I feel lucky to live in an era in which we’re no longer constrained by widely accepted beliefs, like the belief that once we reach a certain age our brain is fixed and we’re no longer able to learn in any significant way. Take this excerpt from Anders Ericsson’s book Peak for example:
The general belief was that once a person reached adulthood, the wiring of his or her brain was pretty much fixed.
We now know:
… the brain’s structure and function are not fixed. They change in response to use. It is possible to shape the brain — your brain, my brain, anybody’s brain — in ways that we desire through conscious, deliberate training.
Personally I find it incredibly encouraging to know that our brains possess this plasticity and we can be optimistic for the future, knowing that whatever we set our mind to we can achieve.
An example of our brain’s plasticity presented in the book struck me as something that I’d experienced before… improving my ability to read smaller text on my laptop’s screen.
Years ago I wasn’t happy with the real estate my laptop’s screen offered me on its default setting, so I decided to increase the resolution to its maximum level. For the first day or two I struggled with the font size, and on numerous occasions I almost reverted back to default. But I stuck it out, believing the extra space on screen was worth the extra effort of reading the tiny font. And then after a couple of days it became normal; I found I could read without any problem at all. Colleagues would come over to my desk to look at something and were completely incapable of reading my screen, so numerous times per day I’d have to decrease the resolution for short periods.
Common sense (and my mother) told me that I should have worn glasses to help to read such small text, and that doing so for long periods would damage my eyesight. But somehow my eyes — or my brain — had adapted. How was this possible?
In Peak, Ericsson describes the study of middle aged volunteers who suffered from age-related farsightedness; a condition called presbyopia most people over the age of fifty are affected by. The volunteers were asked to come into the lab three or so times a week for a few months and train their vision, performing tasks that required intense concentration and effort.
At the end of three months the subjects were tested to see what size they could read. On average they were able to read letters that were 60 percent smaller than they could at the beginning of the training, and every single subject had improved. Furthermore, after the training every subject was able to read a newspaper without glasses, something a majority of them couldn’t do beforehand. They also were able to read faster than before.
It turns out the improvement was not due to changes in the eyes, but instead because of changes in the part of the brain that interprets visual signals. The researchers believed that the brain learned to “de-blur” images.
There’s no lesson here, just an observation. A long-held, but unproven, belief that I had indeed somehow improved my eyesight.
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