Exercising the Brain—A Collosal Effect
Years ago, I had the good fortune to study at Cambridge University. Living on student stipends did not afford me much opportunity to take taxis on my ventures into London. But one time, when I was late for an important meeting, I frantically hailed a taxi and told the driver my predicament. He calmly replied, “Don’t worry, luv—I’ll get you there.” And he sure did. In the process, I stared in amazement as he negotiated the unbelievable maze of streets with skill that can only be described as phenomenal.
As typically happens, even with fabulous experiences, I put that event aside for many years. Then it came back to me when I read about a famous study conducted by Professor Eleanor Maguire of University College London. She carried out brain scans on a group of taxi drivers to test a theory about the brains of taxi drivers being affected by their work. The theory turned out to be correct. The average cabbie had a larger hippocampus than most people.
The reason has to do with the nature of the job. Well before the days of being able to rely on global positioning satellites, London cabbies had to pass a grueling test. They had to acquire something called “The Knowledge”--that meant acquiring a detailed mental map of all the streets within a six-square-mile radius of the heart of London.
it is an amazing skill and it takes years of study to build a complete “mental map” of the city. An area of the brain called the hippocampus plays a key role in behaviors involving memory and spatial navigation. So the taxi drivers’ trainlng led them to super develop that area of the brain. As Professor Maguire noted, “There seems to be a definite relationship between the navigating they do as a taxi driver and the [nature of the] brain changes. The hippocampus has changed its structure to accommodate their huge amount of navigating experience."
The study found something else as well. Over time, the hippocampus continues to grow as the “mental map” adds complexity. There are other studies along these lines linked to other cognitive skills. The brains of musicians, for example, show changes in certain areas of the brain.
What these studies tell us is that use of the brain is not simply necessary for an activity but the activity feeds back on the brain and actually changes its structure. This information is fascinating just on its own. But when we place it in the context of reading, it becomes vital-- and a bit scary.
Generally children of today’s generation do less and less sustained reading. Here, I am not referring to reading of short bits of information such as signs, TV screens, and the like. That type of reading has probably increased. But the sustained reading required to master subjects such as science, economics and social studies is steadily decreasing. Operationally, that means any requirement to carry out sustained reading is perceived as, and actually IS, more difficult. In other words, the less students do, the more difficult each assignment gets.
Altering the course we are on is going to be one of the top challenges in the coming years.