Tag Archives: cognitive development

Why playing the piano might enhance our intelligence?

By National Institutes of Health [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Students and lecturers leave all sorts of things in lecture theatres, including lecture notes, pens and water bottles, that accumulate around the edges like flotsam on the beach because no one wants to throw away something for which the owner might return.  A few weeks ago, I found the front page of a letter published in Nature which roused my curiosity. Its title was ‘Verbal and non-verbal intelligence changes in the teenage brain’.  My memories of my teenage years are almost uniformly bad; in part because I was unable to reproduce the academic promise that I had shown when I was younger and the pressure to do so was unrelenting.  I suspect that my experience is not uncommon and the research described in this letter offers a potential explanation for my inability to ace examinations regardless of how hard I tried.

The conventional understanding of human intellectual capacity is that it is constant during our life. However, the authors of this article have shown that the statistics, upon which this understanding is based, hide a variation in our teenage years; because some teenagers experience a reduction and some an increase in intellectual capacity, which leaves the population’s average unchanged.

In addition, using structural and functional imaging, they were able to correlate changes in verbal IQ with changes in grey matter density in a region of the brain activated by speech (the left motor cortex), and changes in non-verbal IQ with changes in grey matter density in regions activated by finger movements (the anterior cerebellum).

The timeline of the reported research does not extend far enough to establish whether or not the changes seen in teenagers is temporary; however, my anecdotal evidence suggests that might be the case.  I would conclude that the effort used to apply psychological pressure on teenagers to ace examinations might be better expended on piano lessons and piano practice to enhance sensorimotor skills which are strongly correlated to cognitive intelligence – but I suspect many parents have already worked that one out!


Ramsden S, Richardson FM, Josse G, Thomas MSC, Ellis C, Shakeshaft C, Seghier ML & Price CJ, Verbal and non-verbal intelligence changes in the teenage brain, Nature, 479:113-116, 2011.

Illusion of self

A few weeks ago, I wrote that some neuroscientists believe consciousness arises from the synchronous firing of assemblies of neurons [see my post ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016].  Since these assemblies exist for only a fraction of a second before triggering other ones that replace them, this implies that what you think of as ‘yourself’ is actually a continuously changing collection of connected neurons in your brain, or as VS Ramachandran has described it ‘what drives us is not a self – but a hodgepodge of processes inside the skull’.

According to Kegan’s schema of cognitive development, new born babies perceive the world as an extension of themselves.  However, as our consciousness develops, the idea of a ‘self’ evolves as a construct of the brain that allows us to handle the huge flow of sensory inputs arriving from our five senses and we begin to separate ‘self’ from the objects around us.  This leads to us perceiving the world around us as separate to us but there to serve our needs, which we see as paramount.  Fortunately, the vast majority of us (more than 90%) move beyond this state and our relationships with other people become the dominant driver of our actions and identity.  Some people (about 35%) can separate their relationships and identity from ‘self’ and hence are capable of more nuanced decision-making – this is known as the Institutional stage. About one percent of the population are capable holding many identities and handling the paradoxes that arise from deconstructing the ‘self’ in the Inter-individual stage.

Of course, Kegan’s stages of cognitive development are also a construct to helps us describe and understand the behaviour and levels of cognition observed in those around us.  There is some evidence that deeper more complex thought processes, associated with higher levels of cognition, involve the firing of larger, more widespread assemblies of neurons across the brain; and perhaps these larger neuronal assemblies are self-reinforcing; in other words, the more we think deeply the more capable we are of thinking deeply and, just occasionally, this leads to an original thought.  And, maybe the one percent of individuals who are capable of handling paradoxical thoughts have brains capable of sustaining multiple large neuronal assemblies.  A little bit like lightning triggered from multiple points in the sky during a (brain)storm.

How does this relate to engineering?  Well, we touch on Kegan’s stages of cognitive development in our continuing professional development courses [see my post on ‘Technology Leadership’ on January 18th, 2017] for engineers and scientists aspiring to become leaders in research and development because we want to advance their cognitive development and, also allow them to lead teams consisting of individuals at the institutional and inter-individual stages that will be capable of making major breakthroughs.


V.S. Ramachandran, ‘In the hall of illusions’, in ‘We are all stardust‘ by Stefan Klein, London: Scribe, 2015.

Kegan, R., In over our heads: the mental demands of modern life, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Kegan, R., The evolving self: problem and process in human development, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.