Published on:8 June, 2019
British neuroscientist, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, has shown that the human brain continues to learn, evolve and adapt throughout its life. Her work on the plasticity of the human brain is a tonic for those of us who are keen to learn new skills and push our minds to places it has not gone before.
“The idea that the brain is somehow fixed in early childhood which was an idea that was very strongly believed up until recently, is completely wrong. There’s no evidence that the brain is somehow set and can’t change after early childhood. In fact, it goes through this very large development throughout adolescence and right into the 20s and 30s, and even after that it’s plastic forever; the plasticity is a baseline state no matter how old you are.” – Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College, London (Source: “The Adolescent Brain” in “Thinking” edited by John Brockman (2013))
A visit to the Strand bookstore changed my life
Like most people around me, I grew up with the notion that the human brain can only grow and evolve through childhood and into adolescence. As per this school of thought by our early 20s our mental evolution maxes out. Like other believers of this school of thought, once I entered my 30s, I spent my weekends browsing magazines, watching movies and hanging out with friends & family. I had convinced myself when our first child was born that since I had a demanding job, I deserved my weekend downtime.
Then in 2013 during a visit to the massive Strand bookstore in New York, I stumbled upon a book of essays called “Thinking: the New Science of Decision Making” (edited by John Brockman, a literary agent and author specializing in scientific literature). These essays on how our mind works included an especially interesting piece by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a professor in Cognitive Neuroscience at University College, London.
Ms Blakemore said in her essay that the human brain continues to evolve well into the 40s. Furthermore, she highlighted cutting edge research which shows that human brain – at all ages – is immensely plastic (i.e. flexible) insofar as it can learn new skills fairly rapidly and adapt to new challenges. In the subsequent weeks, I googled more of her research pieces and TED talks. Her work not only inspired the last chapter of my first bestselling book “Gurus of Chaos: Modern India’s Money Masters” (2014), it also changed the way I view my ability to develop my 43-year old mind further.
The human brain says “Use it or Lose it”
In her first full length book “Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain” (2018), Ms Blakemore has now summarised for non-scientists like me what cutting edge science has to say about the trainability and the plasticity of the human brain regardless of edge. Her work has immense relevance for professionals like us and for our children.
Firstly, Ms Blakemore reiterates that “Even though brain development seems to level off at some point, the brain never stops being capable of change. Plasticity – the brain’s capacity to adapt to changing environmental stimuli – is in action all the time, whenever learning takes place, and there’s no age limit on it. Plasticity enables us to learn and we can learn new information at any age.”
Ms Blakemore gives compelling examples in her book of how neuroscientists have figured out the plasticity of the human brain: “Brain changes can be rapid – even occurring over a matter of days. In a study of how the sensory and motor areas of the adult brain can adapt according to how they are used, adults who were new to piano learned a simple piano exercise for hours a day for five days. The area of the brain that controls finger movements (the motor cortex) increased in volume and became more active in these participants compared with a control group who had not learned the exercise.”
Secondly, Ms Blakemore highlights repeatedly in her book that the way the brain seems to have a strong tendency of “Use it or Lose it” i.e. if we don’t exercise certain parts of our brains often enough, those parts of our brain seem to regress: “A number of studies have looked at learning to juggle. One of these studies carried out by Arne May and colleagues at the University of Regensburg in Germany scanned people’s brains before and after they had practised juggling three balls every day for three months. At the end of this time, two regions of the jugglers’ brains that process visual motion information had grown in size. But after the passage of another three months, during which the same people had not done any juggling, these regions had returned to their previous size.”
Thirdly, Ms Blakemore gives us a more nuanced picture of how the brain learns to adapt to the world around us. She says that there are two different types of plasticity: “Experience-dependent plasticity…is the brain’s ability to adapt to new information and underlies new learning at any age.” The brain retains this type of plasticity throughout our lives. “Experience-dependent plasticity in the adult brain generally occurs as a function of usage. In other words, the adult brain continuously adapts to changes in its environment. Learning to play tennis or a musical instrument, learning new vocabulary or new computer software; all these are examples of tasks that require experience-dependent plasticity. There is no age limit to this kind of learning, which can and does occur throughout life.”
On the other hand, “Experience-expectant plasticity is the readiness of the brain to respond to sensory input from its environment at the appropriate stage of development…An example of early experience-expectant plasticity…is the mechanism by which an infant learns the sound of his or her language…For some functions to develop normally, such as recognising the sound of one’s own language, the baby must receive appropriate sensory input from its environment at the appropriate stage of development…If a child is deprived of a particular kind of input (say, speech) during that important period, it will be difficult for that function…to develop normally”.
Whether we are managing our clients’ monies or our company or indeed our lives, Ms Blakemore’s work should spur us to keep learning and keep pushing our minds. Science now shows that age is no bar to hitting the high mental notes even as we grow older. Warren Buffett is in his 80s and Charlie Munger is in his 90s. Both are going strong. My paternal grandfather, a solicitor in Kolkata, passed away a few years ago aged 101. Until the age of 90, he was meeting clients to resolve their Income Tax issues. Until the age of 80, he was the President of his profession’s trade body in Kolkata. Further afield, we can see that the leading fiction writers in English are 60+. In non-fiction, Jared Diamond wrote his pathbreaking book “Guns, Germs & Steel” in his 60s.
If you combine what Ms Blakemore is saying regarding the plasticity of our brain with Malcolm Gladwell’s ’10,000 hours rule’ i.e. with 10,000 hours of deliberate, purposeful practice almost anyone can become an expert in her chosen field (see “Outliers” (2008)), you cannot but walk away with a lifelong commitment to learning and growing your capabilities. And then if you consider how medical advances are allowing us to live longer, you might end up viewing our era as a golden period for those who see life as a never-ending stint at university.
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Saurabh Mukherjea is the author of “The Unusual Billionaires” and “Coffee Can Investing: the Low Risk Route to Stupendous Wealth”.
Note: the above material is neither investment research, nor investment advice. Marcellus Investment Managers is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Board of India as a provider of Portfolio Management Services and as an Investment Advisor.
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