Thursday, October 20, 2011

Some implications of recent studies on the plasticity of the brain

Today, several news outlets -- from NPR to the Wall Street Journal -- published discussions about new scientific studies showing that IQ test scores can change radically throughout one's lifetime, possibly in response to activities and choices that one makes.

Rarely mentioned in these discussions is the possibility that this research demonstrates what an wrong-headed concept the entire IQ test really is, and how it is really one of the centerpieces of the Darwinian revolution that took over England and the United States during the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. It should be fairly obvious that IQ tests, which flatten the varied and unique gifts that individuals are given by their Creator to a one-dimensional measurement of "intelligence quotient" is Darwinian in its very nature, and encourages reducing people to numbers and stratifying them according to their potential.

One of the pioneers of the idea of quantifying human potential in terms of intelligence tests was Darwin's half-cousin Francis Galton, whom we have met before. Galton was a major figure in the eugenics movement and it is a fact of history that the IQ test was a primary tool of the eugenics movement and was used as the basis for the forcible sterilization of women in the United States.

If the distasteful history of the IQ test (rarely mentioned by the media) does not completely discredit it, these new findings should cast further doubt on its value. The fact that "intelligence quotient" can increase (or decrease) can, of course, be viewed as hopeful information, spurring us to take steps to keep our brains moving in the right direction, but really the entire idea that you can put a number on intelligence is questionable at best. At least this new study should prevent the test from being used to permanently categorize someone's potential, the way it regrettably has in the past.

A more interesting study revealing the distinct possibility that our habits and practices can have positive effects on our minds is the ongoing work by some neuroscientists scanning the brainwave activity of those who have spent tens of thousands of hours in meditation, specifically Buddhist monks.

For years, Professor Richard Davidson and other neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (and elsewhere) have been testing the possibility that disciplines such as meditation can actually change the brain. This article from 2004, entitled "Scans of Monks' Brains Show Meditation Alters Structure, Functioning," says that when the brain activity of novices with little experience meditating and the brain activity of monks who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditation were measured during an exercise in meditation, the monks "showed a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves."

This article on the same subject from Wired magazine implies that emotions such as empathy, compassion and love can actually be trained and strengthened on purpose, with real results. It says:
The monks produced gamma waves that were 30 times as strong as the students'. In addition, larger areas of the meditators' brains were active, particularly in the left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for positive emotions.

Davidson realized that the results had important implications for ongoing research into the ability to change brain function through training. In the traditional view, the brain becomes frozen with the onset of adulthood, after which few new connections form. In the past 20 years, though, scientists have discovered that intensive training can make a difference. For instance, the portion of the brain that corresponds to a string musician's fingering hand grows larger than the part that governs the bow hand -- even in musicians who start playing as adults. Davidson's work suggested this potential might extend to emotional centers.

But Davidson saw something more. The monks had responded to the request to meditate on compassion by generating remarkable brain waves. Perhaps these signals indicated that the meditators had attained an intensely compassionate state of mind. If so, then maybe compassion could be exercised like a muscle; with the right training, people could bulk up their empathy.
Notably, the same article later quotes a speech given by the current (14th) Dalai Lama to a group of neuroscientists in Washington DC, saying that in the speech he expressed the importance of compassion in our everyday lives. The article's author says:
He's especially concerned that researchers are not paying enough attention to the development of "warmheartedness." Like charity, this quality begins at home. "Come home and be with your wife, your husband, or your children," he beseeches the assembled neuroscientists, "and feel happy!"
This appears to imply that the Dalai Lama perceives the practice of "warmheartedness" to be a discipline that benefits from daily practice!

While there is no Darwinian standardized test for measuring "warmheartedness quotient," it would seem that these statements (and the results of Professor Davidson's research) imply that this capacity can be increased throughout our lives as well (or, more disturbingly, that it can be decreased too).

This is a finding that is at least as important as the finding that IQ (if there really is such a thing as IQ) can change through life, and one that we can put to practical daily use much more easily. Of course, Dr. Davidson's research also implies that meditation might be a discipline that -- while forgotten and neglected much of the modern world -- is vitally important.

Is it only coincidence that the wisdom of the Hopi elders passed down through the centuries indicates that chanting (which forms a central part of many forms of Tibetan meditation -- see for example this video clip) was seen as a vital daily activity and that failure to practice it was symptomatic of falling into evil deeds and hatred of others? As we saw in this earlier discussion, Hopi legend relates that the Creator told the people "sing in harmony from the tops of the hills. When I do not hear you singing praises to your Creator I will know you have gone back to evil again."

While there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to improve one's ability to learn, is it not possible that our modern obsession with "intelligence quotient" and all that it implies, and our pursuit of anything that can help us "get an edge" over others in a "dog-eat-dog world" (in other words, the fruits of the modern religion of Darwinism) have eclipsed a focus on other aspects of our humanity that we should be exercising as well?

Special thanks to Mrs. MDS for sharing these articles about the monks with me during our West Point reunion a few weeks back.