(March 26, 2008) – An article in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine titled Cardiac Plasticity is worth thinking about. The concept of plasticity–especially neural plasticity–plays an important role in recent microbiology research. I think there are important applications in economics, finance, and policy that may help us to avoid, or mitigate, future conflicts among cultures and nations.
Plasticity is a property of a system that allows it to improve its efficiency by adapting to changes in its environment by altering its structure. Columbia’s Eric Kandel won a Nobel Prize for showing that repeated environmental stimuli (electric shocks, etc.) lead to physical growth of neurons that dramatically alter the number of synapses, or contact points, between neighboring neurons. Read Kandel’s In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind for more on his work.
In one result, for example, Kandel showed that repeated negative events (electric shocks) produced a tripling of the synapses which transmit negative sensory information to other neurons–making the entire system hyper-sensitive to negative stimuli.
Even more interesting, when the bad events stop happening the number of synapses declines to roughly double their original levels. They never again fall to the original number. The system, or organism, remains in a hyper-vigilant state for the rest of its life.
I also recommend reading Seymour Benzer’s Time, Love, Memory. Benzer won a Nobel Prize for work on the development of the link between genetics and behavior.
Real world examples? In recent years, Americans were subjected to a long string of fear stimuli–the dotcom bust, 9/11, Enron, anthrax, Iraq, $100 oil, the mortgage crisis, …. That string of experiences has produced a fearful and hypervigilant group of people, including voters and investors, who behave differently as a result. That makes us more belligerant and more likely to make errors of commission than we would otherwise be. And it makes people more willing to bail out of investments at the first sign of trouble.
This dynamic co-evolution of an organism and its environment–called epigenesis–is very important. In particular, Bruce Wexler’s Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change details research showing that children’s brains exhibit a high degree of plasticity up until about 1 years old but a dramatic loss of plasticity after that.
Essentially, children re-wire their brains to fit comfortably in the environment they see (which is why we all want to go back to our childhoods). If the environment does not change much, they will function efficiently. But if the environment changes to a dramatically different one after they lose plasticity, they experience cognitive dissonance, a permanently fearful and anxious state. Adults in this condition are not easy to get along with. They also violently resist seeing their children morph to fit the new environment. The result is conflict.
The rapid change brought on by improvements in communications technology and globalization has placed many people in this state. Fundamentalism, terrorism, genocide, protectionism, immigration, and outsourcing battles all reflect its cost. But attempts to stop change are futile. The answer is finding ways to reduce its cost by reducing the frictions that transform rapid change to turbulence. More on this to come.