Scientifically Speaking | Reading between the synapses
Specific training and memory tasks shape the brain to allow people to take up certain jobs. But some brains have specific abilities for specialised vocations
Our brains are not fixed. A healthy brain can change and adapt through growth and development in a person’s life. This concept, known as neuroplasticity, is important to understanding the capacity that each of us possesses to learn throughout life. It’s quite remarkable that the brain reorganises itself by creating new neurons, forming new neural connections, and pruning weaker ones.
Our brains mould themselves as we acquire new information or skills. For example, playing a musical instrument can increase the volume of the auditory cortex, which is responsible for processing sound in the brain. Learning a new language can increase volume in areas of the brain like the temporal lobe, which is involved in language processing. Practising mindfulness through meditation can increase grey matter volume in areas of the brain linked to attention and control of emotions. By detecting changes in blood flow, scientists can see which parts of the brain are active when a person is doing something.
We’ve all marvelled at experts and wondered how they get their superior skills in a particular domain. Are they born with talent, or do they acquire it through training? The answer – at least according to current thinking – is a bit of both. The genes we inherit, and our early development perhaps set a wide range for us to improve, while training pushes us to the top of our personal range.
It's also possible that certain genetic factors predispose individuals to excel in specific fields, making them more likely to pursue related careers. In addition, intensive training and mental demands lead to brain development and refinement of the skills necessary for these professions.
It’s hard to settle this debate definitively because even experts fall within subjective ranges. It is also hard to study enough individuals from before they start their specialized training to after they become experts to make meaningful conclusions.
What we do know is that people who excel in different professions have brains wired to think differently from the rest of us. Mathematicians have more grey matter density in areas linked to mathematical reasoning and problem-solving. Professional chess players show stronger connections in the parts of their brains that help with learning, remembering, and paying attention to visual and spatial information.
Athletes too show changes in their brains that make them better at movement and balance. For example, experienced badminton players have more brain cells in areas linked to improved motor control and the ability to perceive space – critical to success in elite levels of the sport.
Goalkeeping is the most specialised role in soccer and goalkeepers have unique skills even compared to other soccer players.
A study published in the scientific journal Current Biology last month by a team of scientists led by David McGovern at Dublin City University in Ireland showed that goalkeepers are especially good at processing different kinds of sensory information quickly – a requirement for making fast decisions during a game. They found that goalkeepers are very good at using what they see and hear to make quick judgments that help them position themselves.
The study looked at how goalkeepers combine visual and auditory information. It found that goalkeepers have a narrower “temporal binding window” compared to outfield players and non-athletes. This means that goalkeepers are better at judging the timing of audiovisual events. This skill helps them react quickly and accurately in response to the sound and sight of a ball being kicked.
While goalkeepers have a faster ability to process sensory information due to their narrower temporal binding window, they also tend to separate these sensory signals. This skill allows their brains to focus on the most dependable sensory input, like the sound of a ball being kicked, which is vital in situations where they can't rely as much on sight (often due to blocking outfield players). This specialised ability is important for goalkeepers to be successful since responding quickly could be the difference between stopping a goal or not.
This high level of specialisation also reminded me of a classic series of studies from the early 2000s by Eleanor Maguire and her team at University College London on London taxi drivers. Unlike other major cities like Paris or Madrid, where taxi drivers learn the major street network and gain detailed knowledge through experience, London requires its drivers to memorise an exhaustive map of the city. This includes over 26,000 streets and numerous points of interest and is known as 'The Knowledge'.
This rigorous process leads to significant changes in the brain structure of London taxi drivers. Maguire and her team found that these drivers have a larger volume of grey matter in the posterior hippocampus compared to non-taxi drivers. The hippocampus is crucial for spatial memory and navigation.
More grey matter in this part of the brain in these drivers also correlates with the length of their driving experience. The brain changes as they become more experienced. This enlargement is a direct result of taxi drivers’ need to navigate one of the world's most complex urban landscapes without relying on GPS systems.
We can question the value of such extensive training in an era dominated by GPS technology, but what is true is that London's approach fosters remarkable spatial memory and navigational skills in its drivers. What’s more, London’s taxi drivers derive a sense of pride and accomplishment in cracking 'The Knowledge' and quite often outperform GPS systems in accuracy and flexibility.
Equally fascinating is that this brain change is not observed in London bus drivers, who navigate fixed routes and thus do not require the same depth of navigation skills as taxi drivers. This difference highlights how specific learning and memory tasks, like navigating a city, can shape the brain.
Together, all of these studies elegantly show how our brains can physically reorganise themselves in response to the demands we place on them. Learning more about how our genes, training, and experiences affect brain development will also create better methods of educational and professional training. It’s an exciting time to be studying brains.
Anirban Mahapatra is a scientist by training and the author of COVID-19: Separating Fact From Fiction. He is currently finishing up his second popular science book. The views expressed are personal