“What the pill provides is an opportunity…”

This NPR story caught my attention for obvious reasons – I’m a voice teacher and of course I’m interested in the idea of learning perfect pitch as an adult. I’m also a bit paranoid after the person I happen to live with keeps talking about how robots will be taking all of our jobs. I see things like this and I’m worried that even voice teaching will be left to the Cylons in our near future.

But as usual, this sort of thing is deliciously complicated. The drug discussed is Valproic Acid, which is used as a mood stabilizing drug. This study, led by Takao Hensch, was investigating its effects on the plasticity of the human brain. It seems as if the subjects were able to learn perfect, or absolute pitch, which opens up a lot of possibility for all types of skill acquisition, particularly language learning. Perfect pitch is generally a skill thought to only be learned quite early in life.

The part that was most intriguing though was Hensch’s caveat in terms of our learned and performed identity:

I should caution that critical periods have evolved for a reason. And it is a process that one probably would not want to tamper with carelessly … If we’ve shaped our identities through development, through a critical period, and have matched our brain to the environment in which we were raised —acquiring language, culture, identity — then if we were to erase that by reopening the critical period, we run quite a risk as well.

It is fascinating to reflect on the idea of how and why we have shaped our identities through our development and environment and how the brain loses plasticity, a view of ourselves become much more fixed. I’ve noticed recently how many people like to cling to absolute narratives about themselves using words like “always,” “can’t” and “never” (ie: “I was never into singing” or “I always avoid confrontation”) and I wonder where and how do things become fixed in our sense of who we are. Culturally, this has interesting implications for those of us who grew up as part of diaspora or those who simply moved around a lot as children. What would happen to our identity and sense of who we are if we changed the plasticity of our brain in a different cultural context during adulthood?

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2 thoughts on ““What the pill provides is an opportunity…”

  1. Wow, this is totally what happened to me in Korea. It is, in fact, possible to go through this process during adulthood. In my case, it was not the operation of a drug, but a slow, deconstructive process in a radically different setting. Granted I was probably already predisposed (by identity) to undergo such an alteration. I suppose there is a fear of disintegration – and there is a disintegration – but the ego is resilient, and, speaking from my own experience, one ultimately ends up bi-indentitied – two identities, not in conflict, but in harmony.

    • Hm, interesting. Thanks for your thoughts and reflections, Daniel! I feel like the drug affecting the plasticity of the brain is creating a much more internal shift as it dialogues with external factors that would affect our identity. Ultimately, you and your brain were not only choosing to stay and engage with this process in Korea (you could have left if you felt uncomfortable enough) and you were also, to an extent, choosing which and how parts of you were handling such a deconstructive process, towards the ultimate goal of achieving a bi-identified harmony.
      Adoptees struggle a lot with bi-identity and although I agree with you on a personal level as I have also aimed towards and have been mostly successful at achieving harmony through this process, the dominant and prohibitive cultures of both Korea and the adopted cultures can make this process incredibly difficult and painful. I would love for adoptees’ identities to be free of conflict. But I am realistic in acknowledging that for many of us, this will not happen in our lifetimes.

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