Neurobiology of Brain Plasticity and Pattern Recognition – Prof Gordon Parker

Posted on: January 13, 2017
Last Updated: August 29, 2022

Professor Gordon Parker AO is Scientia Professor of Psychiatry, UNSW, was Founder of the Black Dog Institute and its initial Executive Director, Head of the School of Psychiatry at UNSW and Director of the Division of Psychiatry at Prince of Wales Hospital.

In 2018 he received the prestigious James Cook Medal from the Royal Society of New South Wales, and was recipient of the 2020 Australian Mental Health Prize.  His research has focussed on the mood disorders. He has published 23 books and over 1,000 scientific reports.

Even thoughts can change the structure and function of the brain.


Prof. Gordon Parker covers the neurobiological underpinnings of brain plasticity and talks about how our brain functions as a computer processing information allowing us to recognise patterns that we then use in clinical practice.

Key Messages

The London Taxi Driver Study is a wonderful example of the ‘neuroplastic brain’. Structural MRIs of the brains of licensed London taxi drivers, were analyzed and compared with those of control subjects who did not drive taxis. The study found that the posterior hippocampi of taxi drivers were significantly larger relative to those of control subjects.

How might our brains process patterns?

Our brains work like computers and have computational models approximating those of Bayesian probability.

Human beings have only a weak ability to process logic, but a very deep core capability of recognizing patterns

– Kurzweil

Humans have a capacity store of 300 million pattern processors, each composed of 3 parts – input, pattern recognition, and output – all involving axons and dendrites.

How is it relevant for Clinical Reasoning?

  • Clinical reasoning, therefore, consists of iteration between discipline-based information (‘the evidence’) plus observational analysis
  • Pattern analysis is advanced and recalibrated by progressive clinical encounters and less by evidence
  • It needs thousands of hours of practice and refinement to hone

What are the implications?

Compared to lower species, the human brain is particularly advanced in its ability to fabricate new patterns and transfer them to others. This Superior Pattern Processing (SPP) ability has been fundamental to the development of new technologies and to the dissemination of knowledge of the world and its societies. 

Computers can now perform many types of pattern processing and are increasingly used to replace people in positions such as accounting, data processing and manufacturing. While computers still fall considerably short of humans in the realms of invention and scientific discovery, one might imagine that as understanding of the mechanisms by which neural circuits in the human brain process patterns increases, computers and robots may equal or even surpass humans in the areas of creativity, invention and even scientific discovery.

Artificial intelligence is an active area of investigation involving efforts to mimic the brain’s SPP capabilities on the one hand, and to interface the brain with machines, on the other hand. A better understanding of SPP mechanisms, at the molecular, cellular, neuronal network and behavioral levels will not only advance knowledge of brain function and neurological disorders, but may also inform research in wide range of fields of technology.

– Mattson


Learn more

Prof Parker discusses how pattern analysis has altered his way of thinking between explicit and implicit modes of reasoning.

  1. Pattern Analysis and Clinical Reasoning by Prof. Gordon Parker
  2. Introduction to Pattern Analysis By Prof Gordon Parker
  3. Pattern Analysis: Q&A session With Prof Gordon Parker


  1. Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (James H. Silberman Books).
  2. Kurzweil, R. (2012). How to create a mind: The secret of human thought revealed. Penguin.
  3. Mattson, M. P. (2014). Superior pattern processing is the essence of the evolved human brain. Frontiers in neuroscience, 8.