The Plastic Brain

I’ve been fascinated by research in learning and the brain for sometime.  I recently wrote a blog posting summarizing various authors who have written about learning and education.  A common thread was the value of “tinkering” in learning and the loss of tacit knowledge as the new world order glorifies being a “knowledge worker” and we optimize the education system for fact retention while ignoring “hands-on” learning and tacit knowledge.  What they point out is various trades focused on fixing things are very intensely “knowledge” based and the practitioners have in fact reached the pinnacle of knowledge workers, although they are not recognized for this and in fact made fun of (or is it made the “butt” of jokes as is the case with plumbers 🙂 ).  Their conclusion is the intellectual capacity of a good mechanic is beyond reproach in the world of knowledge workers and we need to recognize that fact not denigrate it.

The articles also point out that schools need to provide more hands-on “tinkering” to facilitate self-developed knowledge or what is sometimes called being a “life-long learner”.  The skills a learner acquires through tinkering are commonly those many companies and disciplines claim are largely missing in the highly educated knowledge workers they interview for jobs.  Spending more time in front of a TV is an ominous trend.  Playing video games, which does deeply engage the hand and brain and does deeply involve problems and solutions, doesn’t include the complexity and cussedness of the real world, real materials and real frustrations of making “things” do what your vision requires.  Games often create the illusion of tacit knowledge about the world, but in fact, they don’t provide it.  There is a lot to value in getting your knuckles cracked, seeing wood splinter, metal bend when it shouldn’t and paint not adhere where you wanted.  Those are “cussedness problems” and they can teach very important skills for living a full life.

This lead me to more content that discussed techniques to correct learning disabilities.  A friend, Phil Kastelic, and I had tea one afternoon and got onto this topic.  He provided me a link to Frank Wilson who is a neurologist and an internationally respected authority on the neurological basis of skilled hand use for over two decades. He is the author of “The Hand: How its use shapes the brain, language, and human culture“, published in 1998 by Pantheon books and nominated that year for a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.  And here’s a video of a PBS interview with him by David Gergen in 1998.  This confirms the strong relationship between body and mind, and suggests that tacit knowledge requires the two to interact for knowledge to be developed.  One technique relied on physical restraint and manual manipulation of the body to overcome learning problems.  The implication in this work is that the brain and the limbs are tightly coupled in the learning process.  That was very interesting as it strongly suggests the dualism of mind and body is suspect at some level (perhaps at every level?).  There is a correlation between lack of fluid body movement, learning trauma and lack of fluid thinking, and that struck me as a very significant finding.  It reinforces the connection between hands-on work and tacit knowledge.  It makes the “nature vs nurture” question and all debates about it irrelevant.  It’s not an OR that’s going on here, it’s an AND with the brain’s plasticity providing the new element in the learning equation.

My son Devin’s fiancee, Rachel, provided me a copy of  a very interesting and well written book, “The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science” by Norman Doidge.  Well, that provided a nice foundation for overthrowing a lot of orthodoxy and substituting a new framework for “learning how to learn”.  There are some TED talks by two of the researchers mentioned in Doidge’s book, Vilayaner Ramachandran and Michael Merzenich which provide some color on their work and thinking.  Ramachandran has a striking story about vision and phantom limbs.  And, he shows how a simple tool, a mirror, was used to overcome this in a patient.

The Doidge book makes it clear that the brain has a plasticity property.  In some cases of learning disability and brain damage, proper exercises for the brain can exploit the plasticity to overcome the disability and damage to the brain and/or sensory organs.  I found it very interesting that the “exercises” bear little resemblance to the “fact drill” exercises commonly used in school.  The plasticity exercises are quite different since they are designed to exploit how the brain creates and destroys the neural networks that underlie motor skills, sensory processing and learning.  This suggests that plasticity exercises could be a valuable tool in K-12 public education for “normal” and “disabled” students.  Ah… so tinkering could be thought of as a form of plasticity exercise for the brain.  Perhaps that’s it.

Finally, I came across this interview with Neuro-scientist and artist Beau Lotto on TED.  Once again, the material is focused on the senses and the plasticity of the brain in using them to learn about it’s surroundings.   His thesis is the brain is designed to constantly process raw sensory input and create meaning out of it.  It frequently treats the new as some variation of the previous, and connects them.  That has very deep implications for social interactions, cultural interactions and public education.  (In fact, he took some of his findings out of the lab to … public education, particularly to “disadvantaged” kids.  Very interesting.).

The point I want to make here is that brain plasticity has sharp edges.  If the brain “changes itself” per Doidge’s book, then many “beliefs” we have are really plasticity patterns that are reinforced as we constantly use them to make sense out of the world.  Plasticity is a tool and it defines the tendency we have to take new input and quickly map it to existing plasticity patterns.  So, when we are arguing about our beliefs we don’t easily stop this internal process, and we can’t if we don’t understand how brain plasticity influences our behavior.  If we want to engage in changing beliefs, we need to engage in the destruction and rebuilding of the neuron processing patterns that underlie brain plasticity.  We have to knowingly stop the brain’s automatic mapping of the new content to the old plasticity pattern.  That’s hard to do unless we can practice some specific brain exercises to teach us how to do this.

It’s even more challenging if you want someone to understand a new belief you have about values and it is in conflict with their current values and beliefs.   How do you get them to destroy old brain plasticity patterns and build new ones based on interacting with you?  (For a practical example in how difficult this is, consider the world-wide “war on terror” and the notion of suicide bombing.  Is suicide bombing an example of a value system clash?  Is the value of self-destruction for the greater glory of Allah an outward manifestation of a learned plasticity pattern? If so, how do you affect lasting changes to those values and the underlying brain plasticity?) Tricky stuff and certainly an area for more research and understanding.

My youngest son, Branden, is currently in college with a major in primary education.  I’ve been sharing much of this material with him for digestion. The model of a plastic brain, its methods of creating neuronal processing subsets for sensory input, the role of body / brain interaction in learning, and how to create culture and community from shared beliefs are at the heart of being a teacher.  This research provides a lot of new tools and opportunities to be innovative in public education.  Of course, it also opens one up to investigating useful “plasticity exercises” we all can use when we need to learn efficiently.   Anyone working in the 21st century will find learning efficiently becomes a “survival of the fittest” skill.   And more broadly, as communications connects what once were infrequently communicating cultures, how would you change your behavior in a “values” or “beliefs” argument based on this research?