal representation of the external world. The neuroplasticity of the brain is what permits the gradual building of this internal image of the world which is what makes it possible for individual to generate appropriate responses to external stimuli. An inhibited form of this early process produces pathologies that severely affect the functioning of adult individuals. The second part of the book details in a similar manner how adult individuals mostly try to modify their surroundings and environment to match that internal representation that was created in their mind during the early years of development and that has subsequently rigidified. The concluding part of the book draws the obvious sociological conclusions on the effects of this lack of further adaptability and clinging to existent internal structures (one might more aptly call them prejudices, often manifesting themselves in the form of rigid stereotypes) as the only available mode of interaction with the external world, blaming them for all sorts of phenomena ranging from the very natural human suffering associated to the experience of bereavement, to the difficult experiences of immigrants, to violent phenomena like communal violence, clashes of cultures, religious wars.

If we wish to remain close to the issue of the seemingly harsh demands on the lives of young scientists imposed by the high mobility of the scientific community, one can see that the analysis proposed by Wexler is certainly relevant, but one should be stressing especially the point he makes that, in the presence of an appropriate amount of stimulation and exposure to diversity and plurality of cultures and of intellectual stimulation, the neuroplasticity phase of the brain, where the internal representation of the world is constructed, can be extended well into a person's early adulthood. If this internal representation of the world is sufficiently rich and diversified, the impact of changing environment, adapting quickly to different languages, cultures, networks of social relations can be greatly facilitated. Not only that, but a high mobility in the student/postdoc stages of career is in turn likely to extend the plasticity of the internal representation even further and help protecting the later phases of life against those undesirable effects of the mismatch between a changing environment and a rigid internal structure that cannot adapt to it. Thus, overall I am inclined to conclude that the high mobility within the scientific community and the demands of rapid and frequent change of surroundings imposed on young scientist is overall a positive factor for the scientific community itself and for society as a whole. What can help young people fulfill these demands without living them as a strenuous experience is to introduce in the lives of young people as early as possible enough elements of diversity and multiculturalism, enough capacity for absorbing quickly what is previously unknown, for appreciating differences between people and cultures, for enjoying new experiences. As Wexler points out at the end of his book, the typical American campus life provides a very good model of an environment where this type of diversity of offered in large supply and where people have a good opportunity, while their internal structures have, in most cases, not yet rigidified, to broaden their image of the world and of how to interact with it without becoming entangled in a web of prejudices and stereotypical images that obscure our broader view of humanity.