Science is incredibly important. Without it, we wouldn’t be very far out of the caves. But one does not necessarily need formal science to make rational decisions and take sensible actions. Don’t get me wrong — formal medical and biological studies are immensely valuable and important. However, we don’t have to wait for a formal study to confirm many of the things we intuitively know from experience. (And in fact, formal studies are increasing confirming the main points discussed below.)
High school coaches don’t need a collection of formal double-blind trials to know how to build school sports teams. At the beginning of fall (or spring) practice, they know that the young players will need strength and endurance, and that many of the players haven’t necessarily worked out (or worked jobs) over the summer or winter to build that strength and endurance. And so every day of practice typically begins with pushups, situps, kneebends, laps around the track, pushups, situps, knee bends, laps around the track, … you get the idea.
Coaches everywhere certainly get that idea, and their players initially ache and groan. But then after a few weeks, the players tighten up and 50 pushups or two miles around the track, all in full gear, become simply a normal day’s event.
Other high school teachers have typically had similar ideas about strengthening their students’ minds, quite notably language teachers (say of Latin, French, German, Spanish, etc.) and math teachers, especially geometry teachers. They and many other people in the education world have thought that mastering a language (yes, even Latin!) and/or mastering geometry will strengthen thinking, never mind whether these things will directly help in getting a job later.
For a long period, those sorts of views of intellectual exercise — Latin and other languages, geometry, and all sorts of similar mental activities — fell out of educational favor, partly because they could not easily be subjected to formal controlled studies with definable outcomes, whether those outcomes were functionally measurable behaviors or biologically-based measures — at that time it was just too hard to get inside people’s skulls and count the neurons!.
But some surprising things have happened in the last 35 years. The development of sophisticated non-invasisve scanning techniques for soft tissue have effectively allowed researchers to open up our skulls and see at least a bit of what is going on inside. The biggest surprise is that the previous orthodoxy that brain neurons are fixed by the end of adolescence and decline thereever after turned out not to be true. Neurogenesis is real! Under the right kinds of stimulus, the brain can and does regenerate neurons to replace others which may have been damaged. Sometimes it also appears to press other neurons (loafing nearby?) into such service. And part of the surprise is that our old Latin and geometry teachers have been vindicated: learning languages and acquiring intellectual and physical skills are the kinds of stimulae which push brains grow or rebuild themselves. And so both mental and physical exercise turn out to be important throughout life.
We’ll return to all this in future posts.