Passion for work shapes our brains. It makes them plastic, open to challenges. Antonio Cerasa is a psychologist and researcher at CNR and was among the first in the world to study this phenomenon: the expert brain, the brain that learns, acts, innovates. Who are the expert brains today? Why are they excelling in work and life? Chefs, sommeliers, mathematicians, musicians and sportsmen, but, potentially, we all are. And we can learn from everything, even from stress and pain.
Who are these expert brains?
The expert brain is someone who can create such a superior skill that, broken down, can make us understand how a given cognitive process works and how to enhance it. But an expert brain also does something else: it positively deforms our brains. An expert brain has a higher oxygen and metabolic consumption than our basic structure and, as a result, its brain must deform to respond to this ability. Among the figures that best embody that of the expert brain, that I was able to study closely, are chefs.
Neural plasticity increases thanks to work, which can make our brain an expert brain
A chef works in the kitchen, combining ingredients...
And so far, things seem simple, because we are looking at manual skills. The transition from a normal person with skills to an expert brain can be found in the fact that chefs do their activities at such a speed and under such stress that a normal human would collapse after two days. Expert brains do this for 365 days a year.
What does that mean?
It means that a certain ability has been “zipped” and transferred to another part of the brain, thereby increasing the ability to respond to the demands of the external environment. It means that these people's brains have transformed to survive stress and, as they transform, they have become more efficient. An expert brain is therefore a person who goes beyond simply performing acts or thoughts but pushes the brain beyond limits that were not known before.
Is it typical of some exceptional person or is it potentially a common feature at all?
Anyone can become an expert brain but needs to be subjected to certain conditions. Good stress is key to developing cognitive and mental skills. Pain itself is an incredible driving force, producing neural plasticity phenomena regardless of any other stimulus. Pain also allows the birth of new neurons, which would otherwise be impossible in adult or elderly human beings.
Why does this happen?
Because pain has a strong anthropological value and, above all, is innate to lead us to survival and evolution. Pain is necessary for survival, so when you feel pain, you have to create new neural structures to learn. Pain is essential, along with stress, creativity and external environment to create an expert brain in each of us.
If we talk about advanced skills, we must also talk about execution...
For many categories of expert brain that is how it works. You learn not only by reading or studying, but by transferring visual information to the limbs. By transcribing what we have seen. When there is this transition from the cognitive system to the motor system, learning becomes procedural and more embodied within people. If we combine cognitive learning with motor activity we can become even better.
Expert brain is a person who goes beyond just performing acts or thoughts, but pushes the brain beyond limits that were not previously known
In another of your books, Diversamente sano (Differently healthy- Hoepli, 2018), you dealt with a similar theme, but from a different perspective, the pathology point of view...
In that book I started from the idea that some mental illnesses are not linked to a weakness of our central nervous system. We are used to thinking that anxious people, depressed and so on are weak people, who have no strategies to react...
Instead, what did you find?
I realized that some psychiatric or psychological disorders are related to an excess, not a defect of “intelligence”. Simply those people have not yet found a way to vent their energy and, having not found it, this impasse manifests itself in forms of confusion or dysregulation of emotions. We need to understand what is in their environment that leads them to be so ineffective.
Let's take the case of orthorexia, or obsession with healthy food. People who suffer from it are not stupid but, on the contrary, have a higher IQ than the average. They are people who react to a certain environmental condition - massive food and industrial production - with a kind of hyper control. But it is hyper control that arises from a very deep knowledge of food. The idea is therefore that we need to work on the environment, not on the weaknesses of the individual. The environment and overall habitat determine our orientation around the world.
How can we work to improve our working habitat, enhancing everyone's resources, intelligence, capabilities?
We must insist on socialization, in order to push our limits. Also, through work, which is stimulus, passion. And then, with kids, using some tools.
What kind of tools?
Let’s think about video games. If we look at today's kids, they are vilified because they spend hours and hours on video games. Take Fortnite, for example. Through this video game you can create very strong social networks even with people you don't know, simply by sharing something that you like. We need to empower the individual's sense of individuality - what you do and what you like to do - along with others, not against others. We must combine pleasure and work. To make networks and become expert brains.