How Smart Happens: A New Study Of Neuroplasticity
Yesterday, I posted about Scott Barry Kaufman’s fascinating report on a new brain-science study. Today I want to delve more deeply into that study itself. Conducted by Allyson P. Mackey, Alison T. Miller Singley, and Silvia A. Bunge of UC-Berkeley and the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, the study “sought to test the hypothesis that engaging in novel, complex cognitive tasks would strengthen connectivity within the reasoning network at rest,” the authors write.
And, in fact, their findings do show “that connectivity between brain areas implicated in cognition is experience dependent and can be modified by intensive training.” In this case, three months of intensive training to prepare for the LSAT (the law-school admission exam) improved the communication among parts of the brain involved in reasoning processes.
The really interesting part of Mackey et al.’s paper comes when they speculate about the implications of their findings. Their results “challenge the notion that resting-state networks supporting higher cognition are stable in adulthood,” they note. “These results build on evidence of training-induced resting-state changes in other domains, including motor learning. processing speed, and meditation. Additionally, there is preliminary evidence that working memory training may also alter resting-state connectivity. Demonstrating neural plasticity in the network that supports reasoning—a skill that is central to theories of intelligence—is particularly significant because it runs counter to the widespread assumption that intelligence is a fixed ability.” The emphasis is mine, and I’ve added it because I think it’s, well, emphatically important. The authors continue:
“The results of the current study have broad societal relevance. Millions of young adults prepare intensively for the LSAT and other standardized exams. To correctly interpret the significance of these test scores, it is important to know whether these exams measure individuals’ cognitive potential, or whether they more accurately reflect their cognitive history—i.e., the prior level of engagement of specific brain networks.” More emphasis by me, here and below.
“Finally, understanding plasticity in cognitive skills in healthy adults is critical as more and more people extend their formal education into the third and fourth decades of their lives [and, I would add, beyond!—Annie]. More broadly, throughout the lifespan, individuals encounter profound shifts in their environments that necessitate categorical changes in cognition. Neural plasticity at the synaptic level, and indeed at the level of large-scale networks, enables our brains to rise to meet novel cognitive demands.
However, changes in brain connectivity associated with a brief change in cognitive activity are unlikely to last indefinitely, just as a student who has just prepared intensively for the LSAT is unlikely to perform as well on the exam after many months have elapsed. To maintain a high level of reasoning ability, we hypothesize, it is important to regularly tax the underlying brain circuitry.” (Read an abstract of the study here.)
So what does this study tell us? That a key element of intelligence can be strengthened and improved. That one way of thinking about test scores is as a measure of our “cognitive history”—how much and how well we’ve used our brains. That “neural plasticity”—the malleability of our brains, even into adulthood—allows us to rise to meet new intellectual demands. And lastly, that it’s important to keep using our brains, vigorously, if we want to be able to keep reasoning well—if we want to stay smart.
There’s a lot to think about here!