Out of the most terrible of tragedies some good may come. The troubles in Romania a score of years ago brought us face to face with children who from the earliest years had suffered parental neglect. The children, without care and stimulus, had not developed physically, intellectually or emotionally. That crucial first three years of family life in which the formation of the brain normally takes place were missing.
So important is this early development that progressive politicians enthusiastically sponsor programmes designed to ensure that this period is fruitful. But what the Romanian experience taught us is that the development of the brain continues well beyond this period. Neglected children, adopted soon after birth, of course developed normally. But children adopted at, say two, were isolated, in-turned and of low intelligence. To the surprise of orthodox opinion, most of these children largely caught up, mentally and physically, over the next several years. While no one doubted the value of good early experience, we learned that the capacity of the brain was not fixed. It could still grow.
In fact, the potential for growth remains throughout life, and this heralds the possibility of discovering more efficient ways of training the brain to be more effective. Indeed, there has been something of a boom in brain games – without, as yet, the evidence that these produce any marked general improvement. But interesting work is being done in developing exercises which are claimed to assist in learning difficulties such as dyslexia. But it is well established that memory connections and span can be increased.
I have previously mentioned the increased hippocampus of the taxi driver who has mastered the streets of London. On a smaller scale the part of the cortex which controls left hand movement will be enlarged in the professional violinist. And I have no doubt, without the need for a scan, that the range of scientific reading I have needed to write on a wide range of scientific subjects for this column has broadened the contents of my memory – without being the slightest help in my finding my snuffbox or the screwdriver I put down five minutes ago.
The knowledge that in adolescence the brain has growth spurts in the areas concerned with planning and social interaction suggests, for instance, that the opportunity to teach these skills may be important at this stage. I can confirm from anecdotal experience, while working with young people, that these areas are ones to which they instinctively respond. But do they appear in the school curriculum?
The capacity to develop the brain has called into question the mantra of self-esteem: the educational approach which holds that students should be given great confidence in the excellence of their own achievements. This, it is argued, encourages them to go further. But this is now questionable. It is those students who are congratulated and supported in their hard work of learning, rather than in their actual achievements, who tend to do best. How many people excuse themselves from mastering even elementary mathematics on the comforting grounds that, since they are not a “maths person”, it doesn’t matter? The truth is that even those who find maths difficult can, with a bit of hard work, make rewarding progress.
There is in fact a whole science of the methodology of learning, from the techniques for reading and digesting a text, to the various ways in which material can be remembered or complex information analysed, to the methods of revision which actually work. When I made an audiotape on the subject some years ago, a senior teacher who was providing a voiceover said to me: “I wonder why I was never taught this in teacher training.” Indeed.
Another area of interest is the neurotransmitter dopamine. This is a powerful aid in enabling learning through stimulating brain connections. If we can harness it effectively it may well enhance our learning rate considerably. Current experiments show limited success, but there is real potential there.
The brain has many tricks at its command. For instance, some damaged functions can be replaced by the development of new, equivalent structures. The brain appears to have an innate tendency to repair or substitute faculties which have been damaged. The visual cortex of a blind person can take over part of the auditory cortex, promoting a sensitivity of hearing and providing a spatial sense. Perhaps a less welcome phenomenon is the claim of some schizophrenics to hear voices. But it’s more than a claim: neuron response in the auditory cortex confirms that the voices are actually heard.
The ability of the brain to grow and change, known as its plasticity, is a new discipline, dating back for no more than about 15 years. And the neuroscientists rightly regard it as a field which can bring enormous benefits. I hear reports of schools which keep even their young pupils abreast with neuroscience. It is believed, and I think reasonably so, that understanding how the brain learns is a valuable aid, enabling the learners to use and develop approaches which maximise and respect the power of the brain – and to recognise and manage its limitations.
While we may be inclined to see neuroscience as a potential threat to our freedoms it is rewarding to study an area which suggests that our growing knowledge has much to offer. Brains which can continue to develop, and which have self-healing and repair facilities, and which we can learn to employ more constructively, give us hope for the future.
With some knowledge of neuroscience our early reaction is that perhaps we are servants of our brains – at least to a substantial degree. But discovering that the brain grows and develops is encouraging. Although we know little about as yet it does seem that we will gradually learn how to train our brains. They may yet become our servants rather than our masters.