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Monday, August 12, 2019

Five Ways to Make Yourself Smarter


As a "Memory Medic" committed to helping people improve their learning and memory capabilities, I am often asked in the on-line Quora.com forum questions like: "How can I make myself smarter?" I am stunned to see so many people struggling in school or the workplace who perceive a need to become smarter. Nobody seems to know how to become smarter. In fact, it is commonly believed that you cannot change your IQ, that you are stuck with whatever level you happen to have. This belief is wrong. Experimental evidence demonstrates that IQ often improves with age as infants progress through elementary school. However, by middle school and later in life IQ seems to become fixed in
most people. As far as I know, there has been little research to test this assumption. Even so, in my own experience, and others have similarly reported, going through a rigorous Ph.D. program does make you smarter. I think other things can work too.

I became sensitized to this point when I was in Graduate school at Notre Dame. I barely gained admission, because my test scores did not match their usual acceptance criteria. My major professor chastised me on multiple occasions for not being smart enough, with the comment, "Strive for insight."  If I was short on insight capability, it meant that I am not smart enough to be at Notre Dame as his student. I believed that at first. After all, my IQ score, determined in middle school, was 113, only a little above average and certainly not up to the level of Notre Dame Ph.D. graduate students. Yet my professor was also telling me that I could make myself smarter. Otherwise, what’s the point of “striving?” He couldn’t explain how to become smarter, but no doubt he had discovered this was possible from his own experience as he progressed through the rigorous education of becoming a Notre Dame priest and a earning a science Ph.D. in a prestigious University of Chicago program.
Eventually, I learned he was right on both counts: I was not smart enough, but by striving for insightfulness, I could make myself smarter. Eventually, I think I figured out how to become smarter. I know my IQ is higher now, even in old age, than it was when I was 13.  I don't know how high, and don't care to know. What matters is that I found what works for me to become smarter. I think I can explain some of that to students.

School lessons can be intimidating and sometimes “over the head” of many students. Students get discouraged when they don't understand things. When they don't understand, they struggle, and their grades suffer. They come to believe they are not smart. They may quit trying, because they wrongly conclude they don't have the ability. They become underachievers. Their belief in their incompetence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I recently took on a task of writing a curricular item for science teaching of eighth graders. The curricular item I was writing involved a "Simulated Peer Review" learning activity in which middle-school groups work together to role play being peer reviewers of a scientific research report. I give them scaffolding questions to show them what to check for, and I also totally reconstruct the report so it could be understood by middle schoolers. The published research paper I needed to re-write posed a major problem: it was so complex that even I didn’t understand it.

Figure 1. Diagram in the original research report used to explain the purpose of the study and how it was done. Original legend presented the full chemical names. From Guedes et al. 2018.

This paper was a report on drug development for pain relief. The paper was ideal for a variety of reasons, but it was unbelievably complex, with lots of chemistry and arcane acronyms, as illustrated in Figure 1. In figuring this out, I reminded myself how I was going about this task, which crystallized as five steps or principles that anyone can use to figure out most anything, and in the process develop the mental algorithms that will make you smarter.

How am I supposed to explain the ideas in this figure to 8th graders? The legend explaining all these abbreviations and relationships only made things still harder to comprehend. Here maybe was a chance to track my strategy for figuring things out, and I could formulate and explain simple steps that would be generally applicable. I kept track of the sequence of the steps I used, and now I can specify a specific sequence of tactics for developing understanding.

Step 1. Believe You Can Become Smarter. When I formulated the "Learning Skills Cycle" in a book I recently wrote for teachers and parents, the very first step in that cycle was "Motivation." A learner who is not motivated to learn will not make the effort needed to learn much. They become under-achievers. If you don't believe you can become smarter, you won't be motivated to “strive for insight.”

Step 2. Look for the Big Picture. Look first for over-all patterns. The original legend of Fig. 1 explained in an overly complicated way that damage to cell membranes triggers three chains of chemical reactions that stem from breakdown of the phospholipids that form cell membranes. Think about the purpose of the diagram: the three pathways may reveal points in the pathways where a drug might alter the response to pain. The pathway on the right is not very relevant, so you don’t have to think about it. Focus on the meaning of the other two paths.
T
he breakdown products of these membrane phospholipids, as explained in the original legend, included three relevant enzymes (COX, Cyp450, and sEH), and a host of chemicals, some of which cause inflammation and pain. The figure also indicates that enzymes are targets: anything that inhibits them would stop their action. Note the diagram shows inhibition with lines that end in a line segment instead of an arrow. We see that inhibition of only one target enzyme, COX, can help to alleviate pain (such inhibitors are already in medical use). In the other pathway, the so-called epoxy fatty acids (EpFAs) could, in theory, block the COX enzyme or have a direct inhibitory effect on inflammation and pain. However, the EpFAs are destroyed by the enzyme soluble epoxy hydrolase (sHE), so they are not available for pain relief. Note, however, that a second enzyme (sEH), if it could be inhibited by the drug t-TUCB, it would stop the destruction of EpFAs, enabling them to accumulate and exert their anti-inflammatory and pain relieving effects. This is the purpose of the study, that is, to test to see if t-TUCB can actually reduce pain, as a previous study had suggested.

3. Simplify. For thinking purposes, temporarily strip out the information that is non essential. Be discerning in what you temporarily omit from your thinking. Sometimes, small items of information (as the three lines that end in line segments) are crucial for understanding. The other key elements here are the two over-all pathways, the three enzymes they contain, and the steps in the path they i
inhibit.

For the moment, I can ignore most of the names of the compounds. They just clutter my mind with more information than I can hold in working memory to think with. I can also ignore for now the genetic mechanisms, which though important, are not central to the purpose of this present report. Likewise, I can also ignore the glucocorticoid inhibition of enzymes that break down membrane phospholipids, because these enzymes are blocked by drugs like cortisone.
The reason we need to simplify is that we think with the information that we can hold in conscious working memory (as when you try to remember a phone number you just looked up). The capacity of working memory is very limited (4-7 items at any one time). Thus, to think clearly about any confusing matter, you must not clutter your mind with more information at any one time than your working memory can handle.
Figure 2. Simplification of Fig. 1

Step 4. Reframe the Issue. Einstein was famous for reframing his problems in the form of thought experiments, such was watching movement of trains relative to each other or riding on a moonbeam. We don’t have to be as imaginative as Einstein. In this example, all we have to do is re-draw the diagram in a form that captures the essence of the key information.  So, to help my understanding, I sketched a simpler diagram that captures the big picture" in the simplest possible way (Fig. 2). Note that I gave blue color to emphasize the enzymes and red lines to indicate their inhibition. Two inhibitory influences were shown with dashes to emphasize that this was only theoretical, because the anti-inflammatory chemicals in the right-hand path are usually destroyed and thus not available or inhibition. The test drug had been shown earlier to inhibit the enzyme in the right-hand pathway. What we don’t know is if this drug actually reduces pain. Now I have the ideas framed in the most meaningful and distinct ways. At this point, I could see the crucial points, unobscured by all the detail.

Step 5. Identify the Crucial Details. The first objective is to understand the principles, and then add in whatever level of detail that is necessary. No more, no less. One of my cardinal principles of learning is flagged with the question: What is the point of learning if you don't remember it? In this particular case, learners need to put back into those details that are crucial and may have practical relevance. As I show in Figure 3, students can now see that a drug that inhibits COX could alleviate pain, as could any new drug that could inhibit sHE (soluble epoxy hydrolase) by preventing destruction of the anti-inflammatory epoxy fatty acids. Counteracting the inflammatory chemicals (prostaglandins) would also alleviate pain, and this is what many known pain relievers do. At this point, I understand the principles of pain biochemistry, and I bet 8th graders can do so too, even if they haven’t yet learned chemistry.
Figure 3. Essential detail reinserted into Fig. 2

This reminds me to tell you that in my Learning Skills Cycle, I always put the "Understand" step before the "Memorize" step. Two reasons explain why: 1) understanding allows you to simplify and reduce the amount of detail that will burden your memory, and 2) the very act of striving for the insight about the issues is helping to encode the relevant information and is rehearsal practice that will help consolidate the memory into long-lasting memory. Thinking, rather than rote repetition, is the most powerful way to memorize.

We have now arrived at the final and most practical stage in the Learning Skills Cycle, namely, Problem Solving and Creativity. Now we can get to the practical matter of using this new understanding to plan the exploration to find drugs that can alleviate inflammation and pain. Drugs that block the path on the left should reduce pain, and this is the mechanism of action of aspirin, Tylenol, and other non-steroidal drugs. In theory, we could alleviate pain by preventing the destruction of anti-inflammatory epoxy fatty acids by blocking the enzyme (sEH) that destroys them. Epoxy hydrolase is a new target for drug development, which the research paper I was rewriting aimed to test with an inhibitor of this enzyme.


I invite you to join my LinkedIn group on 
"Neuroeducation: Promoting Cognitive Development" 

Sources:
Guedes, A. G. P. et al. (2018). Pharmacokinetics and antinociceptive effects of the soluble epoxide hydrolase inhibitor t -TUCB in horses with experimentally induced radiocarpal synovitis. J.  Veterinary Pharmacology and Therapeutics 2018, 41 (2) , 230-238. DOI: 10.1111/jvp.12463.

Klemm, W. R. 2017. The Learning Skills Cycle. A way to Rethink Education Reform. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman& Littlefield. Lanham, Md., Rowman & Littlefield.

Klemm, W. R. 2013. Teaching beginning college students with adapted published research reports. J. Effective Teaching. 13 (2), 6-20.           


Friday, August 09, 2019

Belief about Memory Ability Can Become Self-fulfilling Prophecy

If you think you don’t have a good memory, you probably don’t. It is not just a matter of self-awareness. People often think they are stuck with whatever memory capability they have, for better a worse. Not true! The fact is that anybody can improve memory ability, if they learn how (I have four books that explain how; see reviews at WRKlemm.com).
On the other hand, if you believe you have a poor memory, you may not do what is necessary to improve your memory capability. Thus, believing you have a poor memory contributes to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Evidence

1. Memory “athletes” who participate in memory tournaments train to improve their memory. Joshua Foer, author of the memory book, Moonwalking with Einstein, was a journalist with an ordinary memory. In his reporting on memory athletes, he became enamored with how they achieved amazing feats of memory. So he learned how they did it, trained, and in  2006 won the U. S. Memory Championship. 
2. Another line of evidence comes from the elderly in China. There, old age is venerated and researchers have noticed that older Chinese do NOT have diminished memory ability, as is the usual case in other countries. Picking up on this theme, Harvard University researchers studied 90 people, age 60 or older, and found they could change memory task performance by manipulating the beliefs about their memory skills.The manipulation involved creating a biasabout memory ability. Subjects viewed a list of about 50 words that either represented senile behaviors (“absent-minded,” “senile,” etc.) or represented “wise” behaviors (“sees all sides of issues,” “smart,” etc.). The lists were presented on a computer screen, and the subjects were asked to notice whether a flash occurred above or below a bulls eye that they were to focus on. Subjects were to signal the location of the flash as soon as they could with a computer key press. The rate of stimulus presentation was slow enough to allow the subliminal messages to be encoded but fast enough to keep them from being registered consciously. This was a way for the experimenter to make the conditioning subliminal and implicit. Messages were presented in five sets, each containing 20 words. Before and after the intervention, subjects were given three different kinds of memory tests that are known to assess the kinds of memory decline that occur in old age.
Test results revealed a correspondence between memory performance and the conditioned bias. Compared with their pre-test memory scores, post-test scores increased in the group that was primed with words signifying wisdom and were lower in the group that was primed with words suggesting senility.

Explanation

Belief changes attitude, and attitude changes performance. Psychologist Martin Seligman wrote a magnificent book, Learned Optimism, Beliefs about poor memory ability can cause poor memory. which points out that both optimism and pessimism are learned explanatory styles that people use to evaluate the causes of their successes and failures.
Seligman even has a test that measures one’s explanatory style, on a scale ranging  from an optimist style (where people consider negative events as temporary, specific, and external) to the pessimist style  (where people regard negative events  as permanent, pervasive, and personalized). Optimists believe they can fix what is wrong. Pessimists don't try to fix things, because they have concluded that their shortcomings are permanent, pervasive, and characteristic of themselves. The effects of these contrasting styles clearly affect one’s view of the capacity for self-improvement. The good news is one can learn a more beneficial explanatory style, in effect, changing one’s attitude.
It doesn’t take long to learn a limiting explanatory style that says you are as good as you can get. I see this all the time in students, many of whom don’t really believe they can improve their memory capability, even when I show them how. Instead of using the new approaches I teach, they fall back on their old ways of learning, which usually involves no particular strategy and the use of rote memory.

Cure


The point is this: if you are motivated to develop a better memory and believe you can, you are much more likely to do what it takes to have a better memory. The implications for real-world memory performance seem clear. Believing can change our attitude and motivate us to do the things that will make it so.

References

Klemm, W. R. 2012. Memory Power 101. SkyhorsePublishing.com

Klemm, W. R. 2011. Better Grades. Less Effort. Benecton. Smashwords.com
Levy B. R, and  Langer,  E. (1994) Aging free from negative stereotypes: Successful memory among the American deaf and in China. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 66:935–943

Dr. Bill Klemm. a.k.a. “Memory Medic,” is a Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University. He has spent a career in brain research. His 50 years of experience with students and his own aging have given him additional insights into how memory can be improved. 
                   If your memory is ill, Dr. Bill is your pill


Friday, July 26, 2019

Grit: The Key to School Success


What do you think is the major determinant of whether our children excel in school? IQ? Good teachers? Good schools? Good standards and curricula? No, I say it is the students' motivation, or just plain grit. Other teachers think so too.

Education reporter, Libby Nelson, calls attention to the issue of grit in student learning achievement. Her findings are that teachers and parents sometimes put too much emphasis on intelligence, when the more typical problem in education is that students don't try hard enough and are not sufficiently persistent in trying to achieve excellence. I know from personal experience: I excelled in school because I was an "overachiever."

Indeed, excellence is not even a goal for most students. Many students just want to do the minimum required to pass tests. This limiting attitude is reinforced by teachers who yield to the pressure of "teaching to the test." A few students don't care at all. They just drop out. One student told a teacher friend of mine, "I don't need to learn this stuff. Somebody will always take care of me."

Nelson points to evidence of grit's importance with these examples:
  • West Point cadets who scored highest on a scale of grit were more likely to complete the grueling first summer of training.
  • National spelling bee contestants with more grit ranked higher than other contestants of the same age who had less grit.
  • College admissions officers know how important grit is (more important than SAT tests) but they don't know how to measure it other than grades, which of course may be inflated and inaccurate indicators of grit. 
Clearly motivation is essential. I regard motivation as the cornerstone of what I call the "learning skills cycle," which led me to publish a book with that title with Rowman and Littlefield.  Learning begins with being motivated to learn, and successful completion of every step in the cycle strengthens motivation. However, every step in this cycle (organization, attentiveness, understanding/synthesis, memory, and problem solving/creativity) requires a degree of grit—the more, the better.




As applied to specific learning tasks, grit is central to all the ideas in the learning skills cycle. In the case of memory, for example, the well-known strategy of deliberate practice requires disciplined grit. Students diligently need to use established memory principles in a systematic way. This includes constructing a systematic learning strategy that includes organizing the learning materials in an effective way, intense study focus in short periods, elimination of interferences, use of mnemonic devices, and frequent rehearsals repeated in spaced intervals. Learning success depends on mental discipline and persistence.

Students differ enormously in their level of grit. It would be nice if we knew how to teach grit. Surely, parental influence is central. Parents lacking in grit are unlikely to model or teach it to their children. Some schools, especially private schools, teach grit by having high expectations and programs that help students discover the positive benefits that come from having more grit. One of those benefits is confidence, because grit promotes achievement and achievement develops confidence.

Confidence in the ability to learn is necessary for a student to try hard to learn. Here is the area where teaching skills count most: showing students they can learn difficult material and thereby building the confidence to take on greater learning challenges.

Students who have passionate goals are much more likely to invest effort and persistence in doing what is needed to achieve those goals. It is unrealistic to expect grade-school children to have well-formulated career goals. But certainly by early high-school, students should be forming specific lifetime goals. What a career goal is probably does matter as much as having one in the first place. Achieving a goal, regardless of whether it is later abandoned or not, teaches a youngster that grit is necessary for the achievement. The student learns that grit pays off.

Grit may not always lead to excellence in students with innate limited abilities. But grit allows such students to "become all they can be," as the Army recruitment slogan claims. Moreover, the benefits of grit perpetuate beyond success at any one learning challenge. Learning anything requires physical and chemical changes in the brain needed to store the positive attitudes that come from learning success and the learning content itself. In other words, the more you know, the more you can know.

Source: http://www.vox.com/2014/10/9/6835197/grit-kipp-noncognitive-skills-duckworth-teaching

"Memory Medic's newest book has just been released: Triune Brain, Triune Mind, Triune Worldview, available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. See descriptions and reviews of all his books at http://thankyoubrain.com.


Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Ability to Learn More Important Than Ever


Expertise is out and ability to learn is in. I recently learned this from the Atlantic magazine. I subscribe in spite of the fact that I disagree with much of its hyper-political content. The reason is that they do have a few informative articles without snarky politics. One such article in the July 2019 issue is about the training philosophy for a new class of ships they call “Littoral Combat Ships.” The
Source: U.S. Navy
USS Gabrielle Giffords is the first of a series of such vessels under construction. Several compelling factors drive the training protocols for developing crews for these ships. One factor is that these are high-tech ships that demand an intelligent and flexible crew that can respond to unexpected contingencies. Another factor is that these ships have a hollow belly which can be readily retrofitted for different kinds of missions. Another is the need to reduce crew size to hold down costs. The effect on training is that expertise is out and ability to learn is in. The Navy wants “hybrid” sailors who can readily learn and perform multiple kinds of tasks. Careers in such a navy depend not so much on what one knows but what one is able to learn.

The same trend appears to be happening in the civilian world of work. Employers are always looking to do more with fewer workers. Where workers cannot be replaced by technology, the hiring priority goes to workers who are good learners. This not only reduces labor costs but also creates an adaptable workforce that can respond to rapid shifts in technology and market opportunities and demands.

The education community should be adapting to these real-world dynamical shifts in worker capabilities. I fear that we are still stuck in 19th Century education models that focus on knowledge acquisition. State and Federal education standards have a near-exclusive emphasis on transferring knowledge and skills.

Schools tell students what they need to know, based on what we think is important in today’s world. Tomorrow will not be like today. What we need to know in tomorrow’s world is likely to be vastly different from today.

After school years have ended, who will hold a worker’s hand to teach them what they did not learn in school? How prepared are students to learn on their own? Where are the educational programs for developing ability to learn? Testing rests on assessing knowledge with multiple-choice tests. Students are drilled to levels of conformity where “no child is left behind” (which is equivalent to “no child pushed forward”).

Where do schools teach children how to memorize, so they can remember acquired knowledge for future use? Where do schools teach creativity? Where do schools teach insightfulness? Do we even know of ways to increase intelligence? Do students have many opportunities to learn to love learning for its own sake? Do they have many opportunities to experience the joy of real discovery? Are they taught how to collaborate with others to learn and solve problems? Are they taught how to integrate knowledge across academic disciplines?

Worse yet, schools tend to eliminate certain kinds of teaching that do develop learning-to-learn skills. For example, cursive writing is eliminated as a national curricular requirement, despite the fact that it promotes learning of goal direction, focus, attention to detail, and the value of practice (see my several posts on this subject). As schools strive for cost-effectiveness by increasing enrollments to mega school size, students are deprived of opportunities to develop autonomy, individual nurturing becomes impractical, and testing devolves to guessing and weak recognition memory on multiple-choice tests.

The bottom line is this: the world is changing its workforce needs. Schools, particularly American schools, do not seem to be producing the kind of workforce the world increasingly seems to need.

"Memory Medic" has four books on improving learning and memory:

For parents and teachers: The Learning Skills Cycle.
For students: Better Grades, Less Effort
For everyone's routine living: Memory Power 101
For seniors: Improve Your Memory for a Healthy Brain.
                    Memory Is the Canary in Your Brain's Coal Mine

For details and reviews, see Memory Medic's web site: thankyoubrain.com


Friday, July 05, 2019

Happiness Can Make You Great, Can Make Your Country Great

Yesterday's 4th of July celebration in Washington reminded us of America's greatness. We saved the world from tyranny at least twice and our inventions have propelled prosperity around the world. America is great because it is free. It may also be great for another reason: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Some people might argue that the U.S. Constitution endorses hedonism, and indeed many politicians want to ignore or get rid of the Constitution. We should not be dismissive about encouraging people to pursue happiness. Happiness can be good for your brain. Depression is surely bad for your brain. Happiness helps people be more competent and productive, and that helps make their country great.

Text Box: Source: Christian Buehner. Upnsplash



Positive mood states promote more effective thinking and problem solving. A scholarly review of the literature demonstrates that positive mood broadens the scope of attentiveness, enhances semantic associations over a wider range, improves task shifting, and improves problem-solving capability. The review also documents the changes in brain activation patterns induced by positive mood in subjects while solving problems. Especially important is the dopamine signaling in the prefrontal cortex. 


Published studies reveal that a variety of techniques are used to momentarily manipulate mood. These have included making subjects temporarily happy or sad by asking subjects to recall emotionally corresponding past experiences or to view film clips or hear words that trigger happy or sad feelings,

The effect of happiness on broadened attentiveness arises because the brain has better cognitive flexibility and executive control, which in turn makes it easier to be more flexible and creative. Happy problem solvers are better able to select and act upon useful solutions that otherwise never surface into consciousness. Happiness reduces perseverative tendencies for errant problem-solving strategies. The broadened attentiveness, for example, allows people to attend to more stimuli, both in external visual space and in internal semantic space, which in turn enables more holistic processing. For example, in one cited study, experimenters manipulated subjects’ momentary mood and then measured performance on a task involving matching of visual objects based on their global versus local shapes. Happy moods yielded better global matching.

Other experiments report broader word association performance when subjects are manipulated to be happier. For example, subjects in a neutral mood would typically associate the word “pen” as a writing tool and would associate it with words like pencil or paper. But positive mood subjects would think also of pen as an enclosure and associate it with words like barn or pigs. This effect has been demonstrated with practical effect in physicians, who, when in a happy mood, thought of more disease possibilities in making a differential diagnosis.

The review authors reported their own experiment on beneficial happy mood effects on insightfulness, using a task in which subjects were given three words and asked to think of a fourth word that could be combined into a compound word or phrase. For example, an insightful response to “tooth, potato, and heart” might be “sweet tooth, sweet potato, and sweetheart.” Generating such insight typically requires one to suppress dominant “knee jerk” responses such as associating tooth with pain and recognize that pain does not fit potato while at the same time becoming capable of switching to non-dominant alternatives.
Other cited experiments showed that happy mood improved performance on “Duncker’s candle task.”  Here, subjects are given a box of tacks, a candle, and a book of matches, and are asked to attach a candle to the wall in a way that will burn without dripping wax on the floor. Subjects in a happy mood were more able to realize that the box could be a platform for the candle when the box is tacked to the wall.  

Such effects of happy moods seem to arise from increased neural activity in the prefrontal cortex and cingulate cortex, areas that numerous prior studies have demonstrated as crucial parts of the brain’s executive control network. Similar effects have been observed in EEG studies. Other research suggests that the happiness effect is mediated by increased release of dopamine in the cortex that serves to up-regulate executive control

The review authors described a meta-analysis of 49 positive-psychology manipulation studies showing that momentary happiness is readily manipulated by such strategies as deliberate optimistic thinking, increased attention to and memory of happy experiences, practicing mindfulness and acceptance, and increasing socialization. The effect occurs in most normal people and even in people with depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. Biofeedback training, where subjects monitor their own fMRI scans or EEGs, might be an even more effective way for people to train themselves to be happier.

The main point is that in America people can be as happy as they choose to be. For more on how positive mood influences mental ability, see my book, Memory Power 101 (http://skyhorsepublishing.com).


Subramaniam, K. and Vinogradov, S. (2013). Improving the neural mechanisms of cognition through the pursuit of happiness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 7 August. Doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00452


Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Role of Learning in Religion, Part 1


(Excerpted from the new book, Triune Brain, Triune Mind, Triune Worldview (Brighton Publishing)(available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble).

What one is taught and chooses to learn about religion changes the biology of the brain. Changing brain biology is likely to change who and what you are as a person. This principle applies to everyone, religious or irreligious.
When the brain learns something new, it creates a new pattern of nerve impulses flowing around networks of neurons. This impulse pattern is the brain’s way or representing the information, and as long as the pattern representation exists, as in working memory, you have conscious access to it. If that pattern can continue intact for some time with subsequent rehearsal, it may induce gene expression in neurons to store the representation as a more lasting memory. This process involves the necessary protein synthesis for the information-relevant synapses. Such synthesis enables proliferation of more dendrites and axon terminals. These new proteins create the structure of new synapses, and an increase in both number of neurotransmitter molecules and postsynaptic receptor proteins.[ii]
Everything we learn from what we see, hear, smell, feel, taste, or even imagine can potentially change the structure and networking of our brains. Should we not expect the same of religious learning? Brain scans suggest that one part of the brain, the anterior cingulate gyrus, seems especially sensitive to such effects.[iii] However, the brain can be damaged by belief in a wrathful and punishing God. A chronic fear that God regards you as an enemy inevitably produces emotional distress. The continual bathing of brain in cortisol released during chronic stress causes synaptic junctions to shrink. Such shrinkage is evident in the hippocampus, a large cluster of neurons that are crucial for processing emotions and for forming memories.[iv] Reduced function in this structure may create thinking limitations. In other words, belief in a wrathful God impairs mental health. Scripture is replete with admonitions to fear God. A healthier admonition is to be more attune to God’s expectations and hopes for you.
All cells are susceptible to genetic mutation, which in the case of neurons could likely change circuit connectivity. A startling recent discovery of enormous implications challenges the accepted dogma that all of a person's cells have the same genetic coding. It turns out that this is not true in neurons. The DNA in each nerve cell has hundreds of mutations of the A-T, C-G nucleotides that constitute the genetic code for the neuron.[v] No two neurons are identical. The study was conducted by 18 research teams at 15 U.S. institutions, formed as a consortium by the National Institute of Mental Health to examine neural genetic coding, using repositories of postmortem brain tissue taken from both healthy people and those with various mental diseases.
The scientists have no explanation at present for the cause of so many mutations in neurons and for why each neuron has a different genetic profile. The most obvious possibility might be that the mutations occurred as transcription errors during cell division. We don't know when these mutations occur. Except for granule cells in the hippocampus and cerebellum, neurons generally do not divide after the first few days after birth. If cell division is the cause of mutations, the mutations likely occurred in the fetus and during the early post-natal period. More likely, life’s learning experiences cause many of these genetic changes.
These startling findings of so much genetic diversity in neurons open a completely new field of research. Scientists need to examine different cell types in other organs to see if each cell in the organ has the identical genes.
There is a related aspect. Each neuron differs not only in its genes, but also in which genes are expressed. The new field of "epigenetics" has revealed that environmental influences, ranging from drugs, toxins, metabolites, and perhaps even lifestyles, can affect the expression of genes. In the case of brain, there is the distinct possibility that one's mental life can affect gene expression.
So far, what I have said about gene change and expression refers to single individuals. But what if some of these gene mutations or epigenetic effects also occur in sex cells? That would mean that traits acquired during one's lifetime could transfer to future generations. I would hope that the research consortium that has made this monumental discovery about brain cells would extend its charter to examine sperm and ova.
Recent research on the genetics of the classic animal model of brain function, C. elegans, reveals that epigenetic inheritance of neuronal traits does occur.[vi] Gene expression was modified by exposing the animals to high temperatures, and the genetic change transferred via both ova and sperm to offspring that had no exposure to high temperature. The epigenetic change was still present some 5-14 generations later.
To the extent that the findings of both of these studies can be extrapolated to humans, we must now consider the possibility that personal lifestyle, environmental, and cultural influences on people may be propagated to successive generations of their children. Bad environments and lifestyle choices may extend well into the future, magnifying the deleterious consequences through multiple generations. We now have to consider that medical and behavioral problems, poverty, and degenerate cultures can arise when not only people make poor choices but also that the effects can be genetically propagated to subsequent generations. Is this a basis for scripture that asserts the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the sons? It isn’t a matter of fairness. It is basic biology.
Recent research discloses how what the brain thinks, feels, and does affects its own structure and function. For one thing, synaptic connections and network configurations respond to neural activity. The idea was first advanced by Daniel Hebb, who famously said, “neurons that fire together wire together.” Firing of impulses change the synaptic junctions that receive the voltage shocks of nerve impulses. Hebb meant the comment to explain the formation of memories. But the idea can be extended more generally as an explanation of how the brain programs itself.
Associated with real-time changes in synaptic strength and circuit formation, the environment and even brain activity creates genetic changes. Recent discoveries place new importance on the genetic effects of RNA. Originally, scientists emphasized how RNA allowed translation of the code in DNA to specify the selective manufacture of proteins. Now we know there are many kinds of RNA with far different functions.[vii] There is a circular RNA, with unknown function. Gene expression is influenced by several kinds of RNA (cis-natural antisense RNA, enhancer RNA, long noncoding RNA, microRNA, small interfering RNA, and many others). Neuroscientists have known for decades that the brain is readily modified. We likely have underestimated this “neuroplasticity.”
In the next post, we will explore specific ways in which we program our brains to accept and live religious ideas. Relevant learning principles include neural plasticity, learning attitudes, the brain’s self-programming, and the various kinds of conditioning. Everyday topics covered will include the brain’s self-programming, child rearing, neural development, and aging,

To be continued in next post



[i] Spector, Tim (2013). What twins reveal about the science of faith. Popular Science. http://www.popsci.com/sciencetarticle/2013-08/what-twins-reveal-about-god-gene, Aug. 8. Retrieved Aug 29, 2018.
[ii] Klemm, W. R. (2012). Memory Power 101. New York: Skyhorse.
[iii] Newberg, A. and Waldman, M.R (2009).  How God Changes Your Brain:  Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist.  New York:  Ballantine Books.
[iv] Owen, A. D. et al. (2011) Religious factors and hippocampal atrophy in late life. PLoS ONE. 6(3), e17006. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017006
[v] McConnell, M. J. et al. (2017).Intersection of diverse neuronal genomes and neuropsychiatric diseases: The brain somatic mosaicism network. Science.  356(6336), 395. doi: 10.1126/scienceaa1641.
[vi] Klosin, Adam et al. (2017). Transgenerational transmission of environmental information in C. elegans. Science. 356 (6335), 320-323.
[vii] Williams, Ruth. (2017). The RNA age: a primer. The Scientist. May 11. http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/49322/title/The-RNA-Age--A-primer/&utm_campaign=NEWSLETTER_TS_The-Scientist-Daily_2016&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=51867147&_hsenc=p2ANqtz--5Y6L__mQ5g5cwWMxpaXeBqIplViYJrGmBsktGENQ5mQxzW1JpTJFoM9lTG13Er6g8dCIoSgZWAaYX9MxePbLCLWMrPw&_hsmi=51867149/