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Learning Zone

Recycling the Brain


The mind: from a science of learning to read to a science of learning ethical behaviour.

Although the debate regarding whether it is mind that activates the human brain or whether it is the brain that activates the mind has fascinated humankind for centuries, a new study published in the prestigious scientific journal Science seems to suggest that the mind and thoughts can indeed change the structure of the brain. So what they say is true - we really are what we think and should not underestimate the power of our thoughts!

It has become increasingly clear in recent times that the mind and thoughts do shape and modify human brain function but a recent study by Stanislas Dehaene, a French cognitive neuroscientist at the College de France and research by other groups have shed even more light on this process.

The question that baffled Dehaene and his colleagues was that although we all know that the human brain can help us recognize objects, faces, and even interact with the environment, what happens to it when we want to learn something new? For instance, let’s suppose we are illiterate and we want to learn to read. Since reading implies that we associate symbols to language, how do the mind and human brain go about learning to read? What changes, if any, can be observed in the human brain? If it uses areas of the brain that are involved in other tasks, which other tasks are these and do we become less good at them?
See more on Dehaene in NY Times article.

Thanks to progress in neuroimaging techniques, (The mind and the human brain: imaging and experiences) neuroscientists can now explore such questions. By using functional MRI1, Stanislas Dehaene and his colleagues have studied human brain activity in response to spoken and written language, visual faces, houses, tools, and checkers, in adults of variable literacy.

What they discovered was fascinating:

A) Those who were literate had larger and better developed visual and language brain areas. Also when this group of people looked at words these parts of their brain became more active.

B) In literate adults, response to checker boards and faces in the visual word form area was lower when compared to non-readers. This suggests that learning to process words may actually be taking resources away from processing other stimuli.

C) If people had already had some literacy skills which had then been neglected, in other words they were ex-literates, when they tried to learn, their brain activated several regions similar to what has been observed in children.

D) As readers become more skilled and literate, less regions were recruited and things seem to become more "automatic."

What does this all mean?

Well, to put it simply the application of learning through thoughts seems to change the structure of the brain. In other words, through thoughts and the actions of the mind, both childhood and adult education considerably change the way the brain is organized, a process which Stanislas Dehaene refers to as “neuronal recycling” and is also referred to as neuroplasticity. So of course extrapolating these findings further - if the process of "recycling" brain cells applies to learning new words, several questions could be asked, namely:

i) What other types of learning could this also apply to?

ii) Would it perhaps be possible to start to learn correct ethical concepts and develop virtues as human beings in the same way that we learn to read and write?

iii) Could we ensure the brain learns to process this type of information too in a more automatic manner such that we ultimately become automatically "literate" not just in reading and writing but also in the application of true ethics?

iv) Could this make us kinder, more altruistic and less selfish people?

v) Wouldn't that be incredible, a world in which a scientific method exists that helps people develop virtues through the application of true ethical principles? Although this may sound far off today, we are sure such progress is possible and would indeed change the world to a better place.

What are your thoughts?


1MRI: Magnetic resonance imaging is a medical imaging technique used to visualize detailed internal structures. It provides good contrast between different soft tissues of the body (brain, cartilage, muscles, ...). Unlike CT scans or traditional X-rays, MRI does not use ionizing radiations. To find out more go to

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