Neuroplasticity and Schooling – The Thing that Hurts is the Thing that Helps

While classrooms are about as far from brain surgery as a person can get, it hasn’t seemed like that in the past few years. Increasingly, the world of teaching is infused with seminars, books, techniques, and staff room banter about neuroscience. Most of this activity is just the usual idle chat, but to the extent that we really listen, our world is about to change. For the better.

Few writers in the field have had the impact that Norman Doidge has had. His book, The Brain that Changes Itself, has (beyond selling millions of copies) began to alter the way we think about our brains. Beyond Doidge, there are few issues of important periodicals like the New Yorker that go by without any reference to neuroscience. And in our age, romantic notions of ‘mind’, the ethereal, intangible version of consciousness has all but died. The brain is our mind, the consensus goes, and we just use sentimental language when we speak otherwise. All of this might be true, but the relationship between consciousness and our brains is not one way: our brains are often subject to the power of our directed, conscious thoughts. We are not computers that merely respond to our programming.

An example: the placebo effect has always bedevilled medical researchers. In order to determine whether or not any particular medication has the desired effect, it is important to establish a double-blind study – neither the subjects nor those administering the medication know which is getting the placebo, and which is getting the real medication. In this way, we can determine if the medication is having the desired effect. When the study is concluded, we take a list at the patient lists, see who got better, see who didn’t, and we can determine if the drug works. The placebo effect – the tendency of patients to report better symptoms even on a sugar pill – can be separated from the ‘real’ effect.

Setting aside the sometimes unscrupulous behaviour of pharmaceutical companies, this double-blind system works quite well. There’s no way to game the system. We can tell if real change has occurred. There are, in addition to patient reports, observable data we can draw on to know if the drug worked or not. Did the tumour shrink? Did the cholesterol decrease?

But with matters of brains, this isn’t so neat and tidy. There has been a remarkably high placebo effect in anti-depressant medication trials. Sometimes nearly as high as the group who got the actual medication. So what, we might say. So some people convinced themselves that they were feeling better – the underlying reason for their depression must have remained unchanged.

And yet, that is sometimes not the case. Generally speaking, brains of patients who suffer depression look different under an MRI than those who are not suffering depression. You would imagine that those in anti-depressant trials who received the placebo medication would see no physical changes in brain operation, and yet they sometimes do. Not only have they ‘tricked’ themselves into feeling better, but by doing so they changed the physical operation of the brain. Recent research into mindfulness meditation has hinted at the same thing: those who meditate begin to see changes in the physical and electrical and chemical structures of the brain. And the list goes on: those who have suffered strokes and lost a capacity (say, the use of their left arm) because of brain trauma (the area of the brain responsible for the activity) find that with the right therapy, other areas of the brain change and grow to take over for the damaged area. The oldest evidence of all: London cabbie’s brains have overdeveloped regions of the brain responsible for spatial awareness, having had to memorize great swaths of one of the most labyrinthine cities in the world. And then there’s the remarkable story from Atul Gawande in the New Yorker about scratching an itch.

If we are a computer, we are a computer that can reprogram ourselves.

And yet, in schooling, we continue to do something that has often puzzled me. When a student presents with a difficulty in one area (say, writing), we often reduce that very activity. The thinking goes like this: if Steven’s brain is wired in such a way as to make him a kinaesthetic learner, not a verbal or logical-mathematical learner, then he should do more dancing and running and less reading and writing.

The following has no support but resonates with me, at least.

The oldest paradigm: just try harder. If that doesn’t work, ‘you must not be built right’. Give up. This led to a tremendous amount of unused human capacity.

Now: You are a visual learner? Don’t even try listening to your peers or teachers in your classes. Hard time reading? We’ll get you the audiobooks for all your texts. A second-language seem tough? We’ll exempt you from it. After all, if you were paralyzed, we would never ask you to run the 100m dash. Asking you to violate your unique brain is potentially abusive.

Except that if stroke victims can repurpose areas of the brain to speak again and to walk again, why can’t the same logic work on remediating dyslexia? (It does, as it turns out – dyslexics who have been exposed to the right sorts of interventions have fundamentally different brain processes after the interventions.)

Perhaps the simplest conclusion is this: Our brains are more similar than they are unique. To the extent that they are unique, most of that variation is a positive good and leads to interesting, creative possibilities. For a smaller group of us, our brains don’t do as easily what other brains can do. When those areas overlap with skills our society prizes, like reading(!), we ought to do more of that hard thing, not less, to remediate, to actually change our brains for the better. The model of physiotherapy applies well, I think. When our backs are stiff, we stretch and exercise. We no longer advise bed rest for (the majority) of sore backs. The thing that hurts is the thing that helps.

Of course, we need to do so in ways that are suitable (more of a useless remedy does not achieve the desired result), but I worry that the vast majority of our interventions are akin to taking someone with a sore back and putting him in wheelchair until his legs atrophy to the point where we validate the very thing harming him.

Here’s Norman Doidge on Allan Gregg and Company.

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