Week 1: Mind and Brain

Mind and Brain

Starting before birth, and continuing into the first five years of life, synapses are produced, or even overproduced. Then from childhood through early adolescence, the excess synapses are pruned away; the chapter uses the metaphor of sculpting to describe this way that the synapses are selectively pruned as patterns and pathways are formed. Some people think that because of this your potential is determined at a young age and that you cannot develop new skills in adulthood, but this turns out to be false; it turns out that through learning, you can add and modify synapses throughout your life; you are not stuck with these pathways that were laid out in early parts of life. Merely using the brain is not enough, though, research shows that you have to actually learn and master new things in order to effect this process.

In reading this section, it makes me wonder if similar processes that are used to heal those with brain damage can be used to heal from trauma. I know friends who suffer from, for example, C-PTSD, and they seem to constantly being triggered into the same traumatic patterns. I wonder if those pathways created by trauma could be rewired through new learning and practice in an analogous fashion. It would certainly be really encouraging if we could help people who have had severe trauma in this fashion.

2.1 According to the reading, synapse shaping and elimination proceeds more slowly in the areas that are related to language and higher cognitive functions. I think it is important not to overgeneralize from this research, though, and to assume that we can only teach certain things to students at certain ages because “neuroscience says so.” I thought that the reading made a really important point that neurobiology and neuroscience cannot dictate how to teach, only describe the anatomy and functioning of the brain, and it is left to other fields such as cognitive science, educational psychology, and more applied fields to discover what the best methods of instruction and the best instructional timings are.

2.2 In individuals that have had strokes or other permanent brain damage from which there is no hope of spontaneous recovery, it is possible through careful instruction and extended practice, to rewire the brain to be able to carry out the functions it was previously capable of by creating new neural pathways. This intrigued me, because I was born with very limited visual memory, and it makes me wonder whether it might be possible to gain those kind of skills through practice; some studies suggest that this is possible, but the idea of such practice seems out of fashion; I tried researching computer software for such drills, but it was old DOS software that wouldn’t even run on a modern Windows computer without an emulator.

2.3 particularly illustrative example from the reading involved giving a list of words that involved different types of deserts, waiting for some span of time to elapse, and then asking the subject whether or not the word “sweet” was on the list. Although the word wasn’t on the list, most subjects reported that it was. The reading uses this to explain how the brain categorizes incoming information, but that this process of categorization is not perfect and sometimes results in the “remembering” of inputs that were not actually given.

The fact that the mind can remember things that did not happen is a major problem in the criminal justice system, since it relies so heavily on eyewitness accounts. A friend of mine teaches a class at a law school, and he arranged to have someone come in and steal his backpack during class. He waited until the next class, and then asked his students to recall the details of the incident, and there was remarkable divergence between their stories. The fact that everyone processes, categorizes, and stories the information differently is also particularly relevant for learning theory, as we cannot explain that merely telling someone something means that it is now received and stored in the brain exactly the way we intended.