In “Outliers: The Story of Success,” author Malcolm Gladwell hypothesizes that exceptional performances in any field have little to do with innate talent. He proposes the “10,000-Hour Rule”: devoting approximately 10,000 hours of time to a skill fosters a dendritic density representing competency in that area. Whether we are examining achievement in academics, professional careers, athletics or public speaking, practice makes permanent, not perfect, when it comes to the human brain.
Long years of continuous practice create the hard-wired neural pathways of proficiency and expertise. Complex interconnections among the pathways in the brain give an expert four distinct neurological advantages:
- Highly used neural pathways are easily activated, because they are nearly always “on alert.”
- Extensive hardwiring provides neural “shortcuts” to answers that their under-wired counterparts might find puzzling for hours, days, years or forever.
- Their jam-packed cognitive tool chest serves as a repository of information, precluding the time-consuming data searches required by others.
- Most importantly, cognitive resources are freed up to engage in ideational exploration and conceptual processing. The question asked about experts such as golfer Tiger Woods changes from “Is he any good?” to “Is he always that good?”
Experts routinely take the time to learn, unlearn and relearn relevant information related to their craft. For them, learning is not an informing experience, where they simply build networks to represent their new experiences; instead, their experience is transforming: Their brain circuits are rearranged in order to integrate new data.
The Future of the Brain
With each major advance in the human condition over the past 4.5 million years, our brain volume has increased to accommodate our behavioral improvisations. Is the human brain on the doorstep of another “brain spurt”? (See Chart 5: Brain Spurts.) Our evolutionary history would suggest that we may be. The remarkable world of technology will likely be accommodated by an even more remarkable brain plasticity.
As we come to the close of the first decade in the 21st Century, we recognize that we are living in a unique, historic time. Neuroplasticity is shaping today’s young brains for a future that is less like our recent past than any other time in human history. Technology is extending the range of human information processing, shattering the previous limitations of our sensory systems. Previously, the walls of time and place dictated the scope of the human experience. These barriers are falling rapidly.
If you are a parent, educator, or anyone charged with the responsibility of developing young minds, brain literacy is no longer optional. When you are asked by your former students, children or grandchildren, What did you do to help me when that new research on the brain suddenly became accessible to you?, hopefully, your answer will be, I did everything I could, based on everything we knew from every field in neuroscience at that time.
About the Author
In the publication Forecasting Independent Education to 2025, the National Association of Independent Schools acknowledges the contributions of four educational researchers who “have been influential in reshaping the independent school classroom.” Those individuals are Howard Gardner, Daniel Goleman, Kenneth Wesson and Mel Levine. The author of Brain-considerate Strategies for Home and School, Kenneth Wesson’s work in the field of education, learning and the brain spans four decades. Wesson delivers keynote addresses on the neuroscience of learning for educational organizations and institutions throughout the United States and overseas. His audiences range from preschool and early-childhood specialists to college and university-level administrators and faculty members. His recent international audiences have included educators and chief administrative officers from North America, South America, Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. He has spoken to educators from six of the world’s seven continents and can be seen on PBS and other special programs on brain development.