Monday, February 21, 2011


(Photo by JEB)

London cabbies have to acquire something called “The Knowledge” in order to be licensed. It takes a year of intensive training and study. London’s inner byways were designed for pedestrians, not vehicles. In addition, to keep down congestion, the maze is rife with one-way routes and roundabouts. Cabbies have to know not just the streets but also the businesses that line them. It’s a daunting feat of memory.

So, several years ago, they were a natural population for brain study: Did cabbies experience a quantifiable change in their hippocampi, the section of the brain that is believed to reflect memory, especially spatial memory? The scientists were foresighted enough to scan the brains of those who intended to become cabbies, pre-study, as well as those beginning their careers and those with years of experience, in addition to a control group of non-cabbies.

The results were striking. The hippocampi of cabbies altered with the inception training and became more markedly different the longer they plied their trade. In addition, the change was somewhat permanent: Brain architecture remained changed after they retired from driving.

So, are cabbies “born that way”? Is it possible that those with enhanced hippocampi somehow magically find their way into cab driving? Or is the more likely, rational explanation that our brains are fantastically plastic, our best evolutionary edge, and physical structure changes in response to persistent behavior and acculturation?

What if being a cabbie was considered immoral by the dominant intolerant religion? Would there be a subgroup of cabbies arguing that, in fact, they had been “born this way” and therefore please please don’t hate us, it’s not fair. (Ignoring the fact that almost all oppression is based on physical discrimination or circumstances of birth and rearing over which the target group has no control – but that truth has never mitigated against oppression, not in the long historical view.)

Gender is a construct and a choice. So is class, race, religion, and sexuality. It’s a choice many of us make so early that it feels like a state of birth. It can be a choice of going along with extreme cultural pressure from the adults we depend on for survival, or it can be a choice of resistance. Either way, we deserve the empowerment that would accrue to us from claiming it as a choice – and demanding respect for ANY such choice, whether it’s the popular one or not.

I have yet to speak honestly with a straight person who did not heroically resist gender and sexuality boxes in some way as a child, fighting for a wider horizon of expression. We ALL have photographs that reveal such resistance. Why do we fence ourselves away from this superlative group of allies: The entirety of humanity.

Our brains are the result of human culture as much as they are the creators of it. It’s a constant give and take. I want to see little children singing songs that exalt the power of “I CHOSE this way”, and adults celebrating them for it.

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