فصل 13

دوره: ذهنی برای اعداد / درس 14

فصل 13

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{ 13 }

sculpting your brain

This time, eleven-year-old Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s crime had been to build a small cannon and blow a neighbor’s new, large wooden gate into splinters. In rural Spain of the 1860s, there weren’t many options for oddball juvenile delinquents. That’s how the young Cajal found himself locked in a flea-ridden jail.

Cajal was stubborn and rebellious. He had a single overwhelming passion: art. But what could he do with painting and drawing? Especially since Cajal ignored the rest of his studies—particularly math and science, which he thought were useless.

Cajal’s father, Don Justo, was a strict man who had brought himself up from virtually nothing. The family was definitely not on aristocratic easy street. To try and give his son much-needed discipline and stability, Don Justo apprenticed him out to a barber. This was a disaster, as Cajal just neglected his studies even further. Beaten and starved by his teachers in an attempt to bring him around, Cajal was a mocking, shocking disciplinary nightmare.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal won the Nobel Prize for his many important contributions to our understanding of the structure and function of the nervous system.1 In this picture, Cajal looks more like an artist than a scientist. His eyes show a hint of the same mischief that brought him so much trouble as a child.

Cajal met and worked with many brilliant scientists through his lifetime, people who were often far smarter than he. In Cajal’s revealing autobiography, however, he pointed out that although brilliant people can do exceptional work, just like anyone else, they can also be careless and biased. Cajal felt the key to his success was his perseverance (the “virtue of the less brilliant”2) coupled with his flexible ability to change his mind and admit errors. Underlying everything was the support of his loving wife, Doña Silvería Fañanás García (the couple had seven children). Anyone, Cajal noted, even people with average intelligence, can sculpt their own brain, so that even the least gifted can produce an abundant harvest.3 Who knew that Santiago Ramón y Cajal would one day not only earn the Nobel Prize, but eventually become known as the father of modern neuroscience?

Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life

Santiago Ramón y Cajal was already in his early twenties when he began climbing from bad-boy delinquency into the traditional study of medicine. Cajal himself wondered if perhaps his head had simply “grown weary of frivolity and irregular behavior and was beginning to settle down.” There’s evidence that myelin sheaths, the fatty insulation that helps signals move more quickly along a neuron, often don’t finish developing until people are in their twenties. This may explain why teenagers often have trouble controlling their impulsive behavior—the wiring between intention and control areas isn’t completely formed.

“Deficiencies of innate ability may be compensated for through persistent hard work and concentration. One might say that work substitutes for talent, or better yet that it creates talent.” —Santiago Ramón y Cajal

When you use neural circuits, however, it seems you help build the myelin sheath over them—not to mention making many other microscopic changes. Practice appears to strengthen and reinforce connections between different brain regions, creating highways between the brain’s control centers and the centers that store knowledge. In Cajal’s case, it seems his natural maturation processes, coupled with his own efforts to develop his thinking, helped him to take control of his overall behavior.

It seems people can enhance the development of their neuronal circuits by practicing thoughts that use those neurons.9 We’re still in the infancy of understanding neural development, but one thing is becoming clear—we can make significant changes in our brain by changing how we think.

What’s particularly interesting about Cajal is that he achieved his greatness even though he wasn’t a genius—at least, not in the conventional sense of the term. Cajal deeply regretted that he never had a “quickness, certainty, and clearness in the use of words.”10 What’s worse is that when Cajal got emotional, he lost his way with words almost entirely. He couldn’t remember things by rote, which made school, where parroting back information was prized, agony for him. The best Cajal could do was to grasp and remember key ideas; he frequently despaired his modest powers of understanding.11 Yet some of the most exciting areas of neuroscientific research today are rooted in Cajal’s original findings.12 Cajal’s teachers, as Cajal later recollected, showed a sadly mistaken valuing of abilities. Quickness was taken as cleverness, memory for ability, and submissiveness for rightness.13 Cajal’s success despite his “flaws” shows us how even today, teachers can easily underestimate their students—and students can underestimate themselves.

Deep Chunking

Cajal worked his way fitfully through medical school. After adventures in Cuba as an army doctor and several failed attempts at competitive examinations to place as a professor, he finally obtained a position as a professor of histology, studying the microscopic anatomy of biological cells.

Each morning in his work in studying the cells of the brain and the nervous system, Cajal carefully prepared his microscope slides. Then he spent hours carefully viewing the cells that his stains had highlighted. In the afternoon, Cajal looked to the abstract picture of his mind’s eye—what he could remember from his morning’s viewings—and began to draw the cells. Once finished, Cajal compared his drawing with the image he saw in the microscope. Then Cajal went back to the drawing board and started again, redrawing, checking, and redrawing. Only after his drawing captured the synthesized essence, not of just a single slide, but of the entire collection of slides devoted to a particular type of cell, did Cajal rest.14 Cajal was a master photographer—he was even the first to write a book in Spanish on how to do color photography. But he never felt that photographs could capture the true essence of what he was seeing. Cajal could only do that through his art, which helped him abstract—chunk—reality in a way that was most useful for helping others see the essence of the chunks.

A synthesis—an abstraction, chunk, or gist idea—is a neural pattern. Good chunks form neural patterns that resonate, not only within the subject we’re working in, but with other subjects and areas of our lives. The abstraction helps you transfer ideas from one area to another.15 That’s why great art, poetry, music, and literature can be so compelling. When we grasp the chunk, it takes on a new life in our own minds—we form ideas that enhance and enlighten the neural patterns we already possess, allowing us to more readily see and develop other related patterns.

Once we have created a chunk as a neural pattern, we can more easily pass that chunked pattern to others, as Cajal and other great artists, poets, scientists, and writers have done for millennia. Once other people grasp that chunk, not only can they use it, but also they can more easily create similar chunks that apply to other areas in their lives—an important part of the creative process.

Here you can see that the chunk—the rippling neural ribbon—on the left is very similar to the chunk on the right. This symbolizes the idea that once you grasp a chunk in one subject, it is much easier for you to grasp or create a similar chunk in another subject. The same underlying mathematics, for example, echo throughout physics, chemistry, and engineering—and can sometimes also be seen in economics, business, and models of human behavior. This is why it can be easier for a physics or engineering major to earn a master’s in business administration than someone with a background in English or history.

Metaphors and physical analogies also form chunks that can allow ideas even from very different areas to influence one another.17 This is why people who love math, science, and technology often also find surprising help from their activities or knowledge of sports, music, language, art, or literature. My own knowledge of how to learn a language helped me in learning how to learn math and science.

One important key to learning swiftly in math and science is to realize that virtually every concept you learn has an analogy—a comparison—with something you already know.18 Sometimes the analogy or metaphor is rough—such as the idea that blood vessels are like highways, or that a nuclear reaction is like falling dominoes. But these simple analogies and metaphors can be powerful tools to help you use an existing neural structure as a scaffold to help you more rapidly build a new, more complex neural structure. As you begin to use this new structure, you will discover that it has features that make it far more useful than your first simplistic structure. These new structures can in turn become sources of metaphor and analogy for still newer ideas in very different areas. (This, indeed, is why physicists and engineers have been sought after in the world of finance.) Physicist Emanual Derman, for example, who did brilliant research in theoretical particle physics, moved on to the company Goldman Sachs, eventually helping to develop the Black-Derman-Toy interest-rate model. Derman eventually took charge of the firm’s Quantitative Risk Strategies group.

SUMMING IT UP

Brains mature at different speeds. Many people do not develop maturity until their midtwenties.

Some of the most formidable heavyweights in science started out as apparently hopeless juvenile delinquents.

One trait that successful professionals in science, math, and technology gradually learn is how to chunk—to abstract key ideas.

Metaphors and physical analogies form chunks that can allow ideas from very different areas to influence one another.

Regardless of your current or intended career path, keep your mind open and ensure that math and science are in your learning repertoire. This gives you a rich reserve of chunks to help you be smarter about your approach to all sorts of life and career challenges.

PAUSE AND RECALL

Close the book and look away. What were the main ideas of this chapter? You will find that you can recall these ideas more easily if you relate them to your own life and career goals.

ENHANCE YOUR LEARNING

  1. In his career, Santiago Ramón y Cajal found a way to combine his passion for art with a passion for science. Do you know other people, either famous public figures or family friends or acquaintances, who have done something similar? Is such a confluence possible in your own life?

  2. How can you avoid falling into the trap of thinking that quicker people are automatically more clever?

  3. Doing what you are told to do can have benefits and drawbacks. Compare Cajal’s life with your own. When has doing what you were told been beneficial? When has it inadvertently created problems?

  4. Compared to Cajal’s handicaps, how do your own limitations stack up? Can you find ways to turn your disadvantages into advantages?

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