What our nerves tell us about talent

13th January 2012 at 00:00
Neuroscience shows the gifts of high-achieving pupils are down to both nature and nurture, says Dr Ellie Dommett

Although the relevance of neuroscience to education has only recently gained widespread recognition, neuroscientists have for many years been researching areas that undoubtedly have implications in the classroom. For example, there are thousands of research articles investigating conditions such as dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Although there is no consensus on the likely causes and best approaches to conditions such as these, scientific research has made great advances in understanding the processes that might be altered in the brains of individuals with such conditions.

However, it could be argued that the applicability of this research to your average classroom teacher is limited to a small population of their pupils. Looking at ADHD, for example, which is the most prevalent neurodevelopmental disorder, the highest estimates of prevalence are approaching 15 per cent of school-aged children. But what about the remaining 85 per cent The majority will presumably have no identified special educational needs and will perform at average levels on the various tasks and skills they develop. Nevertheless, there will be some among that number who are termed gifted and talented. So what can neuroscience tell us about these individuals?

In fact, the neuroscience community has little to say on this population of highly able individuals. This may stem in part from a funding bias towards "curing the ill" rather than "observing the well", but there are also the ethical constraints of working with children. Additionally, unlike children perhaps receiving a drug treatment or behavioural intervention for a diagnosed condition, there is little advantage for any children without a diagnosis taking part in time-consuming research.

In spite of these constraints, neuroscience is beginning to venture into talent. We know from education that a gifted and talented child may show high levels of creativity, exceptional memory, rapid processing speed, high motivation and optimal performance on various activities. Further investigation into these traits has identified that some are likely to be heritable.

This has been suggested because certain skills can be mapped to particular brain regions and the development of these brain regions is highly genetically influenced. For example, researchers have shown that the corpus callosum, the connection between the two hemispheres of the brain, is strongly genetically influenced and linked to processing speed. Likewise, some areas linked to reasoning, memory and language function have been shown to be strongly genetically influenced. But not all structures linked to talent are heritable. The very well-known work examining the hippocampus of London taxi drivers revealed that this area is highly influenced by the environment and its size altered over years spent driving taxis. Correspondingly, it decreased in retirement. This area is heavily implicated in learning and memory.

So, neuroscience can tell us what we probably already knew to an extent: talent can be heritable and it can be environmentally induced.

But does it have more to add on the topic? The answer is yes, and the amount it adds is growing all the time. Recent research has shown that highly able adolescents seem to have increased brain maturity and neural efficiency in comparison with the average adolescent. They also show better sensory gating - that is, the ability to filter out irrelevant stimuli in their environment. All this information is gradually giving us clues about what happens in the brain when things work well. Neuroscientists are beginning to show a real interest in the brain basis of talent and, furthermore, they are also beginning to show an interest in the potential shortcut to talent and expertise provided through cognitive-enhancing drugs, which are starting to impinge on the classroom.

At present these drugs exist, but their exact mechanisms and how effective they are is not fully understood. By investigating how they work, scientists might be able to shed light on the fundamental underlying brain processes needed to perform to optimal standards. This has the potential to simultaneously create both a plethora of usable knowledge and an ethical minefield.

Dr Ellie Dommett is a lecturer at the Open University and co-author of the "Learning and The Brain Pocketbook".

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