Grow your egghead

The physical capacity of the adult human brain increases significantly through mental exercise, as anyone who has taken time to study the phenomenon would know. That is to say, the more we think, the more we are able to think, because of the increased neuronal capacity that develops in certain areas of our brains under the stimulus of thought. To me this seems the most profoundly underutilized bit of human knowledge that we carry around with us today. Engaging our minds to “stay healthy and get smart” is an old hat, you may say; and indeed it is an age-old concept – I believe the ancients used to call it meditation. However we now have mounting experimental evidence to support this old hunch that “meditating” about one problem improves our cognitive capacity to handle other problems. We surely have reached a stage where we cannot ignore this fact, and instead must use it to revolutionize the patterns of education in our society.

Before I get to the crux of my suggestion, let me speak a little bit about our brains. There has been ample discussion in the past that adult neurogenesis is a reality, with experimental evidence to back the notion that certain sections of the brain (namely the hippocampus and the dentate gyrus) develop in adult animals under the stimulus of learning. Moreover, some folks (e.g. Antonio Damasio) suggest that Glea, apart from serving housekeeping functions for neurons, also serve as “building material” for new neurons in the adult brain. The hypothesis is that in a process not completely understood as yet, gleal cells get “converted” into fully-fledged neurons that would augment cognition and memory, under the stimulus of mental activity. The stimuli that initiate this process, when rolled-up to a 40KFT view, are actually one’s own thought processes. In short, the brain is a bit like the ultimate “learning machine” that has stocked up physical resources to expand its capabilities based on “how heavy it runs”.

A layman’s parable to illustrate the growth of the human brain is that it is somewhat like building one’s own home. The house-plan is in one’s inherited genes, the contractor is the (still somewhat mysterious) process of ontogenesis, and the unfurnished house is the physical structure of the adult brain – neurons, glea and their large-scale organization. But just as an unfurnished house is not so attractive to its beholders, so is the unexercised human brain. It can do many things, and yet it is not complete in its “learning”. And this learning process or rather the sharpening of our adult minds is like the sharpening of a knife; the actual changes in the contours of a sharpened knife’s edge can be likened to the increasing contours of structures in our brain.  Our cognitive capacities are therefore not completely fenced in by the genes we inherit.

So, if we haven’t critically exercised certain parts of our brains as children and as young adults, and we end up rather dull, all hope is not lost. We can begin to exercise our brains as adults, and almost certainly end up becoming less dull. As our brains are broadly akin to a “vastly parallel computing machine” of sorts, we don’t have to be concerned that we would be definitively limited by our current mental prowess. My own (crude) conjecture is that any new “thought that sticks” and the requisite memory associated with it directly correspond to the “wiring up” of a physical set of neurons that were previously “idling”. And, as we approach the limits of our neuronal resources, more are created within our brains. The brain is in essence a “physical computer” and not a “virtual machine” of the digital sort. Our brains would literally expand to incorporate new learning, and this “learning” constitutes of material structures that corresponds to our thoughts. Quite in contrast to the present-day digital computer, which essentially replicates tiny fragments of human logic on a virtual machine (i.e. a program of steps executed a la Turing style).

Ok, now to the crux of my argument. Have you ever wondered what the world would be like, if human society exploited the above knowledge in its fullest sense? I’m not advocating that all 40+ year-olds rush into the nearest wilderness and meditate about life (although I suspect this wouldn’t be half a bad idea).  What I’d rather like to see is a scrapping of this notion that learning and genuine intellectual robustness is limited to a 0 to 25 year-old “honeymoon” period in one’s life. In other words, you learn all this nice stuff till about 25 or 30, and then you move on to “real life” and get your brain fossilized. I feel that the reason why there statistically are far fewer “bright old sparks” is not because that’s the natural ability of the human animal, but because that’s the nature of our social training and existential pattern. Perhaps an existential pattern augmented by Darwinian tendencies to “give up” on life after the period of peak reproductive capacity, in spite of the potential to be otherwise smart. Why should we stick to this social pattern when our brains facilitate smart work (or perhaps even smarter work) in later life? At least, this is true for those whose brains are not debilitated by disease like Alzheimer’s or Alcoholism?

I’m yet to hear a modern-day statesmen or globally influential leader urge the mature adult masses to set aside time for learning, to challenge themselves with thought experiments and contribute to broaden human knowledge. At least, not with the same fervor with which they encourage moderate eating, honest dealing, or indeed even to reduce one’s carbon footprint (all very good advocacy I’m sure). For starters, what if we have a government website that encourages ordinary adults to tackle certain burning technological, socio-economic or scientific problems that challenge our society today? It could be somewhat similar to Scholarpedia where the modern “learning society” at large would zoom in and submit their solutions to problems for review and recognition. The peers in this virtual society would be the ones to review the solutions presented, in much the same way that Scholarpedia articles get reviewed and refined. The main difference would be that government sponsored research initiatives would be on this website, and officials would campaign for public participation.

I believe thought-development should to be encouraged as second nature, like eating or making love. The old adage “don’t let your brain rot” is no longer a wisecrack. Its modern version aught to be “don’t be idle, grow your egghead”.

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