In an article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, Eduardo Mercado III has shed some light on how certain aspects of brain structure and function help determine how easily we learn new things, and how learning capacity contributes to individual differences in intelligence.
The capability to learn and improve cognitive skills, such as solving problems and remembering events, is scientifically known as cognitive plasticity.
According to Mercado, the structural basis of cognitive plasticity is the cortical module, vertical columns of interconnected neuronal cells.
The expert points out that these columns vary in the number and diversity of neurons they contain across different areas of the cerebral cortex, and that identifying how cortical modules help us learn cognitive skills may help explain why variations in this capacity occur, that is, why people learn skills at different rates and why our ability to learn new skills changes as we age.
Past studies on different species have already suggested that, on average, a larger cortex predicts greater intellectual capacity.
While the source of this correlation is unclear, Mercado believes that a "more expansive cortex provides more space within which a larger quantity and greater diversity of cortical modules can be distributed."
The expert writes that when it comes to intellectual potential, it is not the absolute or even relative size that is important, but how many cortical modules with various types of neurons are available.
Mercado says that that it is these features of cortical organization and function that determine how effectively the brain distinguishes events, and that this ability to differentiate events may be what enables us to learn cognitive skills.
His proposition suggests that experience can be as important as genetics in determining intellectual capacity.
He points out that structural changes of cortical modules generated by development and learning experiences may also contribute to individual differences in intelligence.
As these networks of neurons develop over time, says Mercado, their diversity increases, leading to further increases in cognitive plasticity.
He believes that this study may pave the way for improved educational techniques, and potentially lead to new methods for rehabilitating patients suffering from brain damage.
He adds that understanding how cortical modules function may also lead to new ways of increasing intelligence.
Mercado, however, cautions: "New technologies for increasing cognitive plasticity have ethical implications far beyond those raised by doping in sports. The phrase 'changing your mind' may soon take on a whole new meaning."