Can you Become Brighter?

How bright could you be? Could you ever play chess like a Grandmaster?

Could you ever become a professor?

It’s very difficult for anyone to answer these questions; but one of my favourite true stories (stop me if I’ve told you this one before) is of a Nobel Prize winning physicist. One day he found in his attic a school report which included the results of a school IQ test. He was shocked to find that his supposed IQ was so low that not only did he have no chance of winning a Nobel Prize, he should not have even considered becoming a scientist!

Obviously, if the test was accurate at the time, for him to have achieved such incredible subsequent success then something must have changed. It did – he used his ‘plastic’ brain. At that time, it was thought by most researchers that there was no such thing, but he – and a ton of subsequent evidence – showed them to be wrong.

Your Plastic Brain

The brain is ‘plastic’ in the sense that everyone has the ability to make their brain change and grow - something called neuroplasticity. We just have to impose sufficient demands on the brain so that it creates more brain cells to accomodate those demands. For instance, if you learn The Knowledge (as London taxi drivers do in order to find their way around the city) then the brain area dealing with navigation actually grows. But it’s not just that part that can grow: when we learn anything that requires considerable brainwork this can show up in modern scans as an increase in the size of the relevant brain region.

We do not yet know whether these new brain cells store what we have just learned, or whether they are a new supply for future learning (like topping up the shelves in a supermarket for future purchases). Either way, we can say we grow new brains cells simply by challenging the brain with difficult tasks.

The Take-Away

So can we become a Professor, or a chess Grandmaster? Well no one can say how far we can go with this brain growth (after all, we don’t yet know how best to create this increase in cells) but as our Nobel Laureate physicist can tell you, it’s amazing what we can achieve by trying hard!

Okay, pawn to king four. Your move.