Leading neuroscientist unravels the latest research on how developing brains use their environment
The 1990s were dubbed "the decade of the brain", thanks to the remarkable progress in research. But the range and pace of discoveries about neuroscience now before us could lead the dawn of the third millennium to qualify as "the century of the mind".
How might these discoveries have an impact on the future of education? Researchers are beginning to pinpoint genes that relate to particular learning difficulties, but, even more excitingly, neuroscience is opening new windows into the enormous influence of the environment on brain development throughout life.
Any one gene can be switched on and off many times within a lifetime by outside influences, be they immediate and in the close vicinity of the cell, or indirect, large-scale influences in the environment. These triggers will, in turn, cause a cascade of events within the brain. Any one gene, once activated, will lead to the activation of further genes, so there can be no simple one-to-one relationship between a gene and a function - or dysfunction. So, even if we find the culprit gene when there is an impairment (such as dyslexia) it is very hard to go the other way round, and find the gene to "cure" it, since every function that the brain performs will usually have many genes relating to it.
John Stein and his group in Oxford have traced a certain gene deficit that may be related to forms of dyslexia. However, no one is claiming that dyslexia is trapped inside the strands of DNA. The condition is too complex to be controlled by one gene. Dyslexia relates to impairments in processing visual or auditory information which, in turn, will lead to a difficulty in reading.
A good illustration of the essentially indirect effect of genes comes from an exciting experiment several years ago: Van Dellen and colleagues showed that mice doomed through genetic tweaking to develop Huntington's chorea displayed the impairment much later in life, and to a far more modest extent, if stimulated.
If the importance of the environment is clear, even with a single-gene disorder in mice, how much more for the growing human brain? Even the work relating genes to dyslexia highlights not only the importance of intervening, intermediary factors such as the visual or auditory system, but external issues such as diet in the correct functioning of that system.
We know that we are born with most of the brain cells we will ever have, and it is the growth of connections between them that will account for the growth of the brain after birth. Moreover, these connections and how they work will be very much influenced by interaction with the environment.
It is this plasticity of the human brain which gives us the ability to adapt and to learn. It means that teachers can help children's brains grow.
The interaction, then, between the environment and the brain, and our understanding of it, may lead to the most exciting advances in education.
Another type of study, the highly controversial Mozart effect, could be seen as an environmental issue. Despite the significance, or otherwise, of humans learning better when they have listened to Mozart, it seems that rats too will run mazes more effectively having heard his music. John Hughes, a neurologist in Illinois, has shown that the critical factor is how often the music volume rises and falls in surges of ten seconds or more. Mozart scores two to three times higher than minimalist music, or pop tunes: it seems that the regular repeating sequences of 20 to 30 seconds fit best with brain-wave patterns of 30-second cycles.
In the future perhaps we will be learning more about how to entrain populations of neurons using certain types of environmental stimulation so that the brain is more receptive to learning. Indeed, the growing popularity of brain gyms before lessons would offer a good starting point for this type of research.
But if future brain research will tell us more about how the brain is processing incoming information by virtue of its plasticity, then we should also think about what the environment will be and how it will affect what we need, or want, our children to learn. Given the pervasiveness of screen culture, it is not unreasonable to suspect that icon manipulation and hyperlinks, rapid use of search engines, and instant accessing of facts, may lead to a generation that will think and learn differently from those of us born in the 20th century. The journalist Kevin Kelly sums up the difference very well:
"Screen culture is a world of constant flux of endless sound-bites, of quick cuts and half-baked ideas. It is a flow of gossip tit-bits, news headlines, and floating first impressions; notions don't stand alone, but are massively interlinked with everything else; truth is not delivered by authors and authorities, but is assembled by the audience".
We seem to be entering a culture that is answer-rich but, perhaps, question-poor. Where the individual learner needs to navigate their way through many possibilities that would have been impossible to contemplate to those of us used to the clear single path of the narrative through a novel. So, we could be in danger of developing an education system that places a premium on experiences rather than learning, of pressing a button to feel "Yuk" and "Wow", to be the passive recipient of strange sights and sounds, rather than abstract ideas with "meanings" requiring layer upon layer of prior associations.
And in the sensory-laden world of the screen, where will be the incentive, or the need, to read and write? Brain research is poised, if it can rise to the challenge, to make the biggest contribution of all, on how the brain learns through interaction with the environment. But what will be learned, and why, are issues just as great as how. Now, more than ever before, educationists and brain scientists, need to work together.
Baroness Greenfield is director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain