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  • Writer's pictureSam

Are we all "plastic men"?

For the first 60 years of my life, the word “plastic” was almost exclusively a noun. Plastic was a “thing” used to make thousands of useful objects, often replacing the wood, metal, and glass of my youth.

In the 1967 movie “The Graduate,” an older man pulled Dustin Hoffman’s character aside and said, “I’ve got just one word for you . . . ‘Plastics.’” In the 60’s, plastic—the noun—was also the future.

Yet the word “plastic” started its life as an adjective. The ancient Greek word (platikos) meant “able to be molded or reshaped.” It’s come full circle and today it as often used as an adjective, to describe things that are malleable or changeable.

The human body is obviously plastic. We grow, change, sag, lose hair and some of us get “plastic” surgery to intentionally change our bodies appearance. But, until recently, it was assumed that the neurons in the brain were not malleable. The brain was seen as a fixed structure. We could think new thoughts, but not in new ways. It turns out that is not true.

Now a new phrase has entered our lexicon, “neural plasticity:” the ability of the human brain to literally rewire itself.

In his provocative essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2008), Nicholas Carr wrote “The human brain is almost infinitely malleable.” Turns out that we are all “plastic people.”

Like most news, that is both good news and bad news. The reasons why are in the next blog.

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