Building better brains (Part 1 of 2)

I used to watch my Dad do magic

At the supermarket.

To impress the checkout girls.

I was 10.

Actually, when I saw him at his best, it was utterly annoying for them and everyone in the queue, secretly awesome for me, and he wasn’t doing it to impress anyone.

Sometimes, after picking me up from boy scouts, we’d go grocery shopping. I remember the pile of groceries for our family of six. I remember that there weren’t conveyors at the checkout. No scanners, either. And I’m pretty sure there may have been manual cash registers.

Dad, a frugal accountant, always used the coupons. And the awesome bit came when we’d get to the checkout, with a huge pile of food and stuff, he’d hand the coupons over, she’d enter all the prices and the coupons, and give him the grand total.

He would tell her she was wrong. That she’d made a mistake.


She’d look at him in disbelief.

The word “hel-lo” wasn’t in the vernacular then, and John McEnroe hadn’t yet said “You cannot be serious!”. Both would have worked.

She’d look at the register, the queue, back at the register, at the pile of groceries, at him, at the groceries, at the queue, and hopefully not at me because I was only 10 and wouldn’t have known what to do anyway.

Then, depressingly, she’d realize she had no choice but to do it all again.

Sometimes, he knew what the mistake was, and it was easily fixed. Sometimes, he just knew there was one.


Or not

Dad was good at adding stuff up. Really good. And no calculators when we went shopping.

It’s what he did all day, and he was happy then, to trust his own expertise over her cash register. He recognized number patterns, and knew instinctively when something was awry. She saw it differently, of course, but didn’t have his expertise.

His instinct was merely knowledge and recognition honed through countless hours of use, operating at a subconscious level.

What’s going on, in Dad’s brain?

And what’s the point for us?

I’ve banged on about attention and memory over the last few months. I know you’ll pardon the repetition because you know that repetition is useful for memory…

Our goal in this recent series of posts is to build brains that are, as much as we can make them, impervious to the ravages of life. Maybe impervious is too strong a word. Perhaps, physically able to handle what life, and older age, can do to the brain while still retaining full function.

Central to this is having enough brain. That is to say, enough physical brain tissue, to manage, adapt, and cope. Building tissue is the result of effort – repeated effort, like Dad’s.

You might remember here, where we talked about the practical, brain-tissue-building benefits of effort, and here, we talked about the attitude of effort. This is in contrast to working memory and how, for all its power, it doesn’t give the brain a workout that has long-term, tissue-building, benefit, of the kind that helps us later in life

So I want to draw a few things together in this post, and lay the foundation for the next, where we’ll give you some homework.

Building better brains through effort: Example 1

As you might expect, musicians, for example, have enlarged areas of the brain that relate to music, especially playing music.

The sections of a violinist’s brain that relates to the location of the hands, on the primary motor cortex and the somatosensory cortex, are bigger for the left hand, than for the right.

When you think about a typical right-handed violinist, it’s their left hand that does all the work when playing violin. Although the right hand isn’t idle, the left hand provides the complicated fingering.

Have a look at Ben Lee, Guinness World Record Holder, who performs The Flight of the Bumblebee in under 60 seconds. Imagine the activity in the left-hand area of his motor and somatosensory cortex.

Building bigger brains through effort: Example 2

Another group famous for brain development are London cabbies. They are required to learn a huge amount of geographical and spatial information in order to pass the cabbie test.

About half don’t acquire what they simply call The Knowledge, which is a set of  information that cabbies use to determine best routes and destinations in London, without having recourse to any technological help.

They need to know the best way to get somewhere, and also all of the locations on the way: the restaurants, shops, landmarks and so on. Gaining this knowledge requires up to three years of learning, hours spent on the road, numerous attempts at the test and, as you guessed, significant effort.

The results of all this effort show in an enlarged hippocampus. The hippocampus is responsible for spatial navigation, and also for transferring short-term memories into long-term memories.

Check out The Knowledge.

It’s the same for you, me, and Roger Federer

You can appreciate how this is true of expertise in any realm. Thousands of hours in any endeavour will grow brain tissue.

Given my gross lack of tennis ability, I fully expect that the area of Roger Federer’s brain devoted to, say, the forehand, is larger than mine. And maybe yours.

But there’s a little catch

Federer may have a fantastic forehand. (I hear he’s also a handy cricketer. And footballer.) However, outside of sport, these strengthened brain areas may not have too much use.

The violinist’s dexterity and speed may not translate into benefits in other areas of manual dexterity.

Dad’s excellent arithmetic doesn’t translate into general benefits.

Similarly, with the London cabbie’s enlarged hippocampus. It does show that impressive memory is achievable for the average punter, through effort, but it doesn’t mean a remarkable memory for other things.

In fact, it may mean a deficit in other things as a cost of too much work in one area.

So a key question. Do stronger, specific skills or expertise, translate to global benefits in the brain?

If we ignore some obvious things like Federer’s healthier diet and exercise regime than mine we have to ask: In applied brain terms, will Federer, Dad, Ben Lee, or Joe Punter Cabbie, perform better than you and me, until the end.

No. They won’t.

Except in their area of expertise.

One exception to this is the global benefit of long-term music practice, generally, which we talked about here.

So here’s the take home bit, for now

Attention is crucial for effort.

Effort is crucial for building brain tissue.

Brain tissue is crucial for developing resilience against brain degeneration as we age.

What kind of attention, on what activity, or activities, will give us global, rather than just specific, benefit, so we can live well and perform well, to the end?

Tell you next time.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Somatosensory Cortex, Primary Motor Cortex, Hippocampus

What do you think?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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3 Responses to Building better brains (Part 1 of 2)

  1. A says:

    Fascinating! I met a giy who used to be a postie in London city centre and he said that when he sees a building, a street corner, a door to a shop in a movie or on TV, he know exactly, from that one short glimpse, the address of that spot, fifteen years after working as a postie. Not sure what this has to do with your post, but it reminded me of it. Maybe interesting to note that the hippocampus stays enlarged in that area for the rest of your life? It fascinated me somewhat. I played a game with some smart maths kids recently and was expecting them to be geniuses at this thinking and creative game, but they just couldn’t get it. I wondered if an enlargement in one area, especially with children, wasn’t such a great thing. You can be an amazing academic but you need to be able to think outside the square too! Great post, Brendon. I think I should study psychology! Haha 🙂

    • Hi you guys!

      Yep – same stuff. Even though he wasn’t required to learn all the items on each street, there’s no doubt he’d have got to know them if he rode the same route over and over again.And with the cabbies, at least, they have deficits due to the super-enlarged hippocampus. Can’t be good at everything – just like your maths guys!

      Great to hear from you.


  2. Pingback: Building better brains (Part 2 of 2) | Bite sized brains

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