Just one word for the new graduate

Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Neuroplasticity.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

This is another in a series of posts promoting, or at least complicating, our understanding of Orientation because Orientation is, after all, the Schwerpunkt.

In fact, if I had to boil Boyd’s philosophy down to one idea, it might be to ensure that your orientation makes more accurate forecasts than those of your opponents. If we’re talking business competition, substitute “customers” for “opponents.”

If you could predict the future better than anyone else — you don’t have to be perfect, just better than anyone else — think what you could do. You could select actions they would least expect, for example, and you could pick responses that would best deal with or exploit their actions. As Boyd put it:

Need adaptability, to cope with uncertain and ever-changing circumstances. (Organic Design 3)

Why adaptability? Adaptability implies variety and rapidity. Without variety and rapidity one can neither be unpredictable nor cope with changing and unforeseen circumstances. (4)

In other words, without adaptability, you can’t operate inside the OODA loops of opponents, customers, or competitors.  One might consider adaptability as the physical component of agility. Or maybe its manifestation.

One of the aspects of adaptability that fascinated Boyd was the ability of our brains to form new connections to represent and deal with changing circumstances.

Physical as well as electrical and chemical connections in the brain are shaped by interacting with the environment. Point: Without these interactions we do not have the mental wherewithal to deal or cope with that environment. (Strategic Game, 28)

When he died 18 years ago today, the idea that the brain could change was just being accepted.  On pages 16 and 17 of Strategic Game, he quotes from several of the early articles that showed evidence that the brain could rewire itself, including one that quoted “some scientists” as suggesting that such rewiring is how we learn.

At the time, though, the dominating concept was that the brain was a biological machine, whose neurons were fixed from birth or shortly thereafter. It was all downhill from there.

My, how things have changed:

The mainstream view in neuroscience and medicine today is that the living brain is actually “neuroplastic”—meaning that its “circuits” are constantly changing in response to what we actually do out in the world. As we think, perceive, form memories or learn new skills, the connections between brain cells also change and strengthen. Far from being hard-wired, the brain has circuits that very rapidly form, unform and reform.

And it’s not only rewiring connections. Physiologists have known for some time that the hippocampus region of the brain contains stem cells that can turn into neurons. We’re discovering ways to trigger this:

Exercise triggers the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus. It also triggers the release of “neurotrophic growth factors”—a kind of brain fertilizer, helping the brain to grow, maintain new connections and stay healthy.

Both selections are from “Our Amazingly Plastic Brains” by Norman Doidge in the Feb. 6, 2015 Wall St. J. (paywall).

What’s truly amazing to me is how much of this is under our conscious control, as Dr. Doidge’s article illustrates. In addition to exercise, he recounts how

A pain specialist successfully treats his own chronic pain following an injury by using intense, sustained visualization to shrink the expanded brain areas that represent pain. (From “Brainstorms Brewing,” in which Raymond Tallis reviews Doidge’s new book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, in the Feb. 27, 2015 Wall St. J.)

In other words, through conscious actions, we may be able to change our brains and thus our Orientations.

As an aside, this could explain some of the benefits of meditation.

It turns out, by the way, that genetics might be undergoing a similar revolution.  Ever since the discovery of genes, most scientists thought that what you got from your parents is what you lived with, excepting the stray mutation. To suggest that our current environment could change our DNA — and thus be inherited — was to commit the sin of Lysenkoism.  Well, that may also be changing. Bacteria, for example can actively change their DNA to defeat viral invasions and perhaps even to deal with antibiotics. For a readable article, see”Breakthrough DNA Editor Borne of Bacteria — Interest in a powerful DNA editing tool called CRISPR has revealed that bacteria are far more sophisticated than anyone imagined.” And then there’s that whole epigenetics thing.

Boyd told me a few years before he died that although physics — thermodynamics and quantum mechanics, especially — had been the most exciting fields of science for him, in the future it would be biology. That prediction is looking pretty good.


12 thoughts on “Just one word for the new graduate

  1. Great post. I have thought long and hard about how the neurons in our brains are structured and came to the conclusion that it is the gap in the synapses between neurons that give the brain the ability to change or remain the same.
    Basically there is an environment within that gap, and if the environment is changed, something added, subtracted or some outside force acts on the environment the energy transferred across those gaps change. If the message that the energy represents crossing the gap, changes, then our brains change.
    As for it being the “new plastic”, I don’t know. It comes down to quantum physics. The “thing” doing the measuring of the change are also making a change in the brain, so what have you got?
    I mean, was the Graduate really looking for wealth or love?

  2. “that it is the gap in the synapses between neurons that give the brain the ability to change or remain the same.”
    The “gap” in plastics is filled with the water molecule, among other things. but that is just a guess.

  3. When I first began looking at the OODA loop, which has been over ten years ago and perhaps my mind was warped by the tdaxp web site, I came to two conclusions.
    The first conclusion: it should be just as easy to see the future as the past. With all that feedforward and feedback coming in from both “directions” what we think we know about either the past or the future is always under question and open for interpretation.
    The second conclusion: our first rulesets come from our environment, and they somehow never change.
    Despite my other two comments in this post, I still think my conclusions are correct. While our rulesets, or perhaps it is more accurate to say our source-code, comes from the environment observed and never changes, what does change is position.
    As an example, if you take a Scotsman out of his native land and after a few generations and a mixing of environments and structures, plop him down in the Pacific Northwest, U.S.A, he is still a Scotsman, because of the environment he came from. The only thing that has changed is position. He is now an American. Which a position change is a big deal.
    I have since come to the conclusion that there are 3 basic domains of an OODA loop: structure, culture, and position. There may be more, but I don’t believe less.
    Structure is what’s observed, culture is our orientation to the environment observed, and position is created out of the ethical forces at play in both our structure and culture. So while our structure and culture changes most easily, it is the position we find ourselves in that doesn’t change. At least it is position that is the hardest to change.
    Each domain of an OODA loop is defined by its exponent. Structure is on the square, culture is by the cube, and position is in the moment of the 4th power.
    So while (as perhaps Thomas PM Barnett once noted beware of the exponent) it has been noted that culture eats structure, I beleive position can eat both.
    Of course that is just my position, I could be wrong.

    • If you mean that “to eat” is the process of absorbing nutrition out of our environment, then, I guess, you are not wrong. It then could be said that we are “eating” our environment and it is building us. Of course the “building blocks” are the DNA coded by the waves of energy we take in. So it is just a transfer of energy, right?

      • So?
        Food is as good as way as any to describe how the genome is written, but what you are observing is energy.
        So the OODA loop is really showing how energy is distributed, according to the power-laws in the distribution of energy, and the genome is covered under those laws.
        In other words, we are what we eat, and in America what we eat is mostly corn, in the form of high fructose corn syrup.
        Do you think this has any significance, in the makeup of the source-code, as to what it is to be American, and how did we get there?

      • While it is certainly true that lots of people do consume lots of HFCS and other simple carbohydrates, you may be exaggerating (if only for effect).

      • “(if only for effect).” I am not sure I am exaggerating, but I suppose there is a certain part of me that tried to use the information for effect.
        I was thinking of the documentary, “Super Size Me”, where spurlock had himself tested before the experiment. The findings came back that a certain majority part of him, and I think it was protein, was almost all from corn.
        Not having the numbers in front of me, I will probably have to Google it.
        Which, like potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes is a part of the New World, so may be, from an environmental context, expected, but, not to exaggerate, I don’t think in those numbers.

      • And it is not only the people who are doing the consuming. We are feeding it to every food sources that keeps us secure in our needs within the environment.

      • So in the context of an OODA loop, one might say that the decision to base the US economy on a product that one can’t eat (corn) has been made, and now it is time to think seriously about that decision. The Middle East has made that decision long ago, with mixed results.
        Like field corn, a human can’t eat oil, but, used correctly, it can get all those who have all they need, all they want.
        I first thought another time/step in an OODA loop was called thinking (OODTA), until I realized that thinking was a position. Thinking is a position where you get to bring your Orientation. So, if anything, in my world, the loop would be called an OODPA loop.

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