Your brain is a muscle too

For a long time, it was generally accepted that by the time we reached adulthood brain development had more or less stabilised and that the structure and networks were set. Learning was explained primarily as the strengthening or rerouting of certain neural connections. However recent brain research suggests that there are more similarities, than previously believed, between how the body adapts to training and how the brain adapts to certain kinds of learning. Indeed, the human brain grows and changes in response to intense training – as do our biceps and quads.

Taxi drivers and their hippocampi

Here is a specific example of a group of people whose brains had adapted physically to the demands and complexities of their jobs. The group I am referring to is taxi drivers – specifically London taxi drivers who were the subject of the research I am about to share with you.

Studies at University College London found that the part of the brain responsible for navigation and location finding, the hippocampus, was physically larger and denser in London cabbies. In fact, the longer they had been a taxi driver, the larger their hippocampi.

The initial study compared the relative sizes of hippocampi of London taxi drivers versus London bus drivers. The main difference between these two groups is that London bus drivers follow a constrained set of routes whereas the taxi drivers have to be able to navigate one of the most complex cities in the world.

London has grown organically for over 2,000 years – a history reflected in its diverse and complex road network. Unlike Paris or New York there is no navigation-friendly grid system. It is replete with a myriad of one-way streets – often at odd angles. And (speaking from personal experience) even GPS technology is frequently rendered useless in the labyrinth that is London.

Taxi drivers who aspire to conquer this ancient city have to go through a really rigorous training program to become licensed. More than half drop out. Those that succeed develop exceptional memory and navigational skills. In the brain, the seat of those skills is the hippocampus, (or more accurately the hippocampi as we have two of them). The requirement to develop these skills caused changes in the brains of the taxi drivers resulting in posterior hippocampi that were larger than bus drivers.

How the brain responded to learning

Then in 2011 the lead researcher in the previous study E. A. Maguire, published findings from a related study comparing the size of the hippocampi of successful taxi drivers with those who had failed the test or stopped their training. She found there was no change in the size of the hippocampi of drivers who had failed to gain their license while the size of the hippocampi in the successful drivers were significantly larger. So just as a gymnast or body builder enlarges or strengthens their muscles from physical training, the brain had enlarged the part essential to the activity being learned and mastered. While bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to the brain, in this case, the research suggests that the development of the hippocampi created better directional skills in the drivers and vice versa.

Nurture more powerful than nature

These sorts of findings present us with the evidence that skills and capacities are not necessarily fixed or genetically endowed but rather can grow and develop in response to how we use our brain. Success, excellence and high performance is not just the result of genetic predisposition but rather the brain’s adaptability in response to focussed attention, training and practice.

At the risk of sounding like I have over simplified this discussion let me say that this is not the full picture. High performance in some fields is of course aided by certain genetic qualities. For example, a high percentage of top baseball players have significantly better vision than the majority of people; gymnasts who are short of stature have a lower centre of gravity which assists in balance and rotations; ballet dancers with high arches in their feet will find pointe work easier; and elite basketball players often have a much higher ‘wingspan’ to height ratio than average; and champion chess players on average do have high IQs.

Be that as it may, there are countless examples of people who have succeeded in these fields without the natural advantages – through sheer determination, commitment and deliberate practice. So while genetic endowment may give us an initial advantage out of the starting blocks it is application that takes us to the finish line.

This applies to creativity as well!

Effort and deliberate, purposeful practice are the cornerstones to skill development and high performance and not just innate talent. To my mind that’s good news for all of us as it gives us control and volition. The reason I have laid this groundwork is because I now want to make the point that – creativity is a skill that can be acquired, developed and honed with practice. In other words, the deliberate, conscious application of creative processes makes us more creative.It is a myth that some people are just born creative and that it is an inherent gift that you either possess or don’t. The aspiration to be creative is equally available to everyone who wants it. If you want to be more creative and master the skills of creative problem-solving, our Solution-Centred Teams program can help with that.


We'll email you two chapters of this latest release from Dr Irena Yashin-Shaw, "Intrapreneur - How leaders ignite innovation, break bureaucracy and catalyse change".

You have Successfully Subscribed!