The “white stuff”, and what it means for your brain

I love this snow metaphor of how our ‘plastic’ brain works….(attributed to Pascual-Leone).

Neuroplasticity is like fresh pliable snow on a hill. When you go down the hill on a sled for the first time, you can be flexible in that you can choose whatever route to take. You can take different paths on your second and subsequent trips too if you like. However, if you choose to take the same path each time, a deeper and more permanent track will develop, and soon it will be difficult to sled down the hill without being ‘stuck in the rut’ you have created. Your route will now be quite rigid, and it will take some effort to break out of the rut and establish new pathways.

In a similar way, neural circuits, once established, tend to become self-sustaining. As Doidge puts it in his book “The Brain that Changes Itself”, neuroplasticity works both ways, it gives rise not only to mental flexibility and growth, but can also lead to mental rigidity and stagnation.    Continue reading

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“Coaching is like Brain Surgery”. So, how sharp is your scalpel?

For a long time the received wisdom within the world of brain science has been about structure, fixed neural connections, localization of function and other related concepts. This view was largely influenced by some of the pioneering work of people like Hubel & Wiesel, Nobel Prize winners in 1981.

The idea that the brain may actually be ‘plastic’ in some way, that it may continue to make new connections, and that regions of the brain may actually be able to adapt and become responsible for function that it was not originally ‘mapped’ for, was dismissed until very recently.

The great news is Continue reading

Do we need more than ‘just’ attention to learn?


I don’t believe we learn “simply by attending”….there’s more to it than that. It’s got something to do with integration and synthesis and making ‘new connections’ (resulting in new neural pathways). It is these new connections that we know as “Aha moments” – when things suddenly become crystal clear. This is captured well in my view by John Nelson in the book “What color is your parachute? For retirement(2007)”. He talks about the “sea of information out there and the difficulty of making sense of it all. It splashes around with no sense of order. It is also relentless – like a fire hose that forever is trying to fill you up as though you were an empty barrel.” Where he takes this metaphor next is the notion that it is “at the confluence of the information stream and your own stream of consciousness, that you’ll make your best decisions”. I would add that it is when you are paying attention to the confluence of streams of information that you “make connections” and where most learning takes place.

Is the Internet changing the way our brains work?


According to an article in Newsweek (Monday Jan 18th 2010) the answer is no. But, it may be altering the way we think.

Shortened attention span. Less interest in reflection and introspection. Inability to engage in in-depth thought. Fragmented, distracted thinking. These are all ways that the Internet supposedly affects thought. 109 philosophers, neurobiologists, and other scholars were asked “How is the Internet changing the way you think”.

The general consensus of scholars who study the mind and the brain is that the Internet hasn’t changed the way we think. Neuroscientist, Joshua Greene of Harvard, argues that it has provided us with unprecedented access to information, but hasn’t changed what our brains actually do with it. Cognitive psychologist, Steven Pinker of Harvard, is equally uncertain that any fundamental changes have happened. “Texters, surfers, and twitterers have not trained their brains to process multiple streams of novel information in parallel, as is commonly asserted but refuted by research”.

And yet, many scholars do believe the Internet alters thinking. Howard Rheingold (a Communications expert) believes the Internet fosters shallowness and distraction, with the result that our minds struggle to discipline and deploy attention in any concerted way. It is also argued that the Internet is causing the disappearance of retrospection and reminiscence. Evgeny Morozov, an expert on the Internet and politics, claims that our lives are increasingly lived in the present, completely detached even from the most recent of the pasts.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (the author of the work on Flow – referenced and discussed elsewhere in this Blog) argues that since online information is often decontextualized it satisfies immediate needs at the expense of deeper understanding, resulting in more superficial thought. With facts (whether true or false) only a click away, the Internet allows us to know fewer facts, reducing their importance as a component of thought. But that increases the importance of other components such as correlating facts, distinguishing between important and secondary matters, knowing when to prefer pure logic and when to let common sense dominate.

In other words, more than ever, we need to apply judgement to what is important and what is not. I don’t believe this is fundamentally different to what has gone before (apart from in terms of volume). All sources of information are subject to interpretation, and are conveyed through the filter of someone’s brain. Judgement will become an ever more critical skill; but our brains, our thinking, and the way we process information, is tried and trusted and will serve us well.