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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sending your brain back to school

(Note: This was my most recent ChristianWeek column)

Back to school success: Does self-discipline beat intelligence? What about a good night’s sleep?

by Denyse O’Leary

A perennial question ... especially as some of us head back to school: Are we born smart? Do we achieve smarts? Does bitter experience thrust smarts upon us?

Unfortunately, some researchers into the sources of intelligence seem to be looking for something that isn’t actually there — a specific genetic inheritance, mechanism, brain wiring diagram, or excess of cells that guarantees exceptional intelligence. But life is seldom as simple as that. Not surprisingly, research results can be confusing or contradictory as a result.

In a recent edition of Scientific American Mind (September 3, 2008), Hoppe and Stojanovic write,
No one is sure why some experiments indicate that a bright brain is a
hardworking one, whereas others suggest it is one that can afford to relax.
Some, such as Haier—who has found higher brain metabolic rates in more astute
individuals in some of his studies but not in others—speculate one reason could
relate to the difficulty of the tasks. When a problem is very complex, even a
gifted person’s brain has to work to solve it. The brain’s relatively high
metabolic rate in this instance might reflect greater engagement with the task.
If that task was out of reach for someone of average intellect, that person’s
brain might be relatively inactive because of an inability to tackle the
problem. And yet a bright individual’s brain might nonetheless solve a less
difficult problem efficiently and with little effort as compared with someone
who has a lower IQ.
Got that? There is, however, some really useful take-home information from their article: When researchers examined the final grades of 164 Grade Eight students, together with their acceptance or rejection from a prestigious high school, they found that “scholarly success was more than twice as dependent on assessments of self-discipline as on IQ.”

Students with more self-discipline—meaning that they would sacrifice short-term fun for long-term gain—were more likely to improve their marks during the school year than those who wouldn’t sacrifice fun. By contrast, a high IQ did not predict a rise in grades.

Obviously, this won’t surprise an experienced teacher or a mature parent. But it bears repeating all the same: Modern neuroscience is not overturning millennia of experience; it is filling out what the other disciplines already tell us. Our brains are very plastic organs, and paying attention determines the areas in which they develop. Like our bodies, brains must be exercised effectively to achieve our goals. That is why self-discipline is as important to brain exercise as to body exercise.

That’s also why I am skeptical when I hear jocks claim that they “can’t” pass Math or English because their specialty is throwing touchdown passes. If they paid as much attention to the Math lecturer and the English prof as they do to the coach and the trainer, they would likely get the marks they need to play for their school. Our brains are generalists, by necessity. We make them into specialists by our choices.

Now, about sleep: Does “lights out” matter? Why not stay up all night gabbing with new friends? Here’s one reason why not: Modern neuroscience shows that, contrary to older theories, our minds/brains are not passive while we sleep. In fact, Robert Stickgold and Jeffrey M. Ellenbogen (Scientific American Mind, August 7, 2008) relate a fascinating German experiment in which researchers taught subjects to solve a math problem by a long, tedious procedure. Subjects practiced the procedure 100 times. Then they were sent away and told to come back 12 hours later, to try it another 200 times. But the researchers had not told the subjects that there is an easy math shortcut to the problem. The researchers knew precisely when a student figured out that shortcut, because problem-solving speed suddenly increased.

Note this: Subjects who got a night's sleep between the two sessions were more than two and a half times as likely to figure out the shortcut! Fifty-nine percent of those subjects who slept discovered the trick, but only 23 percent of the others did. When we sleep, our minds organize solutions to problems, and we need to give them a chance.

The apostle Paul compares the Christian life to an athletic contest (1 Corinthians 9:24). That makes a lot of sense when we keep in mind that our brains have many of the same needs as our bodies.

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