Neuroscience is in the process of reinventing itself. For 400 years, the brain was seen as a machine with parts, each performing a single mental function in a single brain location. Eventually the brain was seen as a computer with hard-wired circuits, all formed and finalized in childhood. It was believed that the brain’s circuitry was only alterable in certain “critical periods,” or brief windows of extreme plasticity; these were thought to occur in childhood, when experience helped to form the brain’s circuitry. The conventional wisdom was that certain skills must be learned early on; it was generally “too late” for adults to pick up a new language or musical skill. Plasticity was for kids.
But in the past few decades mainstream neuroscience has reversed itself, demonstrating that the brain is “neuroplastic” from cradle to grave. Neuroplasticity is the property of the brain that allows it to change its structure and function through mental experience. This discovery has led to new treatments for learning disabilities and for strokes (so that adults can at times, through brain exercises, develop new circuitry and cure themselves). A host of neurological and psychiatric problems and injuries can now be addressed through mind-based interventions.
The question thus inevitably arises: What ambitious kinds of learning might we, as adults, undertake? Is the brain plastic enough, say, for a 39-year-old adult without any apparent musical skill to learn an instrument and become a musician? In “Guitar Zero,” the cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus sets out to answer this question by using himself as a guinea pig.
Mr. Marcus tells us that, since childhood, he had yearned to be musical and play the electric guitar but had concluded that he lacked the talent (hence, “Guitar Zero”). His friend Daniel Levitin, an accomplished musician, neuroscientist and the author of “This Is Your Brain on Music,” tried to give Mr. Marcus a few guitar lessons and joked that he suffered from “congenital arrhythmia.” But one day, fiddling with the videogame Guitar Hero, which gives a player the illusion of playing guitar licks by pressing the right button at the right moment, Mr. Marcus was so enthralled that he decided to spend his coming sabbatical trying to learn to play guitar—in effect, testing whether his brain was plastic enough to do so. This book recounts the 18-month experience, practicing up to six hours a day. “Guitar Zero” is a refreshing alternation between the nitty-gritty details of learning rock-guitar licks and Mr. Marcus’s survey of the relevant scientific literature on learning and the brain.