My initial interest in this subject began with its application in early childhood development. It was only in recent times that I wondered if I might apply it to the Mom Brain as a means of maintaining output without degradation of quality. The general advice for handling the memory loss associated with motherhood is to cut back on activities and to expect less of yourself – kind of hard to do when there isn’t a single thing I want to drop and plenty more things I would like to add to an already overflowing plate.
Sherlock Holmes once told Watson (I believe it was in “A Study in Scarlet“) that the brain is like an attic and it can only store so many things in it therefore he always made it a point to choose carefully what he wanted to keep in his attic and discard whatever else that he considered to be rubbish. To continue the analogy, this effort is, in essence, an attempt to renovate that attic so it becomes larger and capable of storing more.
Before I read “The Brain That Changes Itself“, I would have thought that the only answer to this “motherly” problem was to accept our limitations, forever live with a notebook in hand, and concede the fact that inspite of all my efforts, there will be slip-ups. However, Chapter 3 talks of Michael Merzenich, a scientist that changes brains to sharpen perception and memory, increase speed of thought, and heal learning problems. How he does is it by training specific processing areas of the brain that he refers to as “brain maps”. Through his work in neuroplasticity, he has already helped congenitally deaf children to hear, learning-disabled students to improve their cognition and perception, and improved the cognitive difficulties that Austistic children face. Merzenich believes that
“brain exercises may be as useful as drugs to treat diseases as severe as schizophrenia; that plasticity exists from the cradle to the grave; and that radical improvements in cognitive functioning — how we learn, think, perceive, and remember — are possible even in the elderly.”
Radical claims, but inspiring ones if you think of the significance this has for both our children and ourselves. By changing the structure of our brains, we can increase it’s capacity to learn so that even adults can develop new skills, such as a second language “effortlessly”. The brain is not that empty attic that we fill but a living organism that is continuously learning how to learn and how to perform functions more efficiently.
In one basic experiment they mapped a monkey’s sensory cortex. Then they trained it to touch a spinning disk with its fingertip, with just the right amount of pressure for ten seconds to get a banana-pellet reward. This required the monkey to pay close attention, learning to touch the disk very lightly and judge time accurately. After thousands of trials, Merzenich and Jenkins remapped the monkey’s brain and saw that the area mapping the monkey’s fingertip had enlarged as the monkey had learned how to touch the disk with the right amount of pressure. The experiment showed that when an animal is motivated to learn, the brain responds plastically.
The experiment also showed that as brain maps get bigger, the individual neurons get more efficient in two stages. At first, as the monkey trained, the map for the fingertip grew to take up more space. But after a while individual neurons within the map became more efficient, and eventually fewer neurons were required to perform the task.
In other words, the more we practice a skill, not only do we become more proficient at it, we also require less neurons to perform the skill in question because our neurons become more specialised and more efficient freeing other neurons to add or practice new skills. As neurons are trained, they become more efficient and faster, and the signals they send become clearer. That means with proper brain training, we can increase the speed of our thoughts.
This reminds me of the 10,000 hours of practice rule. Think of a concert pianist who plays music seemingly without thinking, and the professional tennis player who seems to play on instinct. They have honed their specific skills so that the thoughts related to these actions appear to be non-existent, but in reality, they just happen a lot faster than in regular individuals.
I wonder, too, if this is why Right Brain Education Speed Play helps children to remember bulk information more easily. Do the activities in right brain education constitute the kind of brain training Merzenich referred to? Right brain education also helps to sharpen perception and memory and increase the speed of thought in the children who receive it.
The other thing Merzenich discovered was that when we multi-task, we don’t learn effectively. It is only in paying close attention to what we are learning that we create long-term plastic changes to our brains.
In numerous experiments he found that lasting changes occurred only when his monkeys paid close attention. When the animals performed tasks automatically, without paying attention, they changed their brain maps, but the changes did not last. We often praise “the ability to multitask.” While you can learn when you divide your attention, divided attention doesn’t lead to abiding change in your brain maps.
We know that adults don’t learn well when they multi-task, but can the same be said of young children when their attention is divided? Pamela Hickein from TweedleWink talk about young children’s ability to learn new information even when they appear not to be paying attention. Some time back I read an article that said this was due to the fact that a young child’s mind is like the light from a lantern that disperses its light all around it, whereas adult minds are like a torch that shines only at one point. It is evident that children learn much more easily than adults because their brains are wired differently but what does multi-tasking do to their learning ability? More food for thought.
If our brains can be re-designed so that our perception and memory becomes sharper and our speed of thought faster, how is it done? Well, I haven’t quite gotten to that part yet. More soon. If you can’t wait, just get the book – The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge.
- Michael Merzenich on the Elastic Brain
- The Fantastic Plastic Brain
- Michael Merzenich – Rewiring the Brain