Plastic fantastic – how the brain grows

Stress BallA major new idea was presented to the world in 1991, to many it will mean very little but in terms of improving our understanding of the brain it was a milestone.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) had seen its roots in the earlier MRI, but instead of creating images of organs and tissues, fMRI looks at blood flow in the brain to detect areas of activity and so show how the brain works in real time.

The implications of this for learning are significant because for the first time we were able to identify which parts of the brain were reacting when different tasks were being performed. For example, we know that the cerebrum which is the largest part of the brain performs higher functions such as interpreting touch, vision, hearing, speech, emotions etc.

Brain plasticity

But it is the next discovery that is far more interesting from a learning perspective. For many years the common belief was that brain functionality (intelligence) was to a certain extent hard wired, largely genetic, with a fixed number of neurons. It probably didn’t help that the computer gave us a simile for how the brain worked which was misleading.

That all changed when it became possible to observe the brain and watch how it responded to what it saw and was asked to do. What this showed was that the brain has the ability to generate new cells, a process called Neurogenesis.

Click here to listen to neuroscientist Sandrine Thuret explain how humans can generate new brain cells i.e. Neurogenesis.

This may make sense for children given the basic brain functionality when a child is born, something must be happening to turn them into caring and thoughtful adults. In fact, by adolescence the brain has produced so many synapse, the connections between cells, they have to be cut back or pruned. Hence the term synaptic pruning.  What was perhaps more of a surprise was that growing new brain cells was not just something children could do, adults were able to do it as well.

The classic example is the evidence by Professor Eleanor Maguire from the Wellcome Trust Centre and colleague Dr Katherine Woollett who followed a group of 79 trainee taxi drivers and 31 controls (non-taxi drivers). Their research showed that London taxi drivers developed a greater volume of grey matter i.e.  cell development, three to four years after passing “the knowledge”  when compared to the control group.

Learning about learning

This may leave you thinking, all very interesting but what does it mean for me as a student?

In the same way that people can develop a growth mindset, bringing it within your control, you can do the same with your academic performance. Just because you don’t understand something or pick it up very quickly doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to. This is not to say that some people are not “brighter” than others, it is estimated that around 50%/60% of your intelligence is genetic, but that’s on the assumption your brain cannot change, and what this proves is it can.

And here is one last interesting observation, knowing how the brain works can actually help rewire it. There is evidence that students who know more about how they learn, (meta cognition) will naturally reflect on what they are doing when they are learning which in turn will help grow new cells, how good is that.