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.