It’s just an n of 1, a small anecdote within a larger story, but it illuminates some of the perpetual controversies of the cognitive sciences, from the accuracy of the IQ test to the plasticity of the human mind. It occurs on page 189 of Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side, a gripping history of the left tackle position in football. It’s also the story of Michael Oher, an impoverished kid from the mean streets of Memphis. When the book begins, Oher is virtually homeless. His mom is addicted to crack. But through a strange twist of fate, Oher is enrolled at a fancy Christian private school, where the football coach quickly realizes that Oher would make an ideal lineman. (Oher is 6-5, 350, with gigantic hands and nimble feet.) To make a long story short, Oher is adopted by Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, a wealthy white family who takes a passionate interest in Michael’s academic and football future. They make sure he does his homework, and force him to spend hours every night with a tutor. This excerpt occurs during Michael’s senior year of high school, after he has been living with the Tuohy’s for about two years:
Michael Oher had been given an IQ test, and more than once, as a child. Those tests had pegged his IQ at 80. Now the two pscyhological examiners established that his IQ was currently somewhere between 100 and 110 – which is to say that he was no more or less innately intelligent than most of the kids in his class. The mind described by the new IQ test was not recognizably the same mind that had been tested five years earlier. “I compare it to photographs,” said Jessup [the pscyhologist]. “If you put Michael then side by side with Michael now, you would not be able to recognize these two people as the same.”
That wasn’t supposed to happen: IQ was meant to be a given, like the size of one’s feet. It wasn’t as simple as that, of course, but Jessup had never seen such concrete evidence of the absurdity of treating intelligence as a fixed quantity.”
There’s lots of basic science supporting this optimistic anecdote. Elizabeth Gould, for example, has studied the effects of various environments on a colony of marmosets. As predicted, putting marmosets in a plain cage–the kind typically used in science labs–led to plain-looking brains. (Think of this condition as a typical urban public high school.) The primates suffered from reduced neurogenesis and their neurons had fewer interconnections.
However, if these same marmosets were transferred to an enriched enclosure–complete with branches, hidden food, and a rotation of toys–their adult brains began to recover rapidly. (This is what happened to Oher at the private school.) In less than four weeks, the brains of the deprived marmosets underwent radical renovations at the cellular level. Their neurons demonstrated significant increases in the density of their connections and amount of proteins in their synapses.