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Antonio Damasio



Home > Learning and Development > How education can change the brain > Professor Antonio Damasio, University of Southern California

Video: How education can change the brain
Professor Antonio Damasio, University of Southern California

Many years ago when we were actually still in Portugal we got very interested, the following idea. We knew that-- You know, Portugal is a curious country in all of Europe that has some large cities where life is very modern and everything functions right. And there's also a thing called the countryside where people are, in fact, very wise, do not live in a backward, the traditional sense of the term, and yet very often they were not literate. They were not taught to read and write.

So we got intrigued by the idea. This was in the mid-'70s. Would their brain organization be different? And the way we went about it was to collect every possible bit of information on such individuals that were illiterate, but smart, et cetera, et cetera, and had strokes as a result of which they had aphasia.

And our question was, could it be that if you are illiterate, you will actually end up not having aphasia, which is the term for a disturbance of language caused by brain damage, with the same kind of damage that we know causes aphasia in a literate individual? And this is because we know very well, especially after Norman Geschwind that there are certain patterns of aphasia where you can, for example, lose more of your semantic processing or lose more of your syntactic processing. And those are related to extremely predictable parts of the brain. In fact, you can listen to a patient, talk to the patient, and you can venture a diagnosis of where precisely in the left hemisphere the damage is going to be. And then the scans will confirm that.

So the question is, could it be that their brain organization would be different? And the answer was, at first level, no. At that first level, what we found is that even if you were an illiterate aphasic, you would have aphasia with damage in the predictable areas of a perfectly literate person. Interestingly, one of my students, in fact my first student in Portugal who's now a professor of neurology in Lisbon, decided to take this further in the age of modern functional neuron-imaging. And decided to take very singular groups and see, okay, the areas may be grossly the same, but could it be that there's something within these areas that is functioning differently?

And the answer is yes. The answer is that the patterns of activation are different, but the intensity, for example, with which certain areas are recruited in normal individuals who are either literate or illiterate is different. And I think this is an example that I think relates directly to your work. And that is that you can have largely the same brain organization which is given to males and females, and is given to the illiterate and the literate. And yet within that basic macro-organization, you can organize a functional anatomy that is different, and that will be different in different conditions, and that probably will be very different depending on the kind of learning, the kind of education that you have been subject to.

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