The payoff for straining the brain

Aperennial question... especially as some of us head back to school:Are we born smart? Do we achieve smarts? Does bitter experiencethrust smarts upon us?

Unfortunately,some researchers into the sources of intelligence seem to be lookingfor something that isn’t actually there — a specific geneticinheritance, mechanism, brain wiring diagram, or excess of cells thatguarantees exceptional intelligence. But life is seldom as simple asthat. Not surprisingly, research results can be confusing orcontradictory as a result. Ina recent edition of ScientificAmerican Mind,Christian Hoppe and Jelena Stojanovic write, “No one is sure whysome experiments indicate that a bright brain is a hardworking one,whereas others suggest it is one that can afford to relax. Some, suchas Haier—who has found higher brain metabolic rates in more astuteindividuals in some of his studies but not in others—speculate onereason could relate to the difficulty of the tasks. When a problem isvery complex, even a gifted person’s brain has to work to solve it.The brain’s relatively high metabolic rate in this instance mightreflect greater engagement with the task. If that task was out ofreach for someone of average intellect, that person’s brain mightbe relatively inactive because of an inability to tackle the problem.And yet a bright individual’s brain might nonetheless solve a lessdifficult problem efficiently and with little effort as compared withsomeone who has a lower IQ.”

Gotthat? There is, however, some really useful take-home informationfrom their article: When researchers examined the final grades of 164Grade Eight students, together with their acceptance or rejectionfrom a prestigious high school, they found that “scholarly successwas more than twice as dependent on assessments of self-discipline ason IQ.” Students with more self-discipline—meaning that theywould sacrifice short-term fun for long-term gain—were more likelyto improve their marks during the school year than those who wouldn’tsacrifice fun. By contrast, a high IQ did notpredict a rise in grades.

Obviously,this won’t surprise an experienced teacher or a mature parent. Butit bears repeating all the same: Modern neuroscience is notoverturning millennia of experience; it is filling out what the otherdisciplines already tell us. Our brains are very plastic organs, andpaying attention determines the areas in which they develop. Like ourbodies, brains must be exercised effectively to achieve our goals.That is why self-discipline is as important to brain exercise as tobody exercise. That’salso why I am skeptical when I hear jocks claim that they “can’t”pass Math or English because their specialty is throwing touchdownpasses. If they paid as much attention to the Math lecturer and theEnglish prof as they do to the coach and the trainer, they wouldlikely get the marks they need to play for their school. Our brainsare generalists, by necessity. We make them into specialists by ourchoices.

Now,about sleep: Does “lights out” matter? Why not stay up all nightgabbing with new friends? Here’s one reason why not: Modernneuroscience shows that, contrary to older theories, our minds/brainsare notpassive while we sleep. In fact, Robert Stickgold and Jeffrey M.Ellenbogen relate a fascinating German experiment in whichresearchers taught subjects to solve a math problem by a long,tedious procedure. Subjects practiced the procedure 100 times. Thenthey were sent away and told to come back 12 hours later, to try itanother 200 times. But the researchers had not told the subjects thatthere is an easy math shortcut to the problem. The researchers knewprecisely when a student figured out that shortcut, becauseproblem-solving speed suddenly increased. Notethis: Subjects who got a night's sleep between the two sessions weremore than two and a half times as likely to figure out the shortcut!Fifty-nine percent of those subjects who slept discovered the trick,but only 23 percent of the others did. When we sleep, our mindsorganize solutions to problems, and we need to give them a chance.Theapostle Paul compares the Christian life to an athletic contest. Thatmakes a lot of sense when we keep in mind that our brains have manyof the same needs as our bodies.JournalistDenyse O’Leary  isthe author of By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), anoverview of the intelligent design controversy and co-author, withMontreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain(Harper: 2007).


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