The brain is plastic. Sugar is bad, exercise is good. Daydreaming is good. Stress is a good thing too, or maybe a bad thing, depending on how you use it. Writing by hand is better than typing. Even swearing can be good! Some of these statements may be old news, others surprising. What does all this have to do with interpreting? Well, it comes from recent research on how the brain functions, and it can be applied to improving interpreters’ performance.
Reports in the press reveal a great deal of information about the latest scientific discoveries, written in language that anyone can understand. There are also academic journals devoted exclusively to research on interpreting, and often practitioners can glean information that has implications for their daily work. I will report on some of this research and on the resources available to help interpreters keep up with the latest developments.
One of the most astounding discoveries is that the adult brain is plastic, meaning that it is rewiring itself constantly and growing new neurons as we have new experiences.
We used to think that the brain stopped developing at the end of childhood, and that dead brain cells were replaced (if at all) at a much slower rate in adults than in children. But it turns out that even adult brains can respond to either damage to critical areas of the brain or to new experiences through a process called adult neurogenesis. Cerebral structures and organization can actually change over time, depending on the activities in which we engage. In other words, what we do can either enhance or detract from our cerebral capacity.
We have known for a long time about how short-term memory (STM) and long-term memory (LTM) interact to process meaningful information, and researchers have continued to investigate these two aspects of memory. It is now thought that working memory is something that applies to both STM and LTM. Long-term working memory (LTWM) involves developing associated networks of neurons that enable us to retrieve information rapidly and apply it to new situations.
Alex MacDonald writes that LTM development occurs in three stages: 1) acquisition of information; 2) consolidation into neural circuits for long-term storage; and 3) retrieval by several parts of the brain working together.1 The constant process of feedback and modification that occurs as new memories are laid down is essential for learning, and the third step, retrieval, is particularly important in interpreting.
Barbara Moser-Mercer, one of the leading interpreting researchers, has done a great deal of research focused specifically on the cognitive aspects of interpreting. She has found that interpreters develop procedural memories that enable them to select, organize, and store information relevant to their interpreting assignments.2 This capacity improves over the years as interpreters progress from novice to expert, provided that they engage in what Moser-Mercer calls “deliberate practice.” This term refers to the repeated and intensive performance of exercises targeted specifically to the development of interpreting skills, enhancing awareness of one’s own interpreting in terms of both process and output, and receiving structured feedback on areas that need further work. This is more than mere rote practice, repeating the same things over and over again (and making the same mistakes over and over again).
According to Moser-Mercer, expert interpreters employ strategies such as anticipation (drawing on information they gathered and organized as they prepared for the assignment in order to predict what the speaker is going to say during the interpreting itself) and monitoring their own output (making sure their production matches the target-language version they prepared in their working memory and then adjusting or refining that production as they get further into the speech). And it is deliberate practice that enables interpreters to internalize these strategies. Fascinatingly, this process actually alters the structure and organization of the expert interpreter’s brain. In the conclusion of her latest article, Moser-Mercer states that although not enough research has been done to reach definitive conclusions, it is clear that adult neurogenesis is real: the adult brain is indeed capable of continued growth. So those of us who are approaching our senior years need not despair.
Those brain exercises you read about on the Internet are not necessarily the answer, however. Other research, not focusing on interpreting but relevant nonetheless, tells us that although both mental and physical activity can enhance memory, they must be challenging in order to have any effect. Marissa Cevallos writes that it is not enough to do the newspaper crossword puzzle every day or walk along the same route that you always use.3 You must challenge your senses constantly with new and more difficult exercises for cerebral growth to take place. In other words, “If it’s not hard, it’s not helping.” Cevallos quotes one researcher’s recommendation that people learn a new musical instrument, a different language, or how to paint. Even something as simple as getting dressed in the dark can be useful, as long as it is novel.
Cevallos also points out that the harmful things we do to our bodies can also harm our brains: “Stress kills neurons and prevents new ones from growing, and can lead to depression,” which is “fertile ground for Alzheimer’s.” Furthermore, worrying seems to impede memory. When we go into a particularly stressful situation, such as interpreting at a high-profile event attended by VIPs and the press, or taking a certification exam, excessive worrying about our performance can prevent us from achieving our maximum potential.
Joanne Richard suggests that we need to learn how to worry properly in order to succeed.4 She quotes Sian Bielock, a psychologist who specializes in performance anxiety, as saying that over-analyzing the negative consequences of a poor performance makes it harder to access the information we need and impairs the networking functions of the brain, resulting in “information logjams.” Bielock recommends practicing under pressure to simulate the stress of the situation for which we are preparing, and focusing on the outcome rather than the mechanics. When helping people prepare to speak in public, she says, “If you have memorized the introduction to your speech or what you are going to say in its entirety, just go with it and try not to think too much about every word.”5 This is an approach I often recommend to interpreting students: that they focus on the big picture rather than the individual words of what they are interpreting.
As is often the case, however, different findings on how the brain works seem to contradict each other. Another study reported by Tom Avril in The Philadelphia Inquirer concludes that a little bit of stress in the form of any amount of electrical stimulation can improve recall.6
It could also be argued that the anxiety and frustration we experience as we struggle to solve a sudoku puzzle or learn to play a new piece on the piano is just the kind of stress we need to keep stimulating brain growth. In any case, no one is claiming that we should all undergo electroshock therapy or deliberately subject ourselves to stressful situations. Apparently, we need to experience stress in moderation.
Another thing that has to be done in moderation is eating. Studies carried out by McDonald show that our diet and physical activity can affect our memory.7 For example, it has been established that glucose contributes around 99% of the energy the brain needs. Now scientists have discovered that impaired glucose tolerance (a feature of diabetes, which can be caused by obesity and inactivity, among other factors) is associated not only with heart and circulation problems but also with the deterioration of brain functions. What happens is that glucose intolerance causes shrinkage of the hippocampus, which is critical for both immediate and delayed recall. Therefore, it is possible that by increasing our glucose tolerance through diet and exercise we may be able to improve our memory.
Because interpreters have to be good problem solvers, we can all benefit from the research on brain wave activity cited by Robert Lee Hotz. It shows that daydreaming is not a sign of a lazy brain, but is actually a demanding activity that helps us develop our intuitive problem-solving ability. The sudden insights that occur during those “aha” moments when we are suddenly able to solve a problem are actually “the culmination of an intense and complex series of brain states that require more neural resources than methodical reasoning.”8 When the mind is wandering, brain activity increases even more than it does when it is reasoning with a complex problem. In another study reported by Hotz, subjects who solved puzzles by means of insight rather than reasoning had a pattern of high-frequency neuronal activity as much as eight seconds before the answer came to the subject’s conscious mind. That is, their brain knew the answer well before they did. Furthermore, people in a positive mood were more likely to experience insight. The researchers conclude that much of our creative thought comes from processes that are outside our awareness and beyond our direct control. These findings comport with those described in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, which discusses the benefits of relying on implicit association, the product of the right hemisphere’s powerful intuitive processes.9
Another interesting finding that could be applicable to interpreting is that writing by hand instead of keyboarding contributes to brain development. Gwendolyn Bounds reports that the physical act of writing engages the brain in learning because it requires the execution of sequential strokes to form letters (in contrast to typing, which allows us to select an entire letter simply by touching a key).10 It seems that the sequential finger movements involved in handwriting activate parts of the brain associated with thinking, language, and working memory. This is another reason why note-taking is so important for interpreting. Not only do the notes help us recall things that are difficult to remember such as names and figures, but evidently they also enhance cerebral functioning in other ways.
And finally, my favorite research finding: apparently, swearing helps us tolerate pain. A study by a British psychologist reported in Science NOW Daily News revealed that when subjects were asked to say curse words out loud, they could keep their hand in a bucket of ice water much longer than a control group that uttered innocuous words.11 I do not know if this has anything to do with interpreting, other than the fact that court interpreters often have to say four-letter words on the record in court, but it does appeal to my perverse sense of humor.
In conclusion, it is clear that there is a wealth of information available in the press as well as in interpreting journals upon which we can draw to improve our interpreting techniques.