“The brain never stops changing, therefore we never stop learning and transforming ourselves”: the neuroscientist Mariano Sigman

“The brain never stops changing, therefore we never stop learning and transforming ourselves”: the neuroscientist Mariano Sigman


Mariano Sigman, a prestigious and multi-awarded Argentine neuroscientist, is the author of “The Secret Life of the Mind,” a book that explores why we behave the way we do, how thoughts originate and other fascinating themes about the mind and awareness.

Can intelligence be trained or improved after childhood or can it simply not be modified after approximately seven years, as some scientists say? 

The seven years is an absolute myth . There is no border at seven years, nothing happens in the brain.

It is an artificial barrier that has no handle on the data.

For starters, there is not one intelligence but many. That is, intelligence is not improved, but different aspects of it are improved, and that is still being trained.

The brain never stops changing, and therefore we never stop learning and transforming ourselves, including many aspects that have to do with intelligence, such as our capacity for reasoning.

It’s never too late.

What is stronger our instinct or our reasoning? 

Anyone who answers this question by saying one or the other would be lacking in the truth.

We are a coexistence of instincts and reasons, and you have to understand how each one works.

The first thing to understand is that instinct is not very different from reasoning.

When one has an intuition or a hunch, that is not a divine illusion where suddenly a certain knowledge is conferred on us, but that is also part of a reasoning process.

For example, when a tennis player is going to receive a serve and “feels” that the other player is going to draw in a certain direction, that feeling that he has -and that he may not be able to explain- is actually part of many things that he is reasoning, like the position of the body or the look.

All this is part of a rational learning, only that it happens unconsciously. As it happens unconsciously, we do not have access to the elements of deliberation. That is, intuition and rationality are not so different, they are two decision processes in which one uses all the information that can.

And intuitions are good in two areas: first in the domains in which one has a lot of experience – as the tennis player’s example shows – and in the domains that we all know as social relations.

Second, in complex domains where the problem of the decision can not be summarized to one, two or three variables. In those cases, sometimes it is better to trust intuition, because it has the ability to look at the forest and not the tree.

Is it possible that there is a “collective mind,” with processes analogous to those of an “individual mind,” not only on the social plane but on the neurological level? 

In neurological terms, not now.

In computing, it happens. One of the great current revolutions in computing is to build arrays of many computers that are connected and solve problems at the same time.

It is what is called parallel computing and has made computer science much more powerful.

We create many situations like this, where there is a problem and we put many people to deliberate. They are a lot of brains that interact through language and gestures, passing information from one to another, but they are not directly connected as if they were a large neural matrix.

But there is a collective thought . We see the emergence of certain social norms, agreements … and also how there are great drifts that change, for example now we live a moment of more political polarization, or the Brexit in England or the No to peace in Colombia …

That is, we can see that there are phenomena in which almost everyone begins to think in a similar way . That’s because one of the great principles of human behavior is the ability to imitate and that happens in all domains.

If you cross your arms, you will see that after a while the person in front also does it. There is a huge spontaneous and very primary interaction in our ability to synchronize, although we do not function in such an amalgamated way as bees or ants, which spontaneously form very organic and highly structured societies.

As a scientist you have come across some function or something of the mind to which you have not objectively found any scientific explanation?

All the time. That’s what science is about.

Science is an exercise in discovering the unknown that is full of frustrations. And the more we discover (of the brain), the more we discover that we do not know.

Sometimes one forgets, but the first constitutive reason for science is a kind of skeptical humility.

Science tries to observe and intervene to build partial models on how things work.

From the philosophical point of view, science always encounters problems that it can not solve. From the practical point of view, one goes -in this path of fundamental ignorance- solving practical problems that make our habitability on earth progressively improve.

Does meditation and yoga bring benefits to our brain? 

I would suggest that, in any case, it would bring benefits to us, to our health. It is not a capricious correction: one has to define what is a benefit to see later whether meditation helps or not.

There are a lot of studies that show that meditation has an effect on many cognitive variables and even on physiological variables , such as blood pressure, the amount of cortisol. That is, things that have to do with physiological stress and not measured from a subjective perspective.

But in these domains you have to be a little careful because these things are very variable: they depend on what, for whom, how much …

The short answer is that yes . In general, a summary of the studies that state this, shows that yoga has an effect on people’s capacity for concentration and relaxation.

But it is not a magic recipe: one, a substantial amount of effort is required, two, it depends on what type and three, it depends on which person.

And that’s true for almost everything, take into account how much, to what extent, for qui é n … She said (physical) Paracelsus: the difference between a drug and a poison is the dose.

Is it true that children learn languages more easily than adults? 

No, that’s not true. It is a myth . What is easier as a child is the pronunciation of certain sounds.

Except that, the biggest difference in the learning capacity between an adult and a child is motivation and need.

A child has to learn because if he does not remain incommunicado, and that is a very strong vital pressure is transferred in a lot of motivation that is transferred in a lot of effort, that is transferred in a long time, that is transferred in a lot of learning.

One can learn with the same capacity of a child if one dedicates the same amount of motivation, time and effort “

Mariano Sigman, neuroscientist

The adults are generally eager to learn a language, but that’s a kind of intellectual desire, and in the meantime have emergencies, drives and motivations that lie elsewhere, because it has to make ends meet, take care of their children … and that’s what makes the biggest difference in learning ability.

It is not the plasticity of the brain, but the ability to have time, the motivation and need that one generates in that learning.

There is one more difference and that is that adults and children learn in a very different way.

Children learn the first language by listening to it (first they actually listen to their music, tonality, accents). On the other hand, one of adults learns in a very rational way: he wants to learn the words.

And this idea of motivation, time and effort is applied to everything we want to learn. Essentially, one can learn with the same capacity as a child (an instrument, a sport, to read) if one dedicates the same amount of motivation, time and effort.

Is it true that with the power of the mind a person can be cured?

The answer is yes, but it is a complicated question. The power of the mind is the power of the brain to regulate bodily states.

We know for example that there is a relationship between the nervous system and the immune system. A depressed person has a less active immune system and therefore is more prone to get sick.

Good mental health helps body health.

But what you have to understand is that the will is not enough: it does not mean that if I have a cancer but all the desire to live with it reaches me, because the brain does not have the capacity to regulate and specifically attack (a tumor).

It is similar to sport: good mental health helps for example an athlete to play better, but it is not enough to wish for that to happen, but one has to know what to do with his own head to reach a state of maximum performance.

The brain regulates the immune system, blood pressure, the functioning of the cardiac system, but not voluntarily ”

Mariano Sigman, neuroscientist

And that requires a lot of training: an athlete trains to know how to work his head to function better. The same happens with health, but nobody trains us for that.

But another thing that needs to be understood is that this is not a magical miracle. The brain regulates the immune system, blood pressure, the functioning of the cardiac system, but not voluntarily.

And something that is fundamental is that it is not something that works per se without medical treatment.

The best way to take care of ourselves, by far, statistically, is to follow the best medical protocols we have.

Is it possible to know what inspiration is? Is there a mechanism in our brain that leads us to these artistic ideas in certain circumstances?

It’s complex, but I would say there are three things. First there is much consensus that there is no inspiration or creation per se.

Inspiration needs resources. For example, athletes know that when they are more tired, inspiration and talent decrease. So the talent lives in a niche of good conditions to create it.

In the cognitive case it is to have good resources. A musician is not enough to practice or have clear notions of harmony. It is not enough but it is necessary.

It is very difficult to have inspiration if one does not have all those resources to compose.

Recipe to be inspired: first work, generate structure and resources. And when all that is mature, it is necessary to generate moments where one moves away and thinks of something else ”

Mariano Sigman, neuroscientist

The second thing is that there are many studies that show that every so often, to find inspiration, it is necessary to deconcentrate.

You have to work concentrated and with effort, but every so often you have to get out of this, playing, thinking about something else and this can cause some relationships to appear that otherwise would not have appeared.

And the third thing is that sometimes dreams – which are a more disordered space of thought – are often a powerhouse of the creative process.

In summary, the recipe is first order, work, generate structure and resources. And when all that is mature and elaborated, you have to generate moments where you go away and think of anything.

In combination of things is often fertile for creativity.


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