Epigenetics, neuroplasticity, and the structure of thought

A number of books I’ve read recently, or books on my list of books to read, have included references to some new ideas in biology and cognition. “Epigenetics” is a new field arising from the discovery that gene function can change and be inherited even if the underlying DNA does not change. The most astonishing implication of this discovery is that the recent decoding of the human genome, originally heralded as an historic milestone, has now been rendered as merely a small first step in the larger issue of understanding how genes work in human beings. It appears that some authors have taken this idea and used it to bolster the claims of nurture over nature since how the genetic code is expressed is dependent on more than just inheritance.

Another term is “neuroplasticity“, which refers to changes in the structure of the brain due to experience. The very act of thinking and learning makes physical changes to the brain, and this does not stop when children’s brains mature as was thought earlier.

I am currently working my way through Stephen Pinker’s book “The Stuff of Thought”, but it was while I was reading John Mighton’s “The End of Ignorance” that I paused to reflect on how authors are picking up and writing about these new findings on the structure of thought. Here is potentially a new avenue to explore in information science. Literacy, brain development, the nurturing role of books and libraries, the organization of information– all of these areas might be affected by the study of epigenetics, neuroplasticity, and the structure of thought.

The End of Ignorance: Multiplying Our Human Potential by John Mighton

 The End of Ignorance, by John Mighton

Mighton’s book is a plea for his JUMP educational program that he believes is based on new ideas in biology and cognition, and that when applied has led to astonishing results in children.

Central to his program are the new findings on epigenetics:

People cling stubbornly to the idea that children will excel in a subject only if they are blessed with the right genes, in spite of all the evidence from early childhood development that contradicts the notion of inborn abilities. Our views of what kids can and can’t do are generally based on very old science. However, in a recent series of experiments that will likely revolutionize our understanding of heredity, scientists have begun to clarify the role played by an important biological system–the epigenome–in controlling human development.

Some of the changes in the educational system in recent years have been the result of a revolt against seemingly mindless rote learning. Mighton points out there is a problem here, in that “the process of learning the content of a subject can also create mental capacities that are important to conceptual thought.” There is a need for rigorous training in basic skills that is not being met by the focus on self-discovery and group problem-solving in classrooms.

One source of confusion around the role of training in education lies in the vast difference between the things people do to become experts and the things they do when they are experts. Experts develop the skills and characteristics that we look for in outstanding students: they love what they do almost to the point of addiction, they are self-motivated and creative, and–in their field–they can see and remember details that elude the untrained eye and solve problems that defeat the amateur. But these abilities often develop from activities that appear to have little in common with true expertise. It seems inconceivable that anything original or inspiring could originate in things that are themselves mechanical or derivative, but the abilities of experts often emerge from exercises that involve a great deal of practice and copying of the styles and ideas of others.

Mighton cites his reading of the poet Sylvia Plath for inspiring him to become a writer:

Shortly after I received my undergraduate degree I read a book of letters from the poet Sylvia Plath to her mother. The book was a revelation to me, because it showed quite clearly that Plath managed to teach herself to write through sheer determination. As a teenager she had practised, with a relentless will, the literary equivalent of the training that produces grandmasters: she learned everything she could about poetic metre and form, she read widely in mythology, she studied other poets obsessively and she memorized a thesaurus. She also did something that we would never tell young writers to do now, but that probably contributed the most to developing her talent: she wrote imitations of the poems she loved. Plath’s early poems were extremely derivative, but gradually, as she developed her craft, her own voice began to appear. Eventually she became one of the most original poets of the twentieth century.

In the following passage I was reminded of Pinker’s book “The Stuff of Thought” which identifies possible brain structures that connect underlying commonalities in how we use language:

Many teachers have been taught that it is a mistake to start with such basic tasks, that concepts cannot emerge out of simple, incremental steps because concepts are unified wholes that are comprehended or imbued with meaning only in some relevant context.

The point is echoed in a later passage about his JUMP program for teaching fractions to children:

I had seen the effect of the fractions unit, in which children play at math as a symbolic game, on children who were struggling with the subject. Noting the striking improvements in children who done the unit, I began to wonder whether children’s understanding of the structure of mathematics as a language might sometimes precede their concrete understanding of mathematics.

The concepts underlying the grammatical structure of mathematics are not embodied only or primarily in concrete models (as the current theory of education has it), but lie in many domains. Many activities draw upon these core grammatical concepts that are linked to structures in the brain. “Learning to understand math symbolically is as conceptual as learning to understand it concretely.” Mighton rails against those educators who think that teaching children to use and develop the symbol processing part of their brain is harmful–that children will become robots with the emphasis on mathematical or grammatical rules.

When a poet finds the right word to fit a particular rhyme scheme, he also finds a connection between images or ideas that he hadn’t previously seen. The exercise of fitting thoughts into a form–of polishing a sentence to make it more elegant or symmetrical, of searching for a word that will echo or play against another word–can lead a writer to entirely new thoughts. And when a mathematician tries to make a set of rules or axioms more elegant entirely for beauty’s sake, she discovers new things about the world. The mathematician Hermann Weyl once spoke of the “uncanny effectiveness of mathematics,” referring to the fact that solutions of purely formal problems in mathematics often have profoundly important applications. But Weyl might just as well have spoken of the uncanny effectiveness of language. The formal structures of any language, whether they are grammatical, literary or symbolic, do not prevent original thought–they compel it.

Mighton provides a good synthesis of his points in this passage:

Children have fundamental psychological needs that are far more important than the content of any particular lesson. Children want success: they want to be able to show off to a caring adult, to feel that they are not stupid or inferior to other children, to reach higher levels in an activity (as in a video game), to succeed in front of their peers, to see patterns and play with subtle variations on a theme, to solve puzzles, and to think the same thoughts and experience the same excitement over an idea as other children. Because we have never completely taken into account the things that are deeply important to children–in the planning of lessons, in the development of textbooks and programs, in the way we assess students’ work–we have never been able to nurture their intelligence effectively. We need to give children the opportunity to train the way experts do and to practise and solidify their knowledge effortlessly, with joy and excitement.

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