For a long time, people believed that our development stopped at a certain point. The assumption was that the brain’s wiring was fixed. For the most part, genetic influence determined what skills and knowledge we could acquire.
What flipped this idea around was a study on London Taxi Drivers. If you aren’t familiar, London streets are infamously twisty, windy, full of one ways and dead ends. In order to become a taxi driver, you’re put through rigorous training. You need to know where all landmarks and buildings are. They know the fastest way to get somewhere, taking into consideration road work, traffic and time of day. The first thing they need to memorize is 320 standard runs from the guide book when they enroll in the program. Most take it further than this, learning each and every one of the tens of thousands of streets criss-crossing and zig-zagging through London.
This impressive feat, people being more effective than GPS units, sparked interest from researchers. What they found is that the hippocampus, a part of the brain, was enlarged in the taxi drivers of London. What’s more is that the longer the driver was working, they larger the part of the hippocampus could grow.
The researchers even compared a group of prospective drivers. They took an MRI, measured part of the brain and retested the group 4 years later. The group that proceeded to become a licensed drivers - had a larger hippocampus. The group that quit or failed, had no significant changes in the size of the hippocampus.
We get that this happens with exercise. If I measured your muscle mass and then 4 years later, after rigorous training every day, we would all expect that your muscles would be larger. What’s fascinating though is we have the ability to do this with our brains!
Just like with exercise, we can expand our brains with training. We have the ability to adapt, learn and grow. Much more than we thought we possible. Since, until recently we thought our traits were fixed and genetically predetermined.
Plasticity, or your brain’s ability to adapt means you can get better at anything with the right kind of practice. This anti-determinism view is encouraging. We can all keep getting better and continue to improve.
If you’re interested in reading more, check out Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.