Wednesday, January 04, 2023

A Poor Replacement For A Fully Functioning Brain

The nucleus basalis is a collection of large neurons located in our forebrains. Neuroscientists believe that this part of our brain is essential to our ability to form sharp memories. Studies on non-human brains indicate that nucleus basalis cells promote sustained attention, learning, and recall in long-term memory. As researcher and author Tyson Yunkaporta writes, "This is the part of the brain, in essence, that makes learning so effortless for small children."

For a long time, we believed that this part of the brain, sometimes more generally referred to as the "pre-frontal cortex," was something that naturally calcified or even degenerated as we aged, leading to a decline in mental function and even, ultimately, to such conditions as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. This is part of what lead many educational fear-mongers to insist that we must urgently cram little heads as full as possible in the early years before the "learning window" closed forever. This has resulted in our current heightened obsession with academics and other intrusive "enrichment" at younger and younger ages. This, in turn, has lead to a spike in rates of childhood mental illness like anxiety and depression.

Meanwhile, we have come to understand that our brains, including the nucleus basilis, can and should be activated (i.e., continually producing new cells) throughout our lives, a phenomenon called "neuroplasticity." The mistake that lead scientists to believe that our brains naturally stop producing new cells was that their studies were performed on apes in captivity. When they began to look at apes who had been freed from their cages, they discovered that neuroplasticity is a lifelong phenomenon. 

Likewise, we now know that after about three or four years of standard schooling, the nucleus basalis, like in the caged apes, falls into disuse, which means it stops producing as many new cells. Studies of humans who have not been subjected to standard schools show that they don't experience this.

We all want to point to brain science as the basis of what we do in education, but the sad truth is that it typically takes decades for the latest scientific knowledge to find its way into the classroom, if it ever does. You can still find current articles and books, written by "experts," that posit the outdated assumption that the learning windows will close if we don't hurry up. We've known about neuroplasticity since at least the 1940's and it came into common scientific usage during the 1960's. It began to be "common knowledge" during the 1980's, yet here we are nearly a half century later, with school systems that are set up in ways that actually turn off a vital part of how our brains are designed to learn. We are still treating our children like those apes in cages.

The good news, as Yunkaporta writes in his book Sand Talk, is that the damage can be undone: "(N)europlacity research has shown that damage to the nucleus basalis can be reversed by reintroducing activities involving highly focused attention, which results in a massive increase in the production of acetylcholine and dopamine. Using new skills under conditions of intense focus rewires billions of neural connections and reactivates the nucleus basalis. Loss of function in this part of the brain is not a natural stage of development -- we are supposed to regain and even increase it thoughout our lives. Until very recently in human history, we did."

When he writes "very recently in human history" he is talking about the past couple centuries and the rise of Western-style schooling. And when he's writing about activities that involve "highly focused attention" he means self-selected activities undertaken voluntarily and motivated by curiosity rather than the system of obedience, punishments, and rewards that modern schooling uses as a poor replacement for a fully functioning brain.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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