03. Keith Crutcher: the brain and its ability to adapt

Dr Keith Crutcher, Neuroscientist, talks to Sue Stockdale about the mysteries of the brain; and why adaptability, curiosity and forgetting is vital for our survival in the fast-changing business world. Keith, a long-established brain scientist, has held faculty positions at the University of Utah and the University of Cincinnati, where he carried out a number of research studies on brain plasticity and Alzheimer’s disease.  Keith’s Linkedin Profile 






Keith Crutcher Transcription

Sue : [00:00:00] I’m delighted today to speak to Keith Crutcher, a professor in the department of neurosurgery at the university of Cincinnati. He has spent many years cutting at research into different areas of neuroscience, including Alzheimer’s disease. And brain plasticity. I know you’ll learn some useful insights today from him, listeners. So welcome Keith.

Keith: [00:00:30] Thank you. Glad to be here.

Sue : [00:00:31] So what got you interested in brain science in the first place?

Keith: [00:00:35] Oh, that’s a tough one. You know, I think like everyone else, I had a natural curiosity about what was going on inside my head and what all that might relate to. But it really wasn’t until I was in college and after changing majors four different times, I finally settled on biology and it just turned out that the school I was going to, which was in San Diego, it happened to be in the same city where they were [00:01:00] having the third annual meeting of the society for neuroscience.

So it was a group that had just formed three years before that. And I was asked. As a student, basically to come and just participate in terms of being there and seeing what was going on. And I came away just completely enthralled with everything that was being done in terms of the research on the brain. And I thought, ah, this is what I’d like to do if I could possibly do it. And it was, it turned out I was able to.

Sue : [00:01:28] Wow. So it’s very opportune that you’re in the right place at the right time.

Keith: [00:01:31] Exactly, yeah. Very serendipitous.

Sue : [00:01:33] What are the main functions that the brain has? I know it might be an obvious question, but from your perspective, Keith, what do you think’s important about the brain?

Keith: [00:01:39] I guess in a nutshell, it’s probably does everything that gives us our identity, first of all, in terms of thinking of who we are as persons, and then of course, more fundamentally, it allows us to operate as living creatures on the planet that has a lot of surprises. And so depending on how you [00:02:00] understand the origin of our brains, and I think the evidence is pretty good that it, it was probably over a long process of many years of evolutionary change.

We’re adapted to being able to solve problems in this changing environment in unique ways and in ways that are not mimicked by a lot of other creatures on the planet. So we do have some unique capabilities. It’s fairly all consuming. If you think about what the brain does, I mean, it’s operating to regulate all of our internal functions as well as interacting with the world and with other people with other brains, which makes it very complicated kind of structure to study.

Sue : [00:02:35] The thing that you mentioned, there Keith was around, this ability to adapt to changing environments, and that’s, I guess in the business world in which we’re operating today, that pace of change is even quicker. And I know you’ve been studying neuroplasticity, which is about the change of the brain, I think.tell us more about that.

Keith: [00:02:54] So yeah, I should clarify. So there’s two levels at which you can think about adaptation. One is over the long [00:03:00] history of evolution and that they we are talking about millions of years of adaptation. But one of the things that the brain has adapted to be able to do is to adapt on a daily basis to its changing environment. And that we generally call plasticity, that the brain can actually modify its reactions to stimulus in the environment. And so we have this remarkable ability to not just change our response, but to remember that change response. And so in the future. become more adept at how we respond which is generally call learning. And of course that involves a process we call a memory. So storing that information and then using it in the future, and actually just as importantly, being able to ignore things that aren’t necessarily going to be important to us down the road. So, so that’s a broad category of plasticity of the brain.

And there’s a lot of work that’s been done to try to understand the mechanisms for that. It’s still. Fairly mysterious. I mean, we have some ideas, but the bottom line is we’re still [00:04:00] not completely sure how all that works. You know, how it is that the brain actually can adapt and change over time and at the same time retain this sense of identity. The fact that we’re still the same person over time,

Sue : [00:04:11] it seems today we’re bombarded with so much information with the internet and the world out there with social media and so on. How does our brain, how does it decipher what to remember and what to forget. Is there a benefit to forgetting?

Keith: [00:04:25] I think, you know, the best example of the benefit of forgetting is someone who has experienced a very traumatic event. I mean, there’s a lot of effort spent on trying to come up with techniques, whether it’s cognitive behavioral therapy or other kinds of approaches to get people to, at the very least, if not, forget the event, at least forget the emotional response to it. And so you can maybe recall it in a way that doesn’t elicit the same anxiety or the same sense of apprehension that it might otherwise. In terms of your question, and it’s really, it’s a subject that a lot of people were spending a lot of time thinking about and [00:05:00] investigating, which is the environment that we live in changes that are very rapid rate. So going back to the evolutionary model, think about someone one of our distant ancestors on the plains of Africa thousands of years ago. The environment was very difficult in some ways because you ha predators you had to deal with, but on the other hand, it was a fairly predictable environment. That is you knew that there were going to be these predators out there, and so you had developed techniques of dealing with that. But in a very rapidly changing environment that we have, it becomes harder to develop a system that allows you to really predict in a clear way what’s going to be coming next.

So we have developed means of trying to adapt to that. And part of which is just, you know, securing an environment that is walled off in some ways from these other things that might affect our lives, and I think a lot of the concern right now is that in a sense, we’re sort of escaping into almost an unreal environment with the use [00:06:00] of social media and video games, that we’re actually devoting more of our mental activity to worlds that in some ways don’t really relate to the world that we live in. And some people argue that that’s just the direction we’re heading. We’re going to be living in a virtual universe in the future. You know, we’ll have virtual goggles and if you want to take a trip, or if you want to go to the North pole, you put on your glasses and hit up the start button and then you’re checking across the icecap. Maybe even with some kind of device that can control your body temperature and actually make it feel like you’re, you’re in the cold North. Maybe not. It minus 20 like you were, but something that’s still colder than normal.

Sue : [00:06:37] So spending more time in the virtual world, perhaps just is that an advantage or disadvantage do you think for our brain and us as human beings?

Keith: [00:06:45] That’s a tough one because it kind of depends. It reminds me of the argument around the impact of playing video games, you know? And so there’s a lot of controversy. Parents are concerne are my kids spending too much time playing video games. Well, it turns out it depends on [00:07:00] what they ultimately do. So in some ways the skill sets that you develop interacting with some video games, it turns out to be useful in certain professions where that’s the kind of skill that you’re going to be using. For example, in military applications, there’s increasing use of simulators, certainly for training, but even in the real military environment where they’re interacting now with interfaces where they’re given a lot of data, they’ve got a process visually react very quickly, and the people that have grown up interacting with those kinds of video game interfaces turned out to do pretty well in those environments.

Now that’s a minority of what most people are going to end up doing. So the flip side of that would be to say, well, okay, but what about if you’re actually going to do something that doesn’t involve that kind of interface? And the data’s a little less clear as to whether or not it’s a benefit. And I think most people that study is still would argue that being out in the real world, not the virtual world actually has really important benefits in terms of how the brain [00:08:00] develops. The brain actually needs to know what’s going on in a real three dimensional world in order to develop properly, and also need to be able to learn how to adapt to a changing environment.

Sue : [00:08:11] So we are identifying that we all live busy lives. We live in a very busy world. People don’t always take time to eat or sleep properly. In your research, does that make a difference to how effectively our brain performs?.

Keith: [00:08:25] Diet is huge no matter what. I mean, it’s like that’s the kind of thing that I tell people when they ask me that. One area of research for me was Alzheimer’s disease. And the classic question I get is, so what can I do to prevent Alzheimer’s disease? And I tell people, I said, look, all of the evidence we’ve got suggests that whatever you’ve been told is good for your heart, that’s good for your brain. So whether it’s diet, whether it’s exercise, whether it’s staying active, just being physically active. And in the case of. Alzheimer’s disease being mentally active. So those are variables that do affect our ultimate performance and just about anything that we do. So. Trying to stay [00:09:00] healthy is usually your best defense against short term as well as long term deficits and how our brain works.

Sue : [00:09:06] Just picking up on the point that you made about one of the things to avoid or to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s is about keeping our brain mentally fit. And yet in the world that we are moving into, we have artificial intelligence, we have access to so many time saving and mind saving gadgets. How are we going to keep our brain mentally active? When its being done for us?

Keith: [00:09:29] Yeah, that’s a good question. So I think part of the answer here is what are we going to be called on to do with our brains? So a lot of what we spend our time doing is going to have an effect on what we can do in the future. I guess there’s no simple answer to this that is someone that wants to become a great sportsman of basketball player, football player, whatever. There are certain skills they want to develop for that purpose. So you can think about the [00:10:00] specialization as being in large part, determining the kind of time and effort you’re going to spend on any particular activity. However, the concern is. There’s a really good book written recently called Range, and he makes this point about how overspecialization actually reduces our capacity for broader intellectual development.

That if we spend too much time focusing on one area, it’s at the expense of other areas that we might in fact want to develop. So retain that ability to adapt to a changing environment. Most people would say that’s really what our brains should be developed ideally to do because you never know what circumstances you’re going to encounter. And so if you focus or specialize on one skillset, then it’s going to actually decrease your ability to adapt to a changing or a new environment. So most people would argue that from an educational point of view, at least we should be trying to provide as broad a training as possible so that [00:11:00] it’s really about problem solving.Not a one specific type of problem. But. What kinds of skill sets are involved in accounting, any problem and solving that problem.

Sue : [00:11:09] What I really identify with what you’re seeing there, Keith, is about not compartmentalizing experiences. Yeah. And a lot of my coaching clients, they may come to me, for example, and see, well, I’m not good at networking I’m not good at building relationships. And then I remember one client, then the next moment they were telling me about a street party they’d organized in their, in their streets in the city, and they introduced all the neighbors to one another because it looked different many years. And I then challenged the client and said, well, isn’t that networking?

And all of a sudden the light bulb went on in her head and she realized that in that compartment she had not defined that as networking. So that ability, I’m hearing from what you’re saying there is the ability to have a range of experiences. And I’m thinking about in the workplace, if jobs become too specialized, people may lose that ability to have a range of experiences that will enable their brain to be able to problem solve more [00:12:00] effectively in a range of circumstances.

Keith: [00:12:02] Yeah, exactly. It reminds me of, I was teaching a graduate level course in neuroscience, and we were sitting at a room that had all these classic works in neurology. It was a neuroscience graduate course and all these great tomes and all those famous neurologists and all the great advances they have made, and they were all, you know, behind these bookcases.

And I was sitting there with the students and I said, okay, just, you know what a privilege it is to sit in this room and have all these books from all these great thinkers and all this accumulated wisdom. I said, so how many of these books have you guys read? Of course, no one raised their hand. And I said, ah, so where is that knowledge?

And then one’s pointing out its in the books. I said, well, wait a second. How do you know the same knowledge from those books? You haven’t read them. I’m just telling you that. Right. So how do you know? And just to make the point that knowledge isn’t knowledge unless it’s known. There’s no way that these students at any [00:13:00] idea, I mean, they are smart people they would have been told some of the conclusions from these books, but they hadn’t acquired that in a direct fashion. They hadn’t acquired it from the authors themselves. And so I think this generalizes to this problem. If you think about people in a corporate environment, for example, where there’s specialization, so everyone comes into the room and they’ve all got their own little tasks to do, right? But the assumption is that there’s going to be someone at the end of the day, this is going to integrate all that information and then make a decision. And it’s interesting cause I think there’s a lot of evidence now suggesting that the most effective groups are those where there really is shared knowledge.

It’s not everyone contributing their own little bit, but they all come to understand the problem and then they can contribute to the solution from their perspective. Right. But they each need to grasp what the problem is. It’s not just them providing one bit to the one problem solver. They need to actually all cooperate and providing their perspective on that problem, but they need to understand what the problem really is. And that requires a generalized [00:14:00] knowledge. It’s not just specialized knowledge,

Sue : [00:14:02] which almost brings us back full circle to the start of our conversation, Keith, where you studied a number of different majors before picking on this one, perhaps with that curiosity and interest in a number of different subjects that has helped you, I would put it to you to be more effective in what you’re doing now.

Keith: [00:14:23] I think that’s true and although it’s unfortunate that in a lot of disciplines, and I would include my own in that. That range of experience is not really valued. And I think that’s also true in a lot of corporate environments. Like there’s this top down approach, okay, you’re just giving me the information and then I’m going to make the decision and you’re not involved in that decision making. So I think we see the same thing happening in a lot of academic areas. Certainly in science, there’s this increased specialization so that you become an expert on one particular domain, and that’s what you become known for and that people turn to you for that particular domain, but in fact, the kinds of [00:15:00] problems that we’re trying to solve really require multiple perspectives and it requires people to really set their egos aside and say, okay, I really am interested in helping solve this problem.

Here’s what I don’t know. And see that’s, it’s interesting because especially in science, we’re usually called upon to be experts in a particular area. Very rarely would called on to admit to what we don’t know. And usually that’s the most valuable thing to find out is what is it? I don’t know. Because it’s filling those gaps that really allow us to then ultimately make progress in a field.

It’s a classic example of a field being dominated by one particular idea, and in this case, at the expense of billions of dollars that have been spent trying to solve this problem. What I think is probably an incorrect hypothesis. Now, that doesn’t mean I know what the correct hypothesis is, but I don’t think I have to know that to see that there’s some problems with the current one and again, because I don’t have the specific expertise in that hypothesis, my opinion isn’t going to [00:16:00] sway anyone else.

But I think it’s a good example of the kind of thing where that specialization. Particularly within an environment where a certain individuals become recognized as the thought leaders in that environment really excludes alternative perspectives, which are really critical for ultimately solving the problem. And yeah, you know, it starting off, there’s a need for humility in all these areas because. None of us know enough to be able to solve these problems that eventually we have to work together. So it’s not just each of us developing a range of capabilities. It’s also working in a group where there is a range of perspectives has been brought to that problem.

Sue : [00:16:36] What I’m picking up from your comment there, Keith, is as human beings, we have to be prepared to say what we don’t know as much as what we do know and that identity perhaps status often it’s predicated on our expertise and therefore, how do we come back to the word identity, which I think you used right at the start of our conversation here. I wonder whether we have to, [00:17:00] as a species, rethink what it means to have that identity and not just be expert in one area.

Keith: [00:17:08] That’s exactly right. We need to get away from, just especially in, you know, in Western cultures, it’s all about the performance of the individual. And I think there are other traditions where you can see that there’s been progress made because there is more of a humble approach to say, okay maybe we dont know it all and maybe we need to work together.

Sue : [00:17:30] So my final question to you, Keith, is, what do we need to teach or retrain our brain in to allow us to be comfortable and effective in working in a team? Because if our brain is trying to keep us safe as individuals, and we have to have humility to say, I don’t know what might help us or help our brains do that more effectively.

Keith: [00:17:50] So I actually think, I think the answer to thisis going to be found in early education. I think that what’s happened, [00:18:00] at least in the educational system that I’m most familiar with, which is that in the U S we establish a system whereby we say, okay, this is what you need to learn. And so you go in and there’s this curriculum and you say, okay, these are the skills you have to develop now at this age, whether or not you’re capable of doing that or you’re interested in doing that and those two factors, capability and interests. I think are hugely overlooked in terms of how we decide the educational system. So yeah, I would say just drawing on my experience in graduate education and neuroscience, I was astonished at how often I would have students that I would interview for the program, and I would give them a simple thought experiment. I say, okay. Someone gives you a million dollar grants and a fully equipped laboratory, what’s the first experiment you’ve got to do? And the vast majority of them would say, I have no idea.

I thought, well, why are [00:19:00] you here? What’s, you know? It’s like if you weren’t here driven because there’s some problem or question that you want to answer. You’re just wasting your time. I mean this is not, or you’re just, you know, you’re just coming in there because you think you’re going to be able to get a job.

And I think too much of education is, you’re in that way. It’s like, but this is going back to the idea of setting a goal. It’s like, all right, I’ve got this school. I want to be a doctor, or I want to be whatever. And not trying on, first of all, the capabilities you’ve got, which are always unique to individuals and as important, if not more important, the innate curiosity you have about a particular area.

So I think to me, I know that’s, maybe that’s a radical notion, but I, I just think we need to really rethink how we go about this process of starting very early to get. Identify and support the atrocity and the capabilities of these amazing brains that are out there developing on a daily basis. And too often we’re just stifling what I think would otherwise be an amazing resource.

Sue : [00:19:56] So the two things I’m hearing you say there is capability and curiosity. [00:20:00] And if we can engage people at all levels, not just imagine an early education in all stages of their lives, then we perhaps will help them to be maximizing their effectiveness. So that’s been really fascinating. Keith. My brain hurts and I were having a conversation with you, but I’m sure there’s lots there for our listeners to think about. It’s been a real pleasure to talk to you. Thanks for your time, Keith.

Keith: [00:20:22] Thank you very much