How often have you heard the phrase, "When I was your age..." followed by some outrageous anecdote of hardship that you know cannot possibly be true? (Six miles through snow, uphill both ways!) Even as our elders continue trying to convince us that they had it so much rougher when they were growing up, it's getting easier to make the claim that our hardships are at least as difficult as those of the previous generation--I don't mean to diminish the real challenges that the Baby Boomers faced, such as the looming threats of nuclear holocaust during the cold war, but as cultures in the digital age quicken their pace to keep up with Moore's Law (or not, as is the case in many 3rd world countries), we're entering an era of increased understanding of our global responsibility to address issues like climate change and the coming energy crisis. Apart from Swine Flu and an American economy to rival that of the Great Depression, we are certainly faced with big problems of our own, and we're going to need bigger solutions. The global mantra currently seems to be "if we only had enough smart people--let's make babies, and hopefully some of them will turn out to be like Newton or Einstein." It's as if they truly believe that crossing a population threshold will suddenly trigger a new renaissance. Of course, we know better.
I recently attended a lecture and hosted interview (available here) by Dr. Michael Merzenich, who argues that the true limiting factor is a lack of proper training at a young age. His research in brain plasticity builds a strong case against the claims that a person's development is self determining, which is a now-obsolete tenet of psychology known as the "creative self." He further claims that almost without exception, we are not teaching in ways that are even close to optimally efficient, and it's a tragedy to assume that students who do poorly (socially or academically) at a young age will always do poorly. His research suggests that's simply false, and only a reflection of our own failings as parents, educators, and mentors. And the problems we're facing are, according to him, are not "getting any easier for the average young brain and person evolving in our society on any level... and now we have them competing with everybody in the world for God's sake.... You have to compete with the smartest people from everywhere. You can't just be the smartest person in your village, right?" It's clear when listening to him that he's frustrated with our systems of education.
There is good news, and this is where the technology (finally!) comes in: he says that, at any age, the negative constructs that we program our brains with can be unraveled, and the work he's pioneering has demonstrated this with software training sessions that could total as little as 30 hours (plus periodic maintenance). Interestingly, there are physical components that can similarly be overcome--for example, reduced peripheral vision in aging adults can be reversed, and people suffering from Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease may even see significant improvements from these programs.
He's quick to point out that you should interpret his findings with a grain of salt because he holds financial interest in the companies that produce the training materials. He claims that if he has his way, the materials will be distributed at or near cost, and only the trainers (teachers) will be paid to administer the programs. They aren't free today, but I suppose they're not much more expensive than a 6-month gym membership, either. And if they really work, these kinds of "mind-workouts" may be just as beneficial. They certainly aren't without precedent, as programs like Brain-Age have been around for a while. If the science is really there and the trend takes off, it may not be long before parents talk less about "when I was your age..." and more about "when you're my age..."
The Little Book of Contentment
2 days ago