Neuroplasticity seems to be the new buzzword in education. What is neuroplasiticity? Simply put, it’s the ability of the brain to grow and change. The implication for educators is that we no longer need to accept the idea that brains are static. Instead, we see that every child’s brain has more potential than we ever imagined. With the right teaching methods, we can “train” the brain to learn more and learn better. Companies have sprung up like mushrooms after a rain to sell materials they claim will improve your learning and even raise your IQ. Schools are investing thousands of dollars in educational materials making similar claims. Some people have gone so far as to claim that thanks to our new understanding of neuroplasticity, dividing students into gifted and non-gifted is no longer necessary. After all, if all brains can grow and change, doesn’t everyone have the same potential? Isn’t it just a matter of training their brains?
While neuroplasticity sounds like the perfect science-based solution to problems in our educational system, most of the excitement over it is based on a misunderstanding of just what it is. My guess is that few educators who call for and use materials promising to “grow” their students’ brains have actually read the research on neuroplasticity. They are far more likely to have read about the research and what they read is not always accurate.
Let me try to provide a simple explanation of neuroplasticity. The growth and changes in the brain take place in existing neurons and in the pathways that connect them. And in spite of the hype over neuroplastiticity being a new discovery, we’ve known about these kinds of changes for decades. We’ve known that the brains of people who experience certain kinds of brain injuries, such as those caused by a stroke, can create new neural pathways that can help them recover some or sometimes all of some lost ability – like the ability to speak. Creating new pathways is what is referred to as the brain “rewiring” itself. Most people need therapy, though, in order to “train” their brain to create these new pathways.
Rewiring isn’t exclusive to overcoming brain injuries, though. It happens daily in the brain. Every experience you have causes your brain to form new pathways connecting neurons, or to group or regroup neurons. That’s pretty much how memories are formed. While it might be true that memories are stored in brain cells, they aren’t just stored in some brain cell like files and pictures stored in a file cabinet. It’s probably closer to storing information in “the cloud,” a cloud with some rather poor “security protections. That just means that our memories or parts of them can be wrong. They can get “hacked.” Each time we recall a memory, there is a chance that it can get mixed up with other memories. For instance, you might remember wearing your favorite red dress to a class party you went to years ago. But your brain retrieved part of the memory from the party with another memory where you wore that red dress. Your brain does an excellent job of blending those memories so that you’ll swear you wore that red dress – until someone shows you a picture of that party, a picture showing you in a lovely black dress.
We can strengthen memories if we recall them more frequently. But then, if we recall a mistaken memory often, that’s the one that gets strengthened. The same is true for any new information we learn. The more we use it, the more likely we are to remember it. This isn’t a new discovery. The idea was the basis for rote memorization practice back when I was a kid in the 1950s. Of course, we know of more interesting ways these days for kids to use new information than to fill out worksheets. What is new is our understanding of how practice with new information helps. It has to do with dendrites.
Dendrites are the spikey things that grow on neurons. As you continually use new information, neurons connected to the information grow more dendrites and the dendrites become thicker. Thicker dendrites can send signals though synapses faster than thinner dendrites. Obviously, then we want to grow more and thicker dendrites. Okay. How exactly does knowing about dendrites help us learn how to improve our teaching practices? We already know kids need to practice and use what they’ve learned.
So much for brain growth. But wait…what about neurogenesis? That refers to the birth of new neurons. Previously, the belief was that we are born with a certain number of brain cells and that was that. We could lose them as we aged, but we couldn’t grow new ones. Research in neuroplasticity, however, has discovered that the brain, even in adults, actually does grow new neurons. With more neurons and more and thicker dendrites on those neurons, a person can get really smart! All we need to do is expose them to the right teaching methods, right?
It was in the 1990s that research found evidence of neurogenesis in the human brain. That’s about when those mushroom companies started sprouting, followed by educators latching onto the concept of neuroplasticity as a panacea to learning problems in schools. There’s a problem, though. New neurons don’t grow everywhere in the brain (you usually have to read the fine print to find that out). They grow in two places: the dentrate gyrus of the hippocampus and the olfactory bulbs. The olfactory bulbs are related to the sense of smell. But what is the dentrate gyrus? It is the part of the brain responsible for creating new memories.
So now we’re getting somewhere, right? But the dentate gyrus is not where memories are stored. It’s more like a processing center that takes in new information and then sends it out to other parts of the brain, where it is stored. Because neurons do die, it is important for the formation of memories that we have new neurons to replace them. So having more neurons – with more and thicker dendrites – can help with memory formation and therefore learning new material. but again, how does this new information help us develop better teaching methods? (Hint: It doesn’t.)
The Gifted Brain
So what exactly does neuroplasticity have to do with giftedness? Probably not what you think. More neurons and thicker dendrites may improve your learning, but they won’t make you smarter (regardless of claims to the contrary). If you can better remember and retrive stored information, you can improve your performance on tests, even IQ tests, but you aren’t going to raise your IQ significantly. No rewiring of your brain is going to turn you into a gifted person if you aren’t one already. As I’ve said before, you can’t make a gifted kid (or adult).
What researchers have found is that the gifted brain appears to be more plastic that other brains. Changes take place in the thickness and surface area of the cortex of all children as they grow up, but the timing of the changes is different in the cortex of highly intelligent kids. It thickens for a longer period of time in highly gifted kids and then thins faster than it does in kids with average intelligence. The surface area of the cortex, on the other hand, expands for a shorter period of time highly intelligent kids, and once it’s done expanding, it decreases faster than it does in other kids. (If you want to read one of the studies on this, see Changes in Thickness and Surface Area of the Human Cortex and Their Relationship with Intelligence.)
What Does Our Understanding of Neuroplasticity and the Gifted Brain Mean for Education?
What it all tells us is that smart brains are more efficient. The cortex of highly gifted kids end up with fewer, not more, connections between neurons, and the streamlining of those connections happens fast. You can’t teach the brain to change the rate at which it creates and then reduces neural connections any more than you can teach the body to change the rate at which it grows. You can teach someone the physical exercises that can strengthen the body he already has, but those exercises won’t make him taller. You can teach someone to do better with the brain he already has, but you can’t teach him to have a higher IQ.
What we’ve learned about neuroplasticity can help us improve student learning, but it has more to do with the fact that the hippocampus is part of the limbic system, which among other things, controls emotions. And that is a discussion for another day.
Readings on Neuroplasticity and on the Gifted Brain
If you want the nitty gritty details, here are a number of sources, including some original studies on neuroplasticity and on intelligence and the brain.
- Brain Plasticity and Intellectual Ability Are Influenced by Shared Genes
- Can neuroscience see giftedness?
- Changes in Thickness and Surface Area of the Human Cortex and Their Relationship with Intelligence
- Controversial brain study has scientists rethinking neuron research
- Cortical development through thick and thin
- Cortical gray-matter thinning is associated with age-related improvements on executive function tasks
- Do more intelligent brains retain heightened plasticity for longer in development? A computational investigation
- The Gifted Brain (pdf)
- Here’s Why Some Brains Really Are Smarter, According to This New Study
- How Do Neuroplasticity and Neurogenesis Rewire Your Brain?
- Inside the Brains of Smart Kids
- Intellectual_ability_and_cortical_develo.pdfIntellectual ability and cortical development in children and adolescents (pdf)
- Neuroplasticity is a dirty word
- Neuroplasticity is not a new discovery
- Relationships between IQ and Regional Cortical Gray Matter Thickness in Healthy Adults
- Scientists find gene linking brain’s grey matter to intelligence
- Thorny Life of New Born Neurons
- Weird neuroscience: how education hijacked brain research
- What Is The Cerebral Cortex
- What is a Gifted Brain (pdf)
- Where Are Memories Stored?