The Committee in Our Heads, Part III: The Effect of Committee Breakdowns… Nature and Nurture

This is the third in a five-part “Brain Talk” series that explores how and why the inner-working components of the brain work together.

Any committee is only as good as its members and a deficit in one subcommittee of the brain, as I shared in my previous post, can undermine the work of the others.

It’s no surprise that deficits come from two main sources: nature and nurture. Just as people have different physical attributes on the outside (tall, short, nimble, clumsy, slender, curvy, etc.), we have different physical attributes on the inside. Some folks, for instance, might have a more robust natural working memory capacity or be more risk-averse than others, while some may have cognitive issues like dyslexia, ADHD, or any number of innate or trauma-induced characteristics. These cognitive differences can make certain learning and academic activities particularly challenging. Variability is inevitable.

Fortunately, one thing we all do have in common is our ability to learn, to change our brains. No matter what natural ability we bring with us, we can always improve. Being seven feet tall may make the task of dunking a basketball easier than it is for someone who is only six feet tall, but it doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a great basketball player. When it comes to developing mastery and to growing our abilities, nurture matters.

Since our brains are most malleable early in life, those early nurture experiences can have a great deal of significance. I was surprised, for instance, to learn that absolute pitch, the ability to produce a note without a reference point, is actually learned. I had always thought that it was something that people were born with. Then I read about an experiment at Harvard Medical School where a researcher gave a group of adults a drug that reset their brains into a more malleable state similar to childhood. He then gave these subjects an online set of music lessons. Lo and behold, these adults developed absolute, or perfect, pitch. Adults had never before learned perfect pitch. The starting point of our subcommittees may be influenced by nature, but their strength is based on nurture.

Not all students come to school with the same nurture experience, and those differences matter. Research suggests that those who have done jigsaw puzzles or played certain board games in their preschool years have, in essence, enhanced the capability and communication between the spatial, language and, depending on the board games, symbolic subcommittees that are part of the larger mathematics committee. Toddlers who have been read to and have begun to explore letter-sound relationships have similar nurture advantages when it comes to reading.

Life experiences can also enhance or interrupt the work of the evolving executive function and emotional subcommittees. Trauma and toxic stress, for instance, can undermine the development of the basic brain structures that support learning.

With so much variability from the mix of nature and nurture, we shouldn’t be surprised that students learn at different paces, built around different mixes of cognitive and noncognitive strengths and weaknesses.

You can see these differences play out over the next few months at summer camps, on family trips, and in sports. Learners, in academics as well as athletics, have different starting points and different growth trajectories. We expect that variation on the playing field. We should expect it in the classroom, too.