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Using our Brains, Big Time!

Updated on April 3, 2013

How We Think

Thirty years ago I wrote a paper on brain research as part of my studies for an advanced degree and found the topic compelling . . . and astounding. That was in the day when the corpus callosum and 'right brain/left brain' discussions were all the rage. But I had no idea what was coming just down the road of scientific research.

Today, in addition to unraveling the human genome, scientists have pinpointed specific tiny areas of the brain that control almost everything—and we're not through yet. A recent series on television revealed the learning ability of children, with astounding results. It seems the old tabula rosa theory is right after all, but in an ironic and upside-down fashion.

Children's brains aren't just blank slates, as once thought. They are capable of absorbing incredible amounts of information, but they come pre-wired to do just that from day one. Take language, for example. It's commonly known/assumed that children pick up a foreign language faster and more easily than do most adults.

In 1977, before traveling to Germany for the first time, I took a 15-week conversation course to enhance my two years of study in college (all grammar and translation). One couple asked our instructor in the first evening session if they should bother bringing their two sons—ages 10 and 8—to class with them. The answer: "They'll learn three times as much as you will, and within two weeks their pronunciation will be perfect. By all means, bring them!" The boys showed up, and the teacher's assessment proved to be right on target.

But that television series upped the ante. It turns out that children from the day they are born come equipped to handle not just one language or two, but even three and four—no matter how complex or strange-sounding the speech.

How do they do that? By absorbing the sounds! They just let it all soak in, every syllable and inflection, without concern for its meaning or their ability to handle the task. And they can do this from day one! In fact, by 18 months or 2 years of age a child can master a working vocabulary in any language.

Several years ago my wife and I discovered that truth first-hand. We were in Switzerland visiting a son and his family, and took our granddaughter (just under 2 at the time) out for a walk. We each held one of her hands and talked casually as we went, thinking we were having a conversation between adults. But we soon learned that every comment one of us made was being played back on the walking/talking 'tape recorder' between us!

My wife would say, "Look at that bird," and a small voice would echo, "Look at that bird." I'd point out an unusual statue and the tiny recording machine would say, "That's an unusual statue." So it went for forty minutes . . . every comment, every syllable, every tonal inflection repeated perfectly! It's no wonder that little gem of a person was already able to speak in English, German and Czech (the languages of her parents).

Another astounding insight from that TV series came from using puppets. Researchers demonstrated how children react with built-in emotional and societal preferences to various scenarios. If one puppet did something mean to another puppet, for instance, the child watching that action would later reject the mean puppet in favor of the other, even if that child were only six months of age! In other words, we are born predisposed to be nice, to care—but later learn to adopt more anti-social behaviors unless those positive traits are reinforced.

We've learned a lot about how we think, and there's a lot more to learn: what causes autism, for example, or why idiot savants can accomplish such incredible things in one area and be so totally inept in others.

The important lesson for us all is this: never underestimate one's ability to learn. We have more potential by far than we suspect. All we need to do is trust those innate abilities and put them to work.

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