Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Training our Brains for the Future

In a previous incarnation as a math teacher I would often be faced with the age old question, “But when are we gonna use this?”.  The more advanced the course, the tougher and more legitimate this question became.  When asked this question by grade 11 or 12 math students, my initial, somewhat glib (but nonetheless true) answer would be “For most of you, never.”  After getting over the initial shock that their hunches had been right and that someone was finally willing to admit it, I went on to explain why we had students doing abstract mathematics in the first place.  I usually used the following analogy; after asking the class how many students lifted weights (most of the boys would put up a hand whether it was true or not) I would ask the following question, “So, how many of you weightlifters are ever going to lie on your back and press a hundred pounds into the air?” (Nobody)  I’d continue “Thinking through and solving abstract math problems does the same thing for your brain that lifting weights does for your body.  Most of you will never use the actual concepts and mathematical tools that we’re learning here, but the problem solving steps and just the exercise for your mind, will help you in other endeavours down the road.”

As it turns out, I was bang on.  I’m currently reading a fascinating book by Rebecca Costa entitled “The Watchman’s Rattle” the main premise of which is that the complexity of most systems in the modern world has increased to such an extent that our caveman brains are just not up to the task of comprehending, much less solving, some of the problems we know are in our future.  She goes on to talk about how we may (must?) change our patterns of thought and behaviour if we are to avoid possible extinction. (Did I mention that the book is also rather sobering!?).  One of the big hopes that she discusses at length is the recent quantum leaps we’ve made in understanding brain function, and how we can use that knowledge to train ourselves, essentially, to “do better” than we have in the past at sorting out complex issues. Part of this process includes considerations of brain health, and more specifically the use of ‘brain training’.

Through the use of MRI scans, along with findings in psychological and cognitive research, neuroscience is finding that brains that are regularly exercised are much healthier and function better, particularly later in life.    The more accurate and detailed MRI scans become, the more information we gather as to exactly which parts of the brain perform which functions.   They’ve also discovered that, contrary to popular belief, neural connections can be formed at any age.  It would seem that you can in fact teach an old dog new tricks!

A quick search on the web uncovers a treasure trove of sites specifically dedicated to brain training, click here for an example. Brain training is fairly simple, doesn’t take a lot of time and best of all, it’s fun.  Try this one for example. Most brain training exercises are akin to video games, puzzles, memory exercises and riddles.

Though there’s not yet a lot of ‘hard evidence’ regarding results of brain training (due to the relative newness of the field) if anecdotal evidence and preliminary results are any indication, it may eventually become an integral part of school life.  Spending a few minutes each day playing games that involve memory, reflexive decision making, spatial thinking, and problem solving, exercises the different parts of the brain associated with the various functions.  A short daily regimen of these exercises would both 'warm up' students' brains for the day, as well as providing the long term benefits associated with a more complex set of neural connections.  With the advent of cheap and plentiful communication devices, having a school full of students doing brain exercises for a few minutes each morning seems like (pardon the pun) a no brainer.