Human beings have evolved to develop the ability to adapt to environmental changes by optimising their behaviour to sync with the demands of the environment. The behavioural adaptation is rooted in the ability of the brain to reorganise itself structurally to meet the functional needs. Neuroscience and child development are significant fields of psychology which sufficiently demonstrate the ability to adapt to situations. By drawing on neuroscience and child development, this paper seeks to show how psychology has studied the ability of humans to adapt.
Throughout the history of humankind, human beings encounter different stimuli from the environment which requires them to change and adapt to the new circumstances. Circumstances that have an impact on our brains triggers the process of neuroplasticity. The process plays a significant role in enabling humans to adapt to new conditions by reorganising the brain structure and consequently its functions to develop new patterns in behaviour and thought which is supported by the new situation. Psychology has managed to assess the ability of humans to adapt to new circumstances by studying the mechanisms involved in the reorganisation of the brain.
Neural plasticity refers to the ability of the brain to reorganise its structure in response to internal or external conditions which necessitate a functional or structural change. Neuropsychology performs a significant role in studying and explaining the malleability of the brain in reaction to an experience; the theory of neuroplasticity extensively describes the remarkable plasticity. William James proposed the theory by postulating that the human brain has the capacity to undergo continuous functional modifications (Blanco, 2014). Going by the outcomes of research work in the field the theory holds relevance as studies indicate the ability of the brain to restructure itself. Brain injury is notably one of the health issues that has significantly contributed to demonstrating brain plasticity. Specific cognitive impairments are likely to arise from brain injuries, and it is through these impairments that psychologists are able to understand the mechanism of a particular cognitive process.
The study of the capacity of people to adapt to new circumstances is demonstrated by psychology through the assessment of neurological disorders such as aphasia which occur as a result of brain damage. The disorder refers to a language impairment condition which is characterised by speech comprehension and production difficulties of varying degrees. Psychology reveals the ability to adapt to new situations after brain damage by understanding impairments and brain damage with regards to the underlying functional mechanism. With reference to language, adaptation is well described in cases where the brain is damaged in a region that regulates language. The principle of plasticity allows psychology to explain the adaptation capacity where diverse neurological regions may assume the role of the damaged region and replace the cognitive function of that region.
The capacity of functional restructuring in the brain is dependent on the age of the person, as a person’s brain matures, the degree of neuroplasticity decreases (Tree, 2015). Complex memory functions such as learning and memory are dependent on the ability to respond to external stimuli and generate synapses between neurons; however, as age increases this ability decreases. Particularly, as the brain ages, the grey matter reduces in volume among other changes such as the degeneration of cortical regions which control the functions of memory, sensation, motor control and cognition. As such, the brain’s adaptation to new circumstances becomes more difficult; the performance of difficult tasks requires a more significant effort and so is the learning process. As the brain matures, the changes that occur reduce the learning capacity and skill execution ability. Therefore, the capacity to adapt to new circumstances after an experience that damages the brain is reliant on the individual’s age. The adaptation process is through the transfer of brain functions to particular cerebral regions other those initially designed to perform the functions. Thus, psychology is able to explain that the capacity to adapt to a condition that causes brain damage is facilitated by neuroplasticity. Changes occurring in the brain drive behavioural change that enables the development of skills for survival.
Studies such as those of Broca and Wernick underpin the understanding that specific functions are assigned to either the left or right hemisphere of the brain. The allocated functions are not rigidly allocated to one region, but the brain is plastic enough to allow the functions performed by one region to shift and be performed in another area of the brain. Experimental data support the studies and advance the idea of brain plasticity with evidence from the experiments. The developed hypothesis regarding neuroplasticity facilitates brain reorganisation when needed so that sensory signals can be processed in a different brain region in case the allocated area suffers damage.
Adaptation to new circumstances is further supported by the idea that new experiences that involve learning are similar to the creation of new links between neurons through their synchronized and recurrent activation. Experience has the ability to change the structure of neurons, and consequently, the signals sent thereby influencing the behaviour of the individual. It, therefore, means that even for people with brain lesions, and congenital impairments, their neuronal structure can be modified to allow the development of new neural connection. As such, these people will be able to adapt to their new condition since increased connections improve information flow.
Psychology has managed to leverage child development in understanding the ability to adapt to new circumstances. Under child development, the theory of attachment is among those that describe adaptation in infants. It focuses on the attachment aspects of the infant and the caregiver and postulates that other than the infant being influenced by the caregiver, the infant also controls and influences the caregiver’s behaviour to fulfil their needs for security and safety. The conduct of an infant influences the behaviour of other adults and triggers them to respond to the infant’s needs. Infants display factors such as the display of separation anxiety which is caused by separation from the caregiver or Stanger anxiety caused by interacting with unfamiliar faces in an attempt to provoke behavioural change on the adult. It is suggested that the relationship between the caregiver and the baby moulds the infant’s perception of relationships which guides the baby’s relationship with other people and the care provider during infancy and even later in life. Bowlby the theory developer refers to these systems as the internal working model of attachment (Holliman and Critten, 2015 p. 52).
The main focus of early childhood is survival; the characteristics developed are as a result of multifaceted interactions which are beyond just nature and nurture. By influencing the behaviour of adults and caregivers, infants are able to promote their survival needs. Additionally, the interactions are also found to be effective in enhancing the formation of attachment bonds and socio-emotional development.
Adaptation is also described through the theory of mind development which is based on the concept of egocentrism. , and it majorly focuses on the capacity to understand the beliefs and mental states of other people (Holliman and Critten, 2015 p. 64). It is described through a two-way process; the first step relates to the ability to identify our mental states. It is all about recognising that as human beings we have our own beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. The second step is about being aware that others may have a different mind from our own. It is about recognising the different states of mind and being able to make inferences about what others are feeling or thinking.
Egocentrism dominates the first stages of childhood while the second step appears later on although its formation begins at an earlier stage. The concept is relevant in describing adaptation as it demonstrates the stages of self-identification followed by the recognition of other people’s beliefs. The ability to transits from being egocentric to recognising the thought of other people is essential for survival. It allows one to infer the thought of another person and therefore being able to read their mind. Mindreading facilitates the understanding of intentions. Before one engages with another person, it is essential they develop an understanding of mutual intentions. Social interactions are based collaborations formed through intention understanding. The ability to read minds and subsequently intentions is essential for survival since one can identify when the thoughts of another person may be dangerous and therefore take the necessary action.
Everyday social interactions are permeated by the theory of mind, from infancy to adulthood, the concept continuously recurs and thereby influencing social relationships. The approach impacts the learning process by influencing what is learnt and how it is learnt. Children learn about interactions depending on the development of their mind theory as it influences their judgment of fairness in actions as well as their personal evaluation. Meinhardt-Injac et al. (2018) address this issue and assert that the capacity to comprehend and make sense of other humans’ behaviours is essential in the development of social interactions. However, the process of making sense of others by ascribing mental states to people is still the unresolved challenge.
Cognitive skills and brain structure are capable of changing at any point in our life to allow us to learn and improve our skills. Through these changes, our brains are able to adapt to conditions as necessary. Neuroscience has shown that adaptation is accomplished through brain modifications to allow for other regions to take up function not initially allocated to that area. These structural changes are present throughout the human life but tends to decrease as the brain matures. Child development is another field identified as fundamental in psychology as it facilitates the understanding of adaptation to circumstances. Learning theories that are applicable since childhood influence social interactions and response to changing environments. Infants develop fundamental skills for survival in early life which are crucial in shaping attachment and behaviour modification. Learning about other mental state is also a significant factor in child development and preparation for social interactions.
Blanco, C. (2014). The principal sources of William James’ idea of habit. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8(274).
Meinhardt-Injac, B., Daum, M., Meinhardt, G. and Persike, M. (2018). The Two-Systems Account of Theory of Mind: Testing the Links to Social- Perceptual and Cognitive Abilities. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12.
Tree, J. (2015) ‘How does my brain work? Neuroscience and plasticity’, in Open University Course Team, From Cognitive to Biological: Investigating Psychology Book 2. 1st ed. Maidenhead: Open University, p. 279-321.
Holliman, A. and Critten, S. (2015) ‘What is the point of childhood? Early experiences and social relationships’, in Open University Course Team From Biological to Developmental: Investigating Psychology Book. 1st ed. Maidenhead: Open University, p. 43-90.