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Some Neurological Evidence for Fostering New Learnings
C. Alexander Simpkins Ph.D. & Annellen Simpkins Ph.D.
For the processes of new learnings and new experiences do not cease with childhood; they continue throughout life, bringing with them even new and different possibilities of favorable or unfavorable personal adjustments. (Erickson & Rossi 1980, Vol IV, xviv)
Therapists try to encourage new possibilities for their clients with the assumption that this will help them. Erickson showed us that there are always creative alternatives. He was a living testament to successful innovation in how he lived and worked. One source of confirmation for the value of stimulating new options in clients as Erickson did can be found in neuroscience research.
Prior to the 1990’s, most neuroscientists believed that neural connections were formed in the early years, and they remained fixed and unalterable throughout life. If damage occurred, function was permanently lost. But recent research with animals and humans has revealed a large amount of plasticity in the human brain. And in the mature adult, new neural connections do form under certain circumstances.
It has long been known that human vision has a blind spot where the optic nerve attaches to the retina but that the visual cortex fills in the area so that we do not see any gaps in our visual field. However, when patients have damage to their visual cortex, gaps in their visual field would be expected to occur. Yet in many cases, the brain fills in the gap, leaving patients unaware of any hole in their vision. (Ramachandran 1992)
How does this happen? Gilbert and Wiesel (1992) were some of the many researchers who looked for answers in the physiology of the brain. They destroyed a small area of the retina in animals and found that at first, the cells in the visual cortex became unresponsive. But within a few minutes, the retinal cells close to the lesion excited the area on the visual cortex in place of the damaged retinal cells, filling the gap.
Similar remapping was seen when a limb was amputated. In experiments with monkeys, the middle digit of one hand was amputated. (Merzsenich, 1984)) Within two months, the receptors in the cortex corresponding to the middle digit were taken over by the two adjacent fingers so that when either of these digits moved, the cortex area for the amputated digit also responded.
Further research extended over twelve years showed that the cortical area originally corresponding to the lost hand of the monkeys was taken over by the sensory input from the face. (Pons 1991) The effect was explained as researchers came to understand how the neural networks for body sensations are mapped onto the cortex. The widely accepted model known as the Penfield homunculus shows that hands are mapped on the brain next to the face. The fact that sensations in the face were felt as the lost hand shows the plasticity in the brain to remap with new connections that are close by on the cortex.
These findings became even more clearly evident with human subjects. Ramachandran (1993) worked extensively with amputees who suffered from phantom limb pain. He was able to trace out the activated areas in the cortex by stimulating certain places on the face, which were experienced by the patient as fingers on his phantom limb. Later research has supported that considerable reorganization of the cortex takes place over time (Aglioti, 1997). The brain responds by making new connections when the need is there.
Clinicians can utilize these discoveries from neuroscience when they encourage clients to engage in new behaviors. By applying such Ericksonian methods as tasks and new hypnotic experiences, hypnosis can stimulate neural pathways that lead to the favorable possibilities for personal adjustment Erickson so wisely foresaw.
Aglioti, S., Smania, N., Atzei, A. Berlucchi, G. (1997). Spacio-temporal properties of the pattern of evoked phantom sensation in a left index amputee patient. Behavioral Neuroscience.111. 5. 867-872.
Gilbert, C. D. & Wiesel, T. N. (1992). Nature (London) 350, 150-152.
Ramachandran, V.S. (1993). Behavioral and magnetoencephalographic correlates of plasticity in the adult human brain. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 90 10413-10420.
Ramachandran, V.S. (1992). Blind spots: Investigating how the visual system compensates for gaps in perception is helping researchers elucidate how the brain processes images. Scientific American, May.
Merzenich, M.M., Nelson, R.J., Stryker, M.S., Cynader, M.D. Schoppmann, A. & Zook, J.M. (1984). J. Comp. Neurol. 224, 591-605.
Pons, T. P., Preston, E. Garraghty, A.K., Ommaya, A.D., Kaas, J.H., Taub, E. & Mishkin, M. (1991) Science 252, 1857-1860.