Becoming a taxi driver in London isn’t easy. You have to pass an exam called ‘The Knowledge’, which involves memorizing over 25,000 streets and thousands of places of interest. Only half of the would-be cabbies are able to make the grade. It would seem like the perfect situation for a neuroscientist to study if our brain can change when we are immersed in an intense learning process. This, at any rate, is what Eleanor Maguire must have thought over a decade ago when she decided to carry out a study of 79 prospective candidates. At the beginning of her research, she detected no significant differences in the hippocampus of the individuals involved. The hippocampus is the area of the brain where long-term memory and spatial awareness are located. After a period of four years, Maguire analyzed the brains of those who had passed the exam and those who hadn’t managed to get through it. She found that the 39 people who had successfully negotiated the tough test had developed a bigger hippocampus. In other words, after four years of study, these people had been able to enlarge the area of the brain that facilitated achieving their objective. Maguire’s study demonstrates the plasticity of our brain and how it helps us to learn a new skill.

A consideration of Maguire’s work forms the beginning of a chapter which I’ve written for the book “You’ll be what you want to be”, which also includes pieces from authors such as Valentín Fuster, Joaquín Lorente, Laura Rojas Marcos and Alex Rovira. The whole of this book is based on one crucial idea: The latest scientific research has shown that human beings are “plastic”; in other words, we have the ability to adapt, to learn and to overcome the limitations of our immediate environment. This is really revolutionary. It’s long been known that our neurons die, but recent findings have shown that over the course of time we also generate new ones. In fact, the brain “is shaped day by day, both physically and chemically, by its interaction with the environment in which it is born, grows and develops”, in the words of Francisco Mora, another of the contributors to the book. When we learn or memorize something new, we stimulate the synthesis of proteins and molecules, which are the building blocks that enable neurons to survive and new synapses to be created. But above and beyond this, learning leads to the appearance of new neurons in certain areas of the brain, as happened with the taxi drivers who passed the exam.

Without doubt this is all most exciting, not least because it invalidates the typical excuses about not being able to learn a new language or change an engrained habit. (More than one of us is a dab hand at whining about not having learnt a foreign language when we were kids, and how difficult it is now that we’re adults.) Neuroscience has shown that if we really put our heart and mind into something and are prepared to devote lots of time to it… we can create new neural connections. (Of course, this is much easier when we’re younger, but if we didn’t have the chance to do it then, there’s no reason to throw in the towel just because we’re grown-up now.)

If we are “plastic”, the concept of freedom and even of ourselves changes. To the extent that we can become the architects of our own brain, as Ramón y Cajal might say, we are capable of influencing our freedom in the future. If we learn things in the present, we will have a greater range of possibilities open to us in the years to come. Furthermore, if we are able to transform how we perceive ourselves through what we learn, we can change our own concept of “I”. The key to change lies in having a deep vocation for learning, which helps us to reinvent ourselves, to transform our neural connections and to look afresh at the shaky edifice that constitutes our sense of self, to borrow a metaphor from Salman Rushdie.

Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved.


Various authors (2013): Serás lo que quieras ser, Conecta.

Salman Rushdie (1992): Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, Penguin Books


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