Things That Change Our Minds, Literally
Wednesday, June 27, 2012

It turns out that being bilingual, so useful in a global society, also makes you smarter. It can improve cognitive skills not related to language and protect against dementia. Researchers once thought that a second language interfered with a child’s intellectual development. But new evidence shows that while the interference of one language by another is real, it has the benefit of forcing the brain to resolve internal conflict – a kind of mental workout that strengthens cognitive ability. Being bilingual improves the brain’s “executive” function, which directs attention to planning and solving problems. Bilinguals are also thought to have a heightened ability to monitor their environment.

Cognitive habits can also be changed by the use of search engines and smart phones. Assistant psychology professor, Betsy Sparrow, at Columbia University, has identified three new ways we process information in the Internet age.

•    When we don’t know the answer to a question, instead of thinking about it, we think about where to find the nearest Internet connection
•    When we expect to be able to find information again, we don’t remember it as well as when we think it might be unavailable

•    Expecting to be able to find information down the road, we form a memory not of the information, but of where we can find it.Delegating the work of memory to our computers has a downside, however. Skills such as critical thinking and analysis develop in the context of facts stored in our brain’s long-term memory, not somewhere in the cloud.


And in a happy reversal of fortune, research now shows that people with dyslexia or word blindness have skills that are superior to those of typical readers. Dyslexics have distinctive perceptual abilities. They can be better at recognizing patterns and absorbing the “visual gist”, allowing them to take in a whole scene quickly and at once. This helps explain why dyslexics are prevalent in such fields as art and design and may help reposition dyslexia as a talent rather than a disability.

The field of interpersonal neurobiology has given us proof that our brains are constantly rewiring themselves based on daily life. Our relationships literally change our brains from birth onward, influencing how our  genes express themselves as we grow. “Supportive relationships are the most robust predictor of positive attributes such as physical well-being, longevity, happiness, and even wisdom,” says Daniel J. Siegel of the University of California at Los Angeles. The brain on love knows whom to trust and it seeks lifelong learning.

The brain on an ego trip, by contrast, can be a dangerous thing, especially in a CEO, writes Steven M. Davidoff, professor of law and finance at Ohio State University. He cites a study showing that narcissism among chief executives encourages more volatile company performance. Davidoff writes “Narcissistic chief executives can’t let go because they believe that the success of their businesses is dependent on them. They are also incapable of believing that they are wrong.”

About the Author
Pat Galagan is the editor-at-large for the Association for Talent Development (ATD). As a writer and editor for more than 30 years, she has covered all aspects of talent development and interviewed many business leaders and the CEOs of numerous Fortune 500 companies.
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