Sunday, January 8, 2012

The perils of neural adaptation

In neurobiology, adaptation commonly refers to a property of nerve cells which makes them less responsive to repeated exposure to the same stimulus at the same intensity. A cell responding well to, say, red light, will become less and less responsive if it is repeatedly stimulated with red light. On the other hand, if not stimulated for a while, it will recover its excitability and will then become as responsive as when first stimulated.

I presume that a basically similar operation takes place over longer periods in other systems, when we become less responsive, for example, to a song which we once liked very much.

There are no doubt many good biological reasons for having adaptation; getting adapted to a new way of doing things may be beneficial in some circumstances. But I fear it perhaps also works often to our disadvantage. Through adaptation, we begin to accept situations that we once might have thought intolerable. Through such a process, we begin to accept, for example, the prying eyes and ever increasing encroachment of the state into our affairs, something that almost no country in the world seems to be immune to. Ultimately, this works to our disadvantage but, through adaptation, we accept it with a shrug of the shoulder.

There are, however, situations where one just does not get adapted, and the neurobiology of the non-adaptive system is interesting to study, especially when applied to the linguistic system.

I recognize that the English language, like any other language, changes with usage. But I can never get adapted to the use of “that” instead of “who” when referring to people.

The most memorable thing I can remember about an ex-British prime minister is that he joined in the contemporary massacre of the English language by speaking of “people that do such things” instead of “people who do such things”.

I cannot get adapted to the vulgarity of the use of “like” – “do you, like, have, any bread, like”.

I cannot get adapted to the hopeless use of the word “inform”, which has become so common as to become a constant irritant - “the report has been informed by the design of buildings”, when I always thought that only people can inform.

I cannot get adapted to the clichés of “cutting-edge” science or “state of the art” technology, commonly used as substitutes for thinking.

I cannot even get adapted to terms that I myself am guilty of using constantly, for example saying “you know” or “I mean” constantly in a conversation – when in fact people don’t know, which is why I am telling them, and what “I mean” becomes clear only after I have told them.

In a strange way, I wish I could get adapted to these irritants, because then they will cease to be irritants.

I suppose that there is a part of our nervous systems that is resistant to adaptation. In my case, this certainly is a feature of my linguistic brain but it is not restricted to it; there are many other things that I just do not seem to be able to get adapted to.

Whether our nervous system becomes less plastic and therefore less adaptable with age, or whether adaptation is not equally potent in regulating all nervous activity, or whether it is a combination of the two plus other factors, a study of the diverse nature of adaptation would be interesting.


pipsquash said...

As a recently-teenage occasional vulgarizer of the word "like" I've noticed it's a verbal tic that only affects me while I'm in London. Rather than attributing this to geography I think it's a matter of being reunited with old friends during the university holidays; linguistically, we revert to our fifteen-year old selves and reintroduce patterns of language that were common to us years ago. Retroadaptability, perhaps. I've also noticed that as people around me "grow up" as such we all use much less slang language, and new terms for things cease to be invented (attractive members of the opposite sex are now "attractive", rather than "buff", "peng", "tidy", etc.) Perhaps the use of language irritants could be seen as a way of showing off the linguistic plasticity of youth to its less adaptale elders, creating a kind of subculture by frequently introducing words and tics that everybody else finds difficult to keep up with and really rather irritating.

S.Z. said...

Thanks for your comments.Perhaps you are right. I have no doubt that there is far more linguistic plasticity in youth. But the irritant use of the terms I mentioned, and others like them, are all the more irritating because they often come from adults. Inicedentally, I have no objection to slang, even when it comes from adults. Some of it is quite amusing, even sophisticated.

Margaret Bowker said...

A very stimulating post, professor. I very much enjoy scientific assessment being explored in general terms. When one reaches a nice, mature age, one realises how much things have changed in life and how society has adapted. Although, in respect of songs, I find I still respond in exactly the same way to emotionally important songs as I did decades ago. And yes, I also don't care for that instead of who, or the use of like in that way. However, I must confess during my long interaction with UK officaldom and journalism, I have adapted to using s instead of z in action verbs, and now no longer quiver with guilt, when my work and even my books, contain such an abberation; which is just as well, as my blogs are sometimes altered to suit American terminology. So it's good to adapt to a certain extent. For Pipsquash, I often find myself reverting to the Sixties, when speaking to my teen and twenty-something grandchildren, and things are really cool between us.

S.Z. said...

Thanks for your comment. I have the opposite experience, living in England. I prefer the American program to programme and color to colour. They are simpler. And I seem to be adapting to them pleasantly!!