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Neuroplasticity: Experience and Your Brain

The brain is without doubt our most fascinating organ. Parents, educators, and society as a whole
have a tremendous power to shape the wrinkly universe inside each child's head, and, with it, the kind
of person he or she will turn out to be. We owe it to our children to help them grow the best brains
possible.
Lise Eliot,
What is Going in There?

There are overlapping interests and intentions in neuroscience, teaching and parenting. Perplexed by
what does and does not happen as they try to facilitate learning, parents and educators are now among
the most voracious consumers of the latest research on what, when, and how to apply brain science at
home and in academic institutions. We all actively search for strategies to enhance learning and early
brain development, in order to improve (1) the efficiency of information encoding, (2) the endurance
of memory, and (3) the effective use of stored information. Educators and parents are finally finding a
wealth of new answers coming from the cognitive neurosciences.

Amazing new discoveries from the field of neuroscience are reported in the print and visual media
almost daily. Twenty Nobel prizes have been awarded to neuroscientists during the past 26 years, as
new windows into the inner workings of the human brain are opening up at near blinding speeds.
Brain experts themselves find keeping pace with this explosion of research a new challenge.

We often say that we go to school to learn or that we learn in school. However, learning takes
place inside the brain anywhere and we take our brains for an experience that we encode as a memory.
The mind is what the brain does, and our cerebral universe never stops moving and changing until we
stop learning due to severe brain trauma, disease or death. Learning impacts how the brain gets built
during its early developmental stages and the ways in which the brain is modified over a lifetime (see
chart #1 Neuroplasticity). UCLA neuroscientist, Dr. Robert Jacobs found that college graduates
gained up to 40% more brain connections than their counterparts with only a high school diploma or
less education. Other researchers have concluded that we protect our brains from Alzheimers disease
by developing complex brain connections by thinking and learning.

For young children, the stimulation receive from early interactions with people and from playing with
objects encounter determines the manner in which their developing brains get physically wired-up
during crucial post-natal period. During their developmental years, stimulating experiences have a
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decisive impact on brain architecture and the subsequent nature of ones capabilities. Ensembles of
brain cells create new linkages to specific brain structures each time we integrate new learning (often
referred to as acquiring knowledge) by merging it with existing cortical circuitry. Whether children
are learning to crawl or walk, tennis or dance, mathematics or martial arts, or learning two languages
versus one, all learning experiences create brain pathways that capture and store what we know and
who we are. Learning not only changes the nature of brain wiring, but it can also change the property
of brain tissue. As a result, we can think, feel, hear, touch, speak, learn, read, create, respond, and
reflect on any of these experiences later distinguishing our species from all others.

Human knowledge and information is predicted to double every 73 days by the year 2020. The sheer
number of new facts increases at an astronomical rate, but many facts are also quickly rendered
obsolete. The purpose of having a memory is not merely to recall the past (other than in standardized
tests where parroting memorized information is deemed of greater value than the keen ability to
think and process new ideas), but to use our cognitive resources with minimal errors while navigating
in the present and solving problems in the future. The principles driving neuroscience enjoy a nearly
infinite shelf life and one of the primary concepts from brain science that we should all understand and
apply is that of neuroplasticity.

Although we cannot regenerate limbs in a crustacean-like fashion, we can systematically re-invent our
brains (and thereby ourselves) through neuroplasticity, which can also be broken into the
subcomponents of cortical plasticity, neural plasticity, and synaptic plasticity. Human brain
development provides us with an excellent example of the nature via nurture dance, where the brain
undergoes daily renovations to meet the requirements of adapting in our ever-changing world.
Early mechanistic brain theories thought of the brain as a "machine," believing that, once born, similar
to the permanent design of a machine, the human brain could not physically change its makeup. Of
course, the notable exception was the predictable cognitive decline accompanying aging. Today, we
know that our biological brain undergoes continuous structural and functional reorganization, some
governed by genes, but most orchestrated by neuroplasticity.

In the 20th century, the field of genetics was widely accepted as the unquestioned basis of our
predetermined human characteristics, displacing John Lockes 17th century contrasting notion of the
tabula rasa, which instead suggested that the human mind was a blank slate where our competencies,
including intelligence and personality, were developed. Locke and others argued that the environment
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indelibly etched its signature on each individual. Contrary to the followers of eugenics, the brain is
neither fixed nor immutable. The subsequent nature vs. nurture binary dispute continues to collapse
today under the weight of a mounting body of divergent evidence. Yes, we enter the world with
hardwired brain physiology already set, but we are also granted with infinite sculpting opportunities
whereby each brain is reshaped into its own individualized configuration.

Open architecture" is computer science terminology used to describe processing systems that can
adapt themselves to match sudden shifts in user requirements. In neuroscience, brain plasticity refers to
the flexible nature of the brain permitting it to modify, not only its structures, but the brains innerneural cognitive mechanisms as well. Changes in brain function occur as the brain re-wires itself in
response to new demands placed on it by the external environment. Neuroplasticity is the trusted ally
that the malleable brain turns to in order to thrive by crafting environmentally-appropriate survival
strategies. Brain plasticity underlies the brains extraordinary capacity to learn, unlearn and re-learn.

How is your brain organized?


A significant aspect in human brain processing is coding sensory stimulation. Information enters the
brain in the form of kinesthetic (touch) and olfactory (taste and smell) experiences that are direct
encounters or occurring within close physical proximity, as well as in the more distant events, which
rely on our auditory (hearing) and visual (seeing) systems. All incoming stimuli, with the exception of
data sent to the olfactory system, are first channeled through the thalamus (the anteroom or the
waiting room where sensory information is sent before going to the cerebral cortex) where input data
is disaggregated into its constituent parts of a single experience. The elements of color, motion, lines
angles, texture, etc., are sent to regions of the cerebral cortex that specialize in processing data of that
particular variety. Comparisons are made to similar aspects from earlier experiences that are already
stored in permanent memory. If a "match" is found (assuming there is one), a rational response is
planned and performed. Our reaction to highly familiar stimuli requires considerably less time for us to
respond, since those reactions frequently become hardwired and automatic. Experience drives brain
development and directs neural traffic.

The rapid biological growth of the young brain system begins a steep developmental trajectory 18 days
after fertilization. Examining the brain at the macro level, healthy infants are typically born with a fully
functioning central nervous system (CNS) and peripheral nervous system (PNS), where basic brain
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structures must be properly wired at the outset for maintaining vital life functions. The brain and spinal
column make up the CNS, whereas the PNS consists of the nerves connecting the CNS to muscles and
body organs, putting the PNS in touch with the CNS, the rest of the body, and the outside world. It is
through first-hand experiences that the brain gets wired-up and quickly develops. Most important, this
is also why computer simulations are no substitute for real-world and real-time learning experiences. A
mere picture of an orange shortchanges the learner who cannot directly experience the smell, texture,
taste, and mass of the orange by touching, feeling, holding, and eating an orange. The representations
of objects and events should always follow the first-hand experiences that they are purported to
represent. Learners create meaning from what they do in their world not from exposure to its
representations. Technology, as a result, has significant developmental limitations during these early
brain-building processes.

While genetics and prenatal influences may calibrate the original brain settings for early structurefunction relationships at birth, the human brain is the only organ that is largely dependent on the
subsequent experiences to decide on which the neural pathways will underlie our astonishing
performance capacities as well as our deficiencies. Author Joseph Epstein stated that, "We are what we
read." Neuroscientists would assert instead that We are what we experience in deference to the
dynamic human brain, were neural circuits are constantly regrouped, reorganized and rerouted based
on the quantity, quality and timing of our experiential transactions. The declarative from neuroscience
has profound implications for what we should do in every home and school.

The cerebral cortex is composed of four large neuro-geographical regions or lobes that can be
subdivided further into as many as 200 functional brain areas. Damage to a particular cortical area will
disrupt or entirely purge the brain of any given competency. Our brains are changing and readjusting
themselves at all times, which is a basic tenet of neuroplasticity, but this all plays an even more vital
role during recovery following brain injury or stroke. With todays brain mapping techniques, we can
predict precisely which behavioral capacities will be diminished or lost through disease, damage or
disuse based on structure-function commonalities found in healthy human brains.

To assist with processing incoming stimuli prior to executing a logical and coherent response, we have
(1) association pathways that link together areas of the cerebral cortex within the same (left or right)
hemisphere, (2) axons, which project from one area of the brain to more distant areas of the brain or
body compose the projection pathways, and (3) the commissural pathways (the corpus callosum, the
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interior and posterior commissures) that connect functional areas found in one hemisphere with the
identical homotopic (same purpose as) area on the opposite side of the brain,. The largest commissure,
the corpus callosum, is composed of over 300 million nerve fibers allowing the left and right
hemispheres to exchange billions of bits of information per second for complex cognitive processing.
Contrary to myths from the popular press, there are no truly left brained or right brained
individuals (with the exception of young hemispherectomy patients). Higher-order multidimensional
capabilities are made possible via the corpus callosum and each association cortex, where information
from multiple brain regions, some multimodal (processing information from more than one sensory
system) in function, eventually converge (binding) as a single unified experience. Although dolphins
can sleep operating on one hemisphere at a time, human brains require that both hemispheres work in
tandem.

Without a high degree of variability in your brain, what makes you any different from the next person?
A unique cytoarchitecture represents the special cellular organization and the precise connections
inside each human brain. Cortical pathways connect the brain stem, cerebellum, the subcortical
structures, including the limbic system, to specific areas of the cortex. The manner in which the
linkages are all joined together can be are rearranged on a minute-by-minute timescale to reflect our
most recent experiences. Since nature only allows one chance to make an imprudent fatal blunder, our
highly adaptable neural circuits correspond to that updated version of a world, full of its delicious
opportunities to pursue, as well as its lethal dangers to avoid. Developing efficient pathways is vital to
our survival.

From a micro perspective, the brain is made up neurons and glial cells (see chart #2 - Neurons). There
are over 150 different kinds of neurons making them the most diverse cell type residing in the entire
human body. The work of each neuron, the network communicators in the brain, is to support the
input/processing/output framework of our experiences. Twenty percent of our neurons are inhibitory
in function, meaning that their job is to suppress network function to stop a particular response or
behavior. ADHD arises from an inability to stop a response to one stimuli and choose to respond in a
more appropriate manner instead. While this is often referred to as an attention deficit it is more
appropriately an executive function deficit. During neurogenesis (the rapid production of brain cells in
utero) neurons are produced at the incredible rate of 250,000 to one million per minute. The neurons
we are born with are the neurons we will need for the balance of our lives, so their care is essential.

The three major responsibilities of the glial cells, a.k.a. the nannies, nursemaids, butlers and personal
assistants to the neurons, are to (1) transport nutrients and oxygen to the neurons, (2) remove debris
and take it away from the neurons, (accomplished primarily by astrocytes and microglia), and (3) to
keep the neurons healthy and alive. Each human brain has over 100 billion neurons, the brains gray
matter composed of neuron cell bodies. However, neurons are vastly outnumbered by glial cells with
10 to 50 times more glial cells than neurons in the human brain.

Neuroscientists are fond of saying that Neurons that fire together, wire together and Neurons not in
sync, do not link. Projecting away from each neuron are dendrites, the tree-like extensions that can
put a single neuron in touch with as many as 200,000 of its neural neighbors for specialized
information sharing, resulting in what we call new thinking and learning. When the brain learns, new
dendrites grow. Early brain theorists believed that with each new memory, a new neuron grew.
Instead, newly learned information is encoded as new dendrites sprout to connect neurons to specific
target sites producing a new neural pathway that represents the experience.

Neuroplasticity gives a young immature brain the flexibility to make new connections quickly linking
hundreds of millions of neurons together forming efficient brain circuits during the first years of life
(see Chart #3: Neural connections). During the early years of life, the brain goes on a connectivity
binge and it is during these stages that children make new learning look so enviously easy. By
changing of the strength of the connections among neurons, by adding or removing connections, by
linking cells together or by eliminating brain cells from existing neural pathways, neuronal activations
change making specific new learning neurophysiologically possible. The word specific must be
underscored here. All learning must be specific and transferable, if it is to have any currency.

In order for us to move, feel and think, neurons relay messages to one another. When neurons "chat"
among themselves, their sole means of communication relies on a combination of electricity and
chemistry. Once incoming stimuli reach a threshold point, a 270 mph electrical impulse fires down
the axon, the elongated portion of a nerve cell (see chart #2 - Neurons.) The chemical component of
this neural transaction occurs by means of over 70 neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) and
neuromodulators. Once the electrical impulse reaches the end of the axon, a tiny pocket of chemicals
bursts sending neurotransmitters (the chemical couriers) across the synapse. The apse means
binding, and syn meaning together, the synapse is a microscopic space separating two theoretically
connected neurons. Synapses in reality are contiguous rather than continuous contact points between
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the message-sending or pre-synaptic neuron and the post-synaptic or message-receiving neuron. As


neurotransmitters cross the synaptic gap they lock into receptors sites on the post-synaptic neuron and
convey their chemical message only if their molecular properties fit the precise configuration of the
receptor sites on the postsynaptic neuron. Over one quadrillion (1,000 trillion or 1015) synaptic
connections can be established inside the human brain. Creating new synapses and delivering the
appropriate types and quantities of neurotransmitters in these chemical communications, is the
foundation of the event we generically call learning.

Brain chemistry performs its masterful work quietly behind the cranial walls prompting cognition and
behavior both of which can be subject to modification by neuropharmacology, synthetic neuro-drugs.
These chemicals affect how we think and behave by increasing or decreasing the likelihood that a
particular group of neurons will fire by changing presynaptic neurotransmitter release or by blocking
a postsynaptic receptor site. Over time, frequently used neural pathways are shielded from neurotoxins
(brain cell killers) and nourished by neurotropics. The memory pill, Nimodipine works by altering
brain chemistry to increase memory, and this remedy is making a backdoor entrance into many
educational institutions raising novel neuroethical questions for parents and educators.

For optimizing message transmission, myelin, a fatty substance, coats the long axonal region of a
neuron, thereby speeding up neural signaling and also insulating the axon from extraneous electrical or
chemical impulses. Inadvertent signals can interfere with nerve impulses coming in from the right
neurons. A breakdown in myelin exposes the axon to misdirected electrical impulses that get diverted
to unintended neurons with devastating mental and physical consequences. Multiple sclerosis is caused
by progressive degeneration of myelin leading to a brutal neurological disorder. Deep myelination
makes large bundles of myelinated nerve fibers appear white producing the white matter designation
inside the brain.

Unlike other body parts that grow in nearly perfect coordinated unison (arms and legs parallel one
another in size, length, girth, etc.) different regions of the brain become heavily myelinated during
completely different periods of child development and adolescence. Pre-programmed "sensitive
periods" open up "windows of opportunity" or limited timelines for promoting important life skills or
competencies. Once myelinated, a performance permanence sets in though. Language learning is
among them.

Each brain comes fully equipped with the capacity to learn any of the 6,000 languages spoken on earth
today, because of the brains open architecture. Consistently hearing the regular sounds (phonemes)
from a given language creates neural connections in the auditory cortex as a child is introduced to the
sounds of the local language into which that child has been born, totally by chance rather than by a
genetic plan. However, the window for language learning begins to close with the onset of puberty
after which time learning any new language will become more difficult and will typically accompanied
by a strong accent.

One significant property of neuroplasticity is that synapses can switch neural partners "on-the-fly"
depending on the frequency, strength, and regularity of on-going input from the environment. Instead
of hosting static brain connections, synapses are highly dynamic and enormously plastic constantly
allowing for new neuronal realignments. Synaptic proliferation is the prenatal overproduction of
synapses that gives human brains the wherewithal to adapt to an infinite range of languages, climates,
diets and social settings. This neural insurance policy guarantees that an infant born in San Francisco,
Shanghai, or Soweto can flourish with ease in his/her surroundings.

In the first two decades of life, we monitor a human brain that continues to re-wire and prune away
connections at a feverish nonstop pace of dynamic self-reorganization as experience dictates brain
structure, function, and processing. This soft-wired aspect of neural plasticity operates by the use-it-orlose-it principle.

There is an old story about a man who daily walked from his farmhouse to his barn, which was situated
quite a distance away. After following the same path day in and day out, it became a groove. Walking
to the barn could almost be accomplished blindfolded, since the deep channel could steer him back on
the path and directly to the barn without concentrating. Deviations off course virtually impossible as
the behavior approached automaticity. Pathways in the brain follow a similar pattern. Infrequently
used neural circuits are pruned away. Neural pathways in the brain are strengthened with repeated use,
while neglect weakens networks making them unreliable and eventually dooming them to elimination.

When used repeatedly, neural pathways are fortified, nourished and thereby readied for effective future
deployment. Pruning helps the brain protect itself from devoting precious brain resources to useless
networks and inefficient over-wiring. Dysfunction can occur as a consequence of no pruning,
incomplete pruning and/or pruning in the wrong areas. Developmental abnormalities as well as a
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complete lack of opportunities to develop skills will impact brain development and pave the way for
correlative deficiencies. In the absence of nearby land, some tadpoles will arrest the natural process of
metamorphosis into frogs, because the environmental conditions suggest that such a change is by no
means beneficial to survival. Instead, those tadpoles remain swimmers.

Apoptosis, programmed cell death, eliminates unneeded neurons in a manner comparable to roads that
are seldom traveled, which fall into disrepair leading to a cycle of further disuse and increased neglect.
They eventually are closed down for good. Unused skills suffer a similar neural fate that we call
forgetting. While memory failures are generally consequences of degraded neural networks,
accelerated memory loss is more commonly associated with stress, aging (dementia) or acute brain
damage. Decreased usage of learned skills reduces any nurturing of their representative networks
negatively impacting memory and performance. Computer keyboarding on daily basis, bypassing
pencils and paper leads to a noticeable and expected decline in penmanship for most of us.

Different species vary in the degree of plasticity bestowed on them by Mother Nature, who offers a
mutually exclusive trade-off between instinct and flexibility. Those life forms whose behavior is
dominated by instinct, have brains that leave little room for neuroplasticity (e.g. reptiles, fish,
amphibians, insects, etc.), but are highly efficient. Correspondingly, they have highly inflexible
systems that are also characterized by a limited behavioral repertoire and a low adaptability quotient.
Fortunately, human brains were shaped by evolutionary pressures have moved humans forward toward
the upper end of the neuroplasticity continuum with wide-ranging variability in behaviors. An
intriguing example of the flexibility of the human brain is demonstrated when our brains accommodate
manufactured stimuli that may come in multiple patterns and formats, but still accepting them as the
same object (see Chart #4: The Letter A).

Just as enrichment studies have shown that the best environments can serve as a constructive catalyst
that catapults learning and development to peak performance levels, neuroplasticity also has a much
darker side with alarming dimensions. Infant that are born with eyes misaligned will prevent the visual
cortex from encoding stimuli properly for developing normal vision. Impoverished environmental
conditions, prenatal substance exposure, sensory deprivation, emotional trauma, and nutritional
deficiencies can conspire separately or in tamdem to force plasticity to play its unkind hand wreaking
havoc on the developing young brain. Long-term chronic stress (toxic stress) accompanied by a

nearly constant secretion of cortisol that does not subside, can lead to permanent damage to
hippocampal neurons causing learning difficulties and memory impairments.

On the brighter side, the human brain responds quite favorably to emotional support, challenge, and
steady constructive (it need not always be positive) feedback by increasing the myelination and
nourishment to those particular neural pathways. Individuals blind at birth are also born with highly
resilient brain systems eager to compensate for any acknowledged deficiency in order to enhance
survival. With their acute hearing ability, some of the worlds best musicians have emerged. Rat
whiskers, serve as object-detection devices that are hypersensitive to stimuli barely touching a single
whisker. When a rat is born blind, it's visual cortex is hijacked and joins up with brain cells already
working effectively in the barrel cortex, where the rat brain normally processes stimuli from those
whiskers without any help at all. Extra cortical real estate supporting any skill characteristically
translates into extraordinary sensory processing. Blind rats become more proficient at running mazes
than their sighted cage mates due to their heightened sensitivity to objects and barriers in their
environment. In the absence of appropriate stimulation, the brain reassigns an underutilized area for
another, and sometimes completely different, function.

Failure is not an option is a popular educational mantra that was borrowed too hastily and quite
unwisely from the business world. A deeper examination of this maxim reveals its glaring inaccuracy
when applied to how the young human brain learns. Students struggle in school with reading, they fall
short in mathematics, they will misinterpret cause-and-effect relationships in science, repeat the same
spelling errors, and display the annually anticipated academic missteps. Often these students appear to
be impervious to the best efforts of well-trained professionals. The notion of academic rigor
becomes almost rigor mortis for them. In nearly all cases, each learning difficulty is developmentallyappropriate and indicative of a naturally occurring neurological underinvestment in the necessary brain
wiring mandatory for producing a successful performance. When we point to a concept or skill that is
not developmentally-appropriate, the reference we are making is to brain development not
curriculum development.

With this backdrop, certain academic shortcomings are expected learning outcomes. However, these
events foster teacher, parent and student frustrations in the meantime, since the child doesnt get it.
With time, maturation, and most important, the appropriate brain wiring, he/she will "get it" quickly
and with ease. When it comes to learning, failure is a predictable prerequisite during the lengthy
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course of making sense of new information. This is particularly true when learners lack prior related
learning experiences, preventing the new information from readily merging with existing brain circuits
that don't exist yet. When there is nothing with which to integrate new knowledge, the building
process must begin from scratch and can be lengthy. The child is not slow, the process of brainbuilding is sometimes slow. If learning occurred effortlessly, error-free, and naturally occurring
without any failures, then wouldn't formal education from the pre-school years to graduate school be
pointlessly redundant?

Long years of continuous skills improvement are represented in the brain by hardwired neural
pathways that bring about the highest levels of proficiency and expertise. Complex interconnections
among the projection pathways, the association pathways, and the commissural pathways in the brain
give an expert four distinct neurological advantages.
1. Well-worn, highly used neural pathways are easily activated, because they are nearly always
"on alert."
2. Extensive hardwiring provides neural pathway shortcuts to answers that their under-wired
counterparts might find puzzling for hours, days, years or forever.
3. Their jam-packed cognitive tool chest serves as a reliable direct-source repository of
information precluding the multiple time-consuming data searches required by others.
4. Last and most important, energy and other vital cognitive resources are freed up to engage in
ideational exploration and more complex conceptual processing. The question asked about these
experts (e.g., golfer Tiger Woods) morphs from, Is he any good? into Is he always that good?

Experts in their respective fields routinely take the time to learn, un-learn and re-learn relevant
information related to their craft. For them, learning is not an informing experience where they are
merely building with the appropriate new networks to represent their new experiences. Instead, their
much deeper experience is a transforming undertaking by which brain circuits are enhanced in
rearranged in order to to accommodate and integrate new applicable data. Creating new neural
pathways is physically exhausting. The latter (transforming) requires fewer brain-body resources and is
specifically we are often famished after hours of studying new information. It is also what lies behind
the infant brain requiring almost constant feeding to keep up with the energy consumption necessary
for early brain growth and development.

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Infants tax their body-brain energies when they are learning how to walk, talk, think, speak, and
remember, along with learning all of the people, places and objects in their environment. Toddlers
must also learn the complexities of the local language, as well as a mastering the critical battery of
imperative cultural and socialization skills. Synaptic connectivity maxes out during the second year of
life. Amazingly, all of these are the minimum challenges that must be successfully and simultaneously
met for minimum baseline adaptations to the environment! Neuroplasticity is the vehicle by which
these enormous changes are facilitated allowing early competencies to travel such unbelievably long
distances in such an incredibly brief timeframe. It comes as no surprise that, at its peak level, each
neuron averages 15,000 connections. That particular high point coincides with these early years during
child development, when a toddlers active brain will consume 225% the energy of an adult brain.

In Outliers, the latest book by science writer Malcolm Gladwell, he proposes the 10,000-Hour Rule
hypothesizing that exceptional performances in any field has little to do with innate talent. Instead, a
passionate commitment and the voting approximately 10,000 hours of time to a skill fosters the
creation of widespread dendritic density representing that primary area of competency. Whether we are
examining high-level achievement in academics, professional careers, athletics, or public speaking,
practice makes permanent not "perfect," when it comes to the human brain. Extensive investments
of time-on-task are the mandatory for producing the neural circuitry that works diligently behind the
invisible scenes of expertise. It is this depth and diversity in concept-related thinking that allows
experts to discover (1) new answers to age-old questions, (2) creative solutions to new problems, and
(3) inventions to solve complex problems. To the novice mind, these answers would range from
remote to seemingly invisible.

Over the past 4.5 million years, with each major change in the human condition, our brain volume
increased to accommodate our radical behavioral improvisations. Consequently, is the human brain on
the doorstep of another Brain spurt? (See Chart #5 Brain Spurts). Our evolutionary history would
suggest an affirmative answer. The remarkable world of the temporary technology will be both
accommodated and consumed by the even more remarkable brain plasticity which makes future
adaptations possible and our ability to thrive immensely probable.
As we close out this first decade in the 21st Century, we recognize that we are living in a uniquely
historical time, where neuroplasticity is shaping todays young brains for a future that is more unlike
our most recent past than any time in the recorded human history. Todays asynchronous technologies
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are extendin the physical ranges of human information processing (virtual reality, multi-function
cellular phones, high capacity storage/memory/recording devices, brain-imaging technologies, etc.,)
and did you take your breath shower will shattering the long-established limitations of our human
sensory systems. Previously, the walls of time and place had dictated the scope of the human
experience for untold millennia. These barriers are all falling along with our conventional need for
face-to-face interpersonal interactions.

If you are a parent, educator or anyone charged with the responsibility of developing young minds,
"brain literacy" is no longer optional or recreational reading. When you are asked by your former
students, your children or grandchildren, What did you do to help me when that new research on the
brain suddenly became accessible to you? Hopefully, your answer will be, "I did everything I could,
based on everything we knew from every field in neuroscience at that time.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Wesson delivers keynote addresses on the neuroscience of learning for educational organizations and
institutions throughout the United States and overseas. His audiences range from pre-school and early
childhood specialists to college and university-level administrators and faculty members. His recent
international audiences have included educators and chief administrative officers from North America, South
America, Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. He has spoken to
educators from six of the worlds seven continents and can be seen on PBS and other special programs on brain
development.

In the publication Forecasting Independent Education to 2025, the National Association of


Independent Schools acknowledges the contributions of four educational researchers who have been
influential in reshaping the independent school classroom. Those individuals are Howard Gardner,
Daniel Goleman, Kenneth Wesson, and Mel Levine. The author of Brain-considerate Strategies for
Home and School, Kenneth Wessons work in the field of education, learning and the brain spans
four decades. He can be contacted at kenawesson@aol.com

(Sidebar #1)
Did you know that...
whatever you experience will impact the very architecture of your brain?
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as you gain expertise in a specific domain, not only will the number of neural networks increase to
support your competency, but the amount of cortical real estate devoted to that specific skill set
also increases?
the human brain is the only organ that depends on experience to shape its development?

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(Sidebar #2)
Throughout life, neurons continue to rewire themselves with each new experience or from the absence
of a particular kinds of experience. Some brain systems are more plastic than others. Fascinating
research finding have shown that brain architecture initially determines behavior, but both can be
altered by subsequent experiences or the lack thereof:

London taxi drivers, considered among the best among compared to their peers elsewhere,
typically have a larger posterior region of the right hippocampus than novice taxi drivers and nontaxi drivers. Experience can change the quantity of neurons in the hippocampus, a structure in the
brain that plays a key role in memory formation. This area of the brain specializes in processing
complex information useful in spatial navigating (Maguire, Woollett, & Spiers, 2006).

Veteran violinists have more cortical real estate dedicated to left-hand finger movement in the
somatosensory cortex of their brains than novices or non-violinists do.

Researcher, Dr. Michael Merzenich at the University of California San Francisco, demonstrated
that by eliminating a monkeys ability to use a particular finger on one hand, areas of the motor
cortex previously representing that finger, shifted to represent movement from an adjacent finger.

Connections normally dedicated to visual stimuli in area 17 of the visual cortex can be diverted
elsewhere if a young animals eye is deprived of the opportunity to process visual stimuli from that
particular eye. Instead, those connections will support vision in the opposite eye. Thornton Wiesel
and David Hubble received the prestigious Nobel Prize for their findings.

When an individual is born blind at birth, areas of the brain that would normally process visual
stimuli will instead support the sensory load from other modalities (hearing and touch) instead. The
brain compensates when beset with early handicaps.

Three pianists can all perform the same musical piece, but their brain activations will differ
drastically if the 3 pianists backgrounds are (1) a 30-year old professional pianist, who has been
playing piano since age five, (2) a 30-year old novice who has only played for one year, and (3) a
7-year old who also has just completed her first anniversary playing piano.

Dr. Sally Shaywitz at Yale University has examined the modifications that take place in young
brains by using fMRI measurements of brain structures taken before, during and after a child learns
how to read.

When we change the environment or what experiences we have, we can change the brain. The general
timing of those events can determine the extent of corresponding brain changes.
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Chart #1: Neuroplasticity determines


which brain cells communicate with which other cells
which structures link together and to what degree
which cells release which neurotransmitters, when, and under what specific conditions
which neurotransmitters communicate what unique messages to other brain cells
where in the brain will the selected neurons will release those neurotransmitters
in what molecular quantities and chemical combinations those neural communications will
occur
the precise calibration of structure-function correlations inside the brain

Chart #2: Neurons

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Chart #3 Neural Connections

Neurons and Neural Connections


Peter Huttenlocher (University of Chicago) was the first person to actually
conduct a synaptic census (the telephone lines that enable brain cells
to communicate with each other.) These connections are so small and
plentiful that they had previously defied quantification.

Age

Numbers

End of 2nd Trimester


At birth (full term)
8 months old
By age 10
28-week old fetus

200 Billion neurons


100 Billion neurons
1,000 Trillion connections
500 Trillion connections
124 million connections (in a pinhead
spec of brain tissue 70K neurons)
253 million connections/spec
572 million connections/spec
354 million connections/spec

Newborn
8-month old infant
By Age 12 (stabilizes)

Chart #4: Flexibility in brain processing - The letter A

A
A

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Chart #5 - Evolutionary Brain Spurts


Over the past 4.5 million years, the human brain has gone through growth 6 spurts, where we
have uncovered evidence of rapid volumetric increases in the human cranium that coincided
with notable advances in our cognitive capabilities.
1. Upright walking (bipedalism)
2. Tool usage
3. Cave art, jewelry, symbolic artifacts
4. Complex social structure and relationships
5. Oral language
6. Written language, symbols and the printing press
7. Contemporary 21st Century Technology?

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