The fact that the adult brain is very plastic is often held up as evidence against the idea that many psychological, cognitive or behavioural traits are innately determined. At first glance, there does indeed appear to be a paradox. On the one hand, behavioural genetic studies show that many human psychological traits are strongly heritable and thus likely determined, at least in part, by innate biological differences. On the other, it is very clear that even the adult brain is highly plastic and changes itself in response to experience.
The evidence on both sides is very strong. In general, for traits like intelligence and personality characteristics such as extraversion, neuroticism or conscientiousness, among many others, the findings from genetic studies are remarkably consistent. Just as for physical traits, people who are more closely related resemble each other for psychological traits more than people with a more distant relationship. Twin study designs get around the obvious objection that such similarities might be due to having been raised together. Identical twins tend to be far more like each other for these traits than fraternal twins, though the family environment is shared in both cases. Even more telling, identical twins who are raised apart tend to be pretty much as similar to each other as pairs who are raised together. Clearly, we come fairly strongly pre-wired and the family environment has little effect on these kinds of traits.
Yet we know the brain can “change itself”. You could say that is one of its main jobs in fact – altering itself in response to experience to better adapt to the conditions in which it finds itself. For example, as children learn a language, their auditory system specialises to recognise the typical sounds of that language. Their brains become highly expert at distinguishing those sounds and, in the process, lose the ability to distinguish sounds they hear less often. (This is why many Japanese people cannot distinguish between the sounds of the letters “l” and “r”, for example, and why many Westerners have difficulty hearing the crucial tonal variations in languages like Cantonese). Learning motor skills similarly improves performance and induces structural changes in the relevant brain circuits. In fact, most circuits in the brain develop in an experience-dependent fashion, summed up by two adages: “cells that fire together, wire together” and “use it or lose it”.
Given the clear evidence for brain plasticity, the implication would seem to be that even if our brains come pre-wired with some particular tendencies, that experience, especially early experience, should be able to override them.
I would argue that the effect of experience-dependent development is typically exactly the opposite – that while the right kind of experience can, in principle, act to overcome innate tendencies, in practice, the effect is reversed. The reason is that our innate tendencies shape the experiences we have, leading us to select ones that tend instead to reinforce or even amplify these tendencies. Our environment does not just shape us – we shape it.
A child who is naturally shy – due to innate differences in the brain circuits mediating social behaviour, general anxiety, risk-aversion and other parameters – will tend to have less varied and less intense social experience. As a result, they will not develop the social skills that might make social interaction more enjoyable for them. A vicious circle emerges – perhaps intense practice in social situations would alter the preconfigured settings of a shy child’s social brain circuits but they tend not to get that experience, precisely because of those settings. In contrast, their extroverted classmates may, by constantly seeking out social interactions, continue to develop this innate faculty.
This circle may be most vicious in children with autism, most of whom have a reduced level of innate interest in other people. They tend, for example, not to find faces as intrinsically fascinating as other infants. This may contribute to a delay in language acquisition, as they miss out on interpersonal cues that strongly facilitate learning to speak.
A similar situation may hold for children who have difficulties in reading or with mathematics. Dyslexia seems to be caused by an innate difficulty in associating the sounds and shapes of letters. This can be traced to genetic effects during early development of the brain, which may cause interruptions in long-range connections between brain areas. This innate disadvantage is cruelly amplified by the typical experience of many dyslexics. Learning to read is hard enough and requires years of practice and active instruction. For children who have basic difficulties in recognising letters and words, reading remains effortful for far longer and they will therefore tend to read less, missing out on the intensive practice that would help their brain circuitry specialise for reading.
Though less widely known, dyscalculia (a selective difficulty in mathematics) is equally common and shares many characteristics with dyslexia. The initial problem is in innate number sense – the ability to estimate and compare small numbers of objects. This faculty is present in very young infants and even shared with many other animal species, notably crows. Formal mathematical instruction is required to build on this innate number sense but also crucially relies on it. As with reading, mathematics requires hard work to learn and if numbers are inherently mysterious then this will change the nature of the child’s experience, lessen interest and reduce practice. At the other end of the spectrum, those with strong mathematical talent may gravitate towards the subject, further amplifying the differences between these two groups.
Thus, while a certain type of experience can alter the innate tendency, the innate tendency makes getting that experience far less likely. Brain plasticity tends instead to amplify initial differences.
That sounds rather fatalistic, but the good news is that this vicious circle can be broken if innate difficulties are recognised early enough – by actively changing the nature of early experience. There is good evidence that intense early intervention in children with autism (such as Applied Behaviour Analysis) allows them to compensate for innate deficits and lead to improvements in cognitive, communication and adaptive skills. Similarly intense intervention in children with dyslexia has also proven effective. Thus, even if it is not possible to reverse whatever neurodevelopmental differences lead to these kinds of deficits, it should at least be possible to prevent their being amplified by subsequent experience.
Duff FJ, & Clarke PJ (2011). Practitioner Review: Reading disorders: what are the effective interventions and how should they be implemented and evaluated? Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines, 52 (1), 3-12 PMID: 21039483
Vismara, L., & Rogers, S. (2010). Behavioral Treatments in Autism Spectrum Disorder: What Do We Know? Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 6 (1), 447-468 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.121208.131151