Neuroscience didn’t exist as a field in John Keats’ day, but the early nineteenth century romantic poet (1795–1821) offered a prescient paean to plasticity with his coinage “negative capability,” which denotes our capacity to transcend preconceived limitations, and hence rewrite the story of our lives. To Keats, the most standout thinkers and doers demonstrate negative capability to an unsurpassed degree. They are at home with a world of “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Exemplars of negative capability (he considers Shakespeare the foremost among them) embrace paradox, dissonance, ambiguity, the unpredictable, and the unknown, and unhesitatingly venture into existential terrain where others fear to tread. It’s not that fact and reason don’t have a place in their seeking. Rather, it’s not the be-all and end-all. Sense and imagination also are equal partners.

Keats’ coinage has been appropriated in modern times by the progressive Brazilian philosopher, social theorist, and progressive politician Roberto Mangabeira Unger, who equates negative capability with that element in our nature that enables us to overcome the most daunting cultural, socioeconomic, and institutionally imposed barriers to healthy human flowering. In The Self Awakened, Unger (one of Barack Obama’s professors while a student at Harvard) insists that

we are not exhausted by the social and cultural worlds we inhabit and build. They are finite. We, in comparison to them, are not. We can see, think, feel, build, and connect in more ways than they can allow.

Adolescents in particular should take this as a clarion call. Unger’s take is that it is up to adolescent to take the bull by the horns, rather than passively waiting for the unlikely time when adults will treat them as equals. Many adolescents today are doing just that, putting their negative capability on grand display. Through social entrepreneurial initiatives like Do Something, Be the Change, and Youth Venture,[1] adolescents are showing just what innovative active agents for change they can be. They are making real the vision they have of themselves and of their rightful role in fashioning a world of their liking and making.

Unger’s progressive Brazilian predecessor, philosopher Paolo Freire (1921–1997), one of the most influential educators of the twentieth century, made it his life’s work to equip the marginalized to become more protean selves who could mold and dictate their own destinies. Freire’s revolutionary work Pedagogy of the Oppressed elaborates how he wed literacy education with communal dialogue as a principal means for problem-solving and practical action. His outreach focused in particular on his nation’s poorest adults. To Freire, a literate person is one who can reach her full potential, and hence achieve “human completion.” Learning to read is not sufficient. One needs other capabilities in order to overcome an existing power structure designed to keep the disenfranchised in their place. By Freire’s yardstick, many who cannot read are nonetheless literate in other ways. For instance, many of the poor know how to grow crops in the most severe environments, or how to engage in complex negotiations for what they produce, and these are kinds of literacy. In teaching them how to read, his aim was give them the tools to “read the word as well as the world”—in other words, for literacy to be a key means for making them better able to advocate for themselves, so they could write their own life story.

Given Freire’s focus on poor adults, he clearly believed that even the most deprived are plenty “plastic enough” in their capacities to give their lives a radical makeover. Current neuroscience research indicates that he is right. Studies reveal that adults who engage in certain kinds of learning—such as mastering new languages, playing a musical instrument, becoming more schooled in math, or learning to read and write for the first time—catalyze the creation of new connections in the region of the brain involved in learning.[2] This makes adults’ brains more malleable and adaptable[3] and catalyzes changes in the brain’s structure and function because the brain is prompted to grow more gray matter.[4] The more gray matter we have, the more cerebrally equipped we are to exploit our negative capability.[5]

The adults with whom Freire worked typically had faced severe neglect since infancy. In recent studies, MRI scans of the brains of infants who suffer from deprivation show that their brains are smaller than those of infants who receive ample care.[6] They have less gray matter. This can lead to “faulty wiring” in the regions of the brain that stimulate development in language, vision, and emotion. Yet as long as these infants receive proper care by age two, researchers hold that these negative effects often can be reversed.[7] Even those who continue to encounter privation in their adult years at times can show a phenomenal capacity to recover. Freire’s successes with marginalized adults would seem proof positive of this remarkable recuperative ability. Perhaps it is due to the fact that they are at last being shown a kind of care and compassion that is based on the belief that they matter and count as much as anyone else, and are as capable and deserving as anyone else.

Freire’s literacy project, which remains a mainstay in Brazil and has expanded to other impoverished regions around the globe, surely challenges and stimulates the brain in a way that makes it possible for adults who have been deliberately left out to join their younger counterparts in challenging and changing the status quo structure and function of their immediate world. The result is their endowing of the world itself with a greater plasticity.

From my The Philosophy of Childing: Unlocking Creativity, Curiosity and Reason through the Wisdom of Our Youngest

[1]For more information see DoSomething.org, BeTheChangeInc.org, and www.genv.net.

[2]I look forward to the study that will one day show that adults who care for children—from parents to professionals—and who genuinely nurture them experience gray matter growth.

[3]See, for instance, the article “Brain Plasticity in Older Adults,” in the April 27, 2013 issue of Psychology Today.

[4]Neuroscientist Michael Merzenich at the University of California San Francisco has been at the vanguard of those demonstrating that the adult brain can continue to grow and develop. See also “Research Shows Adult Brains Capable of Rapid New Growth,” http://phys.org/news/2011-04-adult-brains-capable-rapid-growth.html A paper titled Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences presents findings that show that the adult brain can experience rapid growth when introduced to the kinds of stimuli babies are exposed to when familiarizing themselves with their environment.

[5]As one for-instance, in 2012, researchers from the University of Zurich found that people with more gray matter at the junction between the parietal and temporal lobe are more altruistic than those with less.

[6]See, for instance, “The effects of early life adversity on brain and behavioral development,” at https://www.dana.org/Publications/ReportOnProgress/The_effects_of_early_life_adversity_on_brain_and_behavioral_development/; “HMS Professor Studies Orphanage Impact on Brain Development” at http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2011/11/9/hms-prof-brain/; and “Kids whose bond with mother was disrupted early in life show changes in brain” at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/12/131202134852.htm.

7]See NPR’s feature “Orphans’ Lonely Beginnings Reveal How Parents Shape A Child’s Brain” at http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/02/20/280237833/orphans-lonely-beginnings-reveal-how-parents-shape-a-childs-brain.