Element 10:

The Environment Is Everything to Increasing Your Adaptability/Intelligence Factor

“There was a child who went forth everyday, and the first object he looked upon, that object he became, and that object became part of him for that day or for a certain part of that day or for many years or stretching cycles of years.” – Walt Whitman

boyholdingglobe[1]The environment is all powerful in the process of building and shaping the genetic and neurological structures that are the wellspring of all our thoughts and behaviors. As science has shown, learning and adaptation occur through the process of selecting genetic and neurological shapes that best “fit” our environments. So that our chances of surviving and thriving will be enhanced, the genes and neural connections that fit the environment are selected into our biology, and those that do not fit are selected out (see “We Learn Through Selection Not Instruction“).

well[1]Seeing that the environment is the only source from which our genes and neural tissue can select from in order for us to adapt and change allows us to understand the powerful impact of the environment on our learning and behaviors. The quality of input determines the quality of output. Our biology can only select what the environment presents. If we live in abusive, uncaring or war-torn environments, our biological structures are constantly altering their shapes to better fit those situations, and we ourselves can become abusive, uncaring or prone to violence. If we live in nurturing, caring and peaceful situations, our biological structures will change to better adapt, and we will have tendencies to become nurturing, caring, and peaceful. In the end, the environment is crucial to learning, for it is the only well in which the brain can dip to satiate its drive to adapt. If the environmental well is full of junk, the brain becomes full of garbage; if the well is full of jewels, the brain can be dazzling.

Read on to learn about the importance of our environments

Genes Cannot Be Preset for Everything

It has been estimated that only 20,000 genes are involved in building our nervous system and brain. This limited number cannot possibly code for all the flood of complexity that the world throws at us during our lifetime. Mother Nature recognized that the only way to deal with the complexity of a changing world was to build a brain that had two fundamental elements pre-encoded by our genes: First, the brain had to have an insatiable drive to “fit” itself to its world, and, second, the brain had to be born with its major structures incomplete and flexible so that rapid adaptation could easily take place. Our genes set it up so that we are born incomplete; it is our interactions with the environment that does the finishing, by shaping our brain to “fit” the world presented to us.

bluegreenhead[1]It could be said that the most important stretch of base pairs (A, C, T and G; base pairs write the language of genes) in any animal’s or human’s DNA is the stretch that directs neural connections to adapt to their environment. We are not born Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Islamic, or Mexican, Polish, Saudi, or American. Instead we are born universal blobs of protoplasm, citizens of the world with no religious or national affiliation. What we are born with is the drive to fit our world. If that world has stimuli that favor one religion or nationality, then that is what and who we become. Our genetic plan has built a brain preset to adapt itself to any location in the world into which we are born. For instance, immediately out of the womb we can babble every sound found in every language in the world, including the tongue clicks found in some African languages. But our brain’s drive to fit the world forces our neurological networks to select language circuits so that we end up speaking fluently only the sounds that will help us survive most effectively.

This drive to fit our world, immunologist and neuroscientist Gerald Edelman observes, effectively “carves out” our brain structures. If the brain is isolated in a segment of society, such as ghetto, cult or abusive family, seldom exposed to what would be considered healthy social norms, the brain will unconsciously do everything it can to “carve” its shape to fit those unhealthy settings. When we firmly grasp that the environment is molding our brains and behaviors, it is easy to see how, even with the most aggressive sentencing system in the western world, the recidivism rate of prisoners in America is 60 to 70 percent. Why? Spending years in prison with criminals molds brains that perform criminal behaviors. If we want to change criminals’ minds and behaviors, we should not sentence them to spend time in prison with the bad guys but to spend time in churches with the good guys! If one country wants another country to adapt to its political philosophies, the best way is not to prohibit information and trade, because embargoes only limit neurological change. The best way is to expose the country’s collective mind to new environmental stimuli.

jigsawpuzzle[1]Understanding this drive to “fit” our environment also provides reasons for hanging around people who have what you desire in your life. If you want to make a lot of money, socialize with those who are rich, and if you want to become more spiritual, start hanging out with people who are walking a pious path. This drive of our genes and brain tissues to adapt to the environment gives us new perspectives on the harmful power of the media, especially when you consider the research that shows that the average American child spends 40 percent of his or her waking hours with TV, videos, movies, and the Internet, which are full of excessive sex and violence (see “Danger! When the Media Becomes the Environment“).

Neural Flexibility Is the Key

The brain’s drive to fit its world is made easier because our major brain structures (especially in the neocortex) remain highly flexible throughout our lives. This allows them to be shaped over and over again to fit changing environments. While our genes lay down the general neurological plan, providing rough emotional, motor, spatial, tactile, audio, visual, taste, and smell networks, the fit of these networks is improved though environmental interactions in the present. This type of setup allows the brain to quickly select new wiring that can effectively adapt to different situations. As neuroscientist and Antonio Damasio points out, “As far as evolutionary modern brain structures are concerned, the genome [makeup of all genes] helps set a general rather than a precise arrangement of systems and circuits. And how does the precise arrangement come about? It comes about under the influent environmental circumstances.” We don’t come into the world knowing how to drive a car or build a computer program, but the rough networks are in place for this type of new surviving and thriving information to be quickly selected from our environment.

The drive of our flexible neurological structures to fit ever changing environments is continually reshaping who we are. If this were not so, we would not be able to change our minds and would be trapped in the world of who we were. A large complex and flexible neocortex allows humans to continually conform to the world through hundreds if not thousands of daily and weekly micro adaptations. As Gabriel Marquez says, “Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them. … Life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”

In the effort to create learning systems that produce happy, healthy productive people we must be aware that the environment is all-important and all powerful.

In the book Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:

That one way to look at neurons is as tiny switches that do nothing unless stimulated by environmental feedback.

Why Nobel Laureate Edelman says, as far as neural tissue is concerned, “Every perception is an act of creation.”

How complex environmental stimuli can make the brain larger and smarter!

How learning new things can even make you live longer.

That scientists have found, that brains of mentally active individuals had up to 40 percent more connections than brains of high school dropouts.

How studies now prove that correct environmental stimuli can even rewire the brains of those with dyslexia, so that they read more efficiently.

How learning can be a buffer against Alzheimer’s disease.

How simple things we encounter in our environments have been shown to cause molecular changes in the brain.

How research has found that, when children are raised in negative, stressful and violent environments, the levels of the neurotransmitter that inhibit impulsive behavior actually decrease.

That, if the brain is exposed to threatening environments for excessively long periods, the levels of the neurotransmitter that makes us act aggressively can become permanently elevated.

That the adage “location, location, location” in the real estate business can be applied to the brain business. Your location in the world dictates what form your brain will take and therefore what behaviors you will be most apt to engage in.

How the “location is everything” concept for the shaping of neural tissue starts as soon as four days after conception, when new brain cells start exploding from the neural tube at the mind-boggling rate of 500,000 per minute.

That, starting at seven weeks after conception and completing at two years after birth, synaptogenesis lays down trillions of synapses at the rate of a phenomenal 1.8 neural connections every second! These synapses are preset to help us adapt to whatever environment we find ourselves in.

How we can use this neural flexibility and drive to alter our behaviors and habits, allowing lifelong smokers to become nonsmokers, alcoholics to become sober and perpetual bachelors to become dedicated husbands.

How the neurons in the visual cortex of blind people can be wired up to hear, providing them with superhuman powers, like the comic book hero DareDevil.

How, over 120 years ago, when Charles Darwin compared the brain size of wild rabbits to domestic rabbits, he planted the seeds for the discovery that the environment dictates the structure of our brains.

That, up until end of the 20th century, scientists refused to believe that the adult brain could change its structure

That stem cells are able to do such wonderful things, because their location in the brain can so easily dictate their function.

How stem cells cause learning that can help reverse the ravages of Parkinson’s disease.

That negative environments shape minds to behave in negative ways. For example:

  • Daughters of teenage mothers on welfare are 360 percent more likely to get public assistance than those not born to “welfare” mothers.
  • Forty percent of daughters born to teen mothers on welfare will also become teenage mothers.
  • Children raised in violent homes or neighborhoods have a 50 percent greater chance of becoming a statistic in the criminal justice system.
  • Abused and neglected children have brain regions that are 30 percent smaller than those of normal children.

That positive environments help shape brain structures that produce positive outcomes. For example:

  • Children with more talkative mothers had a 295-word vocabulary advantage over children of less loquacious moms.
  • Children who took piano lessons for six months increased their spatial abilities 36 percent above their peers who only played with computers, took singing lessons or did nothing special.
  • When children of low-IQ parents were placed in more educated environments, they ended up with IQ scores that were 20 percent higher than their impoverished peers.

To help you understand more about the importance of the environment to your Adaptability / Intelligence Factor, click on other Elements:

Why Experience Beats Linguistic Learning Every Time

Memory Is Not an Event: The Four Stages of Learning

Windows of Super Learning Opportunity

The Grave Risks of Too Much Information Too Soon

Danger! When the Media Becomes the Environment

The 11 Biological Intelligences

Meaning – the Holy Grail of Learning

We Learn Through Selection Not Instruction