Rule number three in John Medina’s Brain Rules is, “Every brain is wired differently.” The brain is like a muscle; what we do with the brain changes its physical structure. Not just advice from a motivational speaker, that’s a biological fact.
Infants start life with roughly the same number of neurons that they’ll have as adults. By age 3, children have two to three times as many neurons; the brain then begins radically pruning. Eight-year-olds are back to the adult number.
This growth and pruning happens again around the time of puberty. So, before we are out of our teens, our brains have gone through two cycles of rampant growth and cutting back.
One child-rearing book referred to the “terrible twos” as “first adolescence.” In both stages, your brain frantically processes energy — stimuli from the outside world. Stimulated neurons start, strength, and abandon connections; the brain creates and discards neurons by the millions.
We’re all the same; vive la diffÃ©rence
Medina makes a point that’s as important as it should be obvious. The result of frenzied activity combined with our unique experiences of the world, each person’s brain is, at many levels, completely different. Medina describes a neurosurgeon who spends hours mapping regions in the brains of patients awaiting surgery to deal with epilepsy. Why? “He has to map each individual’s critical function areas because he doesn’t know where they are.”
Ojemann can’t predict the function of very precise areas in advance of the surgery because no two brains are wired identically. Not in terms of structure. Not in terms of function…. Bilingual people don’t even store their Spanish and their English in similar places.
This doesn’t mean there’s no similarity. The closer you get to the specific, like the closer you get to individual residences, the more distinct the differences become. It’s like my big discovery about coffee in Paris.
Coffee’s coffee, right? Grown, harvested, roasted, brewed. When you get to individual consumption, you find great variation.
The cafÃ© near my Paris hotel had three prices for coffee: lowest if you stood at the bar, higher at a table inside, and highest sitting at a table on the sidewalk so you could observe or ignore tout le monde.
Minding the brain
Well, if the brains of school children very as widely as their bodies — and they do — we need to rethink or replace the one-size-fits-all, standards by each and grade level approach that characterizes formal education.
I wonder if that’s true for adults? You know, people who’ve gone through those two ridiculous cycles and built their individualized brains.
Our unique configurations argue strongly for education, training, and learning that help us customize and adapt in ways that take advantage of those configurations. Must we adapt to software, or can the software adapt to us? (I’m not thinking of Microsoft’s Clippy.)
Throughout his book, John Medina stresses how many things we don’t know. He urges experimentation, study, and discussion. We who work in areas like training, learning, and performance could do worse than see ourselves as researchers. Get a notion, build a hypothesis, and try it out in the context of doing work that we and our clients value.
People do learn on the job. They don’t necessarily learn effectively through formal training, and they certainly don’t learn exclusively that way. At the same time, just as word processors haven’t made people good writers, web 2.0 tools on their own won’t make people better learners.
We’re in a time of rapid expansion and rapid pruning of technology. Sounds like a good time to use our brains.