Todays obsession with the brain as a pseudoscientific tag line for all things drives me nuts. Yes, we have a brain. Do we really know how it is involved in our conscious, cognitive, behavioural and emotional selves. No.
Insert rant… more eloquently done by Ana Todorovic in her blog “Do psychologists need a brain”
Would knowing more about the brain change anything? I’m not convinced. Just like understanding muscles might make some tiny difference to elite athletes but hasn’t helped in muscular dystrophies.
It seems fairly straight forward to me, that if I go to the gym and do arm curls my biceps will get bigger. And so it follows that if we recurrently practice something, the bit of our brain we are working with will get developed.
I went looking for a study I heard about in the ’80’s when I was at medical school. This study found that London taxi drivers had an overdeveloped part of their brain responsible for spatial awareness. As I embarked on this search I tried to recall if we even had CT scans in the 80’s and braced myself for some macabre post mortem study.
What I found was something much more recent, and my confession is that I found it interesting and thought provoking, raising useful questions for doing therapy.
Talent in the taxi: a model system for exploring expertise. Katherine Woollett et al 2009
They studied London taxi drivers and found that people of average IQ can develop expertise to an exceptional level, and this was associated with developing more grey matter in their posterior hippocampus, an area related to spatial awareness and navigation. The down side, as seen with autism where there can be exceptional abilities at the expense of social cognition and executive functions, and some expert musicians who suffer focal dystonia, the taxi drivers performed poorly on tests of spatial memory and delayed recall, as well as acquiring and retaining other types of new information. They also lost grey matter in their anterior hippocampus associated with worse anterograde associative memory.
Interestingly both the positive and negative grey matter changes began to revert after the drivers retired.
London bus drivers, in comparison, had no hippocampal changes, and this was explained by the different expertise required to follow prescribed bus routes versus being required to learn the layout of all 25,000 streets and thousands of places of interest in London.
A follow up study in 2011: Acquiring “the Knowledge” of London’s Layout Drives Structural Brain Changes tracked individuals of average IQ over the time of their training and found that those who qualified demonstrated a structural increase in grey matter in their posterior hippocampus and concomitant changes to their memory profile, but there were no changes in those who failed the test, or those in the control group.
Some useful questions for working with clients:
One of the most reproducible findings for structural brain changes in PTSD is reduction in hippocampal volume. This has also been found in major depression, schizophrenia, and in bipolar where a correlation with verbal memory deficit has been shown.
Most people who are stressed or depressed report poor memory. I wonder if you practiced being stressed or depressed you could shrink your hippocampus.
What if reversing those changes were as simple as retiring from taxi driving?
Is it just a matter of use it or lose it?… or better still, lose it or use it…
What we practice we get good at. What are we practicing if we are depressed, anxious, obsessed, paranoid…
What could we practice instead?
What do you think?