PNF Philosophy #1: Every Living Thing has Potential

You can make a change.

There is a plethora of research out there about the concept of neuroplasticity, which states that the brain has the capacity to make new connections and learn.

The traditional  motto of:  “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is challenged by neuroplasticity research.  

A fairly new book called Softwired: How the new science of brain plasticity can change your life by Michael Merzenich, PhD discusses the concept of neuroplasticity, presents relevant research, and its application into our lives.

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One of the studies Dr. Merzenich discusses in his new book is about the development of a cochlear implant, a device to help people with complete hearing loss hear again. This really drove the concept of neuroplasticity home for me, so let me sum it up.

Neuro-scientists and medical engineers developed a device to deliver auditory patterned electrical activity to the remaining auditory nerves of a patient with complete hearing loss. They thought they could capture the normal patterns of electrical activity that take place during normal human speech.

Unfortunately when they trialed this device with real patients, the patients explained:

“It sounds like I’m listening to a radio that isn’t getting good reception.”
“It sounds like a robot is trying to talk to me, but is just mumbling.”

 The intricacy of electrically coding human speech, delivering that electrical code to the auditory nerve, which then delivers that electrical code to the brain for processing to ultimately turn that electrical signal into meaning, was a lot more complex than these auditory neuroscientists made it out to be.

Then Dr. Merzenich had a simple but brilliant idea with a volunteer patient named Earl.  Earl hasn’t been able to hear for about 20 years, and he volunteered for this cochlear implant research.

Dr. Merzenich asked Earl to read a list of words out loud to himself.  To everyone’s astonishment, Earl was able to hear what he was reading for the first time in over 20 years!

However, this discovery brought on more questions and the main question was this:

“Why does Earl hear and understand his own voice but hears an un-tuned radio when others speak to him?”

The answer was this –

His auditory system heard what his own motor system intended on saying.  Because it was Earl speaking, his brain knew what he was trying to say. So the brain already knew the meaning of the incoming auditory (sensory) input.

The brain knows how to work backwards.

So how would scientists make a cochlear implant interpret outside auditory signals without first having the meaning? Because in real life we don’t just talk to ourselves, we have to listen, process what we hear, then create meaning.

What they found out was that they didn’t have to create a device. They just needed to train the brain.

Several patients, who volunteered to trial the cochlear implants, reported that after only months of training, which consisted of reading out loud as well as listening to others speak, they were able to understand almost everything that was being said to them! The success rate of these implants, in patients who were formally totally deaf, was 80%.

Several companies created cochlear implants with very different strategies to encode human speech, which made the electrical coding widely different from one device to the other.

Here’s the best part…

It did not matter which company’s cochlear implant they used.

The brain did not care!

No matter which company’s device was used, all the patients reported being able to recover and understand speech again and they described it as: “completely natural” sounding.

So one brilliant engineering strategy of encoding speech was no better than another because the brain did most of the work, there was just as much brilliance in the training process as there was in the engineering of the actual device. The cochlear implants provided the brain with crudely different patterns of sensory input and the brain took that sensory input, processed it, and created meaning for the patients.

So how does this relate to us in the movement profession? I relate all the different cochlear implant companies to all the different movement systems out there.

They can all be brilliant in their own way because there are various ways to deliver sensory input to the brain.

The brain is the ultimate decider on how to interpret, process, and use that information to create a meaningful motor output.

If the brain can relearn and interpret auditory (sensory) input in a person who has been deaf for over 20 years, then the brain can relearn and interpret proprioceptive (sensory) input which it hasn’t received in over 20 years, to restore fundamental movement patterns.

According to research regarding neuroplasticity, this is evidence based and therefore: Every living thing has potential. You can make a change. 

Next post I will discuss PNF Philosophy #2: Treat the Whole Human Being

Ramez Antoun