Cool study exploring expertise: confessions of a neuroatheist

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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.

The study:

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?

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2 thoughts on “Cool study exploring expertise: confessions of a neuroatheist

  1. I think that it is important to understand that physiogical changes to the brain can arise in many ways and that these can have real and far reaching consequences. For example post ictal suicidal ideationfor people with epilepsy, or a diminished sense of socially appropriate language among people who have suffered stroke to their frontal lobe.

    There are countless other well understood connections between what happens in the brain and what then can happen in people’s lives.

    The thing is, for instance, knowing that the period following a serious concussion can involve otherwise diffucult to understand depression is a good thing. A person who has been concussed is entitled to know that over the ensuing 12 weeks they may feel oddly depressed and they are entitled to know that if it happens it will almost certainly calm right down as their brain finishes the healing process that a jarring concussion involves.

    A person suffering post ictal depression is also entitled to know where it could be coming from.

    But knowing that your depression has a source may not be enough to help you manage it. Pilling up with medication can worsen depression in the long term.

    Different therapists have their ideas on what to do but I have long thought that the solution oriented counsellor who helps a person get in touch with how it feels to be less anxious, less depressed, by having a range of open conversations with their client is light years ahead of other therapists who over cook the situation.

    While I believe in drug interventions for panic attacks, pain, and a range of other mental problems, I also know that the brief effective therapies that should be available for people are seldom there as the traditional gatekeepers push their own ideas about more compmex and more lucrative therapies and medical interventions because they know no better.

    Yes brain physioligy is important but the person inhabiting the brain is also real and needs to be brought into any conversation about how to deal with the feelings they are experiencing.

    The reductionism whereby what we feel, our capacity to learn and to understand, is boiled down to what part of our brain is involved in particular activities only goes so far. Neuroplasticity for all its claims is still relatively new but its evidentiary demand is compelling in that there is more to what our brains can do than we have previously dared to suppose.

    And this brings us back to the central idea of solution oriented counselling that there is a person talking and feeling and acting and sometimes they need only to be able to engage with their own capacities to go beyond what they or others might think possible.

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  2. Thanks. Some good reminders of the benefits of practice. As little as 2-3 days of speaking less in Spanish leads to a noticeable decline in my speaking fluency (as I perceive it, at least). And just a 20 to 30 minute spanish-only practice session brings it all back. Even so, I have not, as of yet, found a reliable way of measuring the size nor functioning of my amygdala. (hahaha).

    Ryan

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