Kids, Language & Brains


The Brain’s Basal Ganglia: Responsible for More Than Movement

Composed of several interconnected brain areas deep in the cerebral cortex, the basal ganglia, long associated with movement, have also been found to be active agents in learning and habit formation. Because of more sophisticated neuroimaging techniques, the basal ganglia are seen to display what Ann Graybiel, a leading researcher at MIT, describes as razzle-dazzle plasticity during learning.  Along with neurotransmitter dopamine, basal ganglia facilitate learning by encoding behavioral routines.  Often this encoding is based on reward, but somewhat surprisingly, it can also be based on punishment.  Essentially learning seems to occur in either case. Michael Frank, U. of Arizona, says the basal ganglia help us focus.  It is likely the dopamine released in the basal ganglia system communicates with the brain areas in the prefrontal cortex to allow people to pay attention to critical tasks, ignore distracting information, and update only the most relevant task information in working memory during problem-solving tasks.  It is Graybiel's hypothesis that the basal ganglia help the cortex to chunk learning, that is organize it into associated information groups, so that habits and routines form to let the brain access stored information more quickly.        Kayt Sukel, BrainWork, Vol 17 No. 1, Jan-Feb 2007.


What About Those Video Games?

Although it's easy to rail against video games, research shows they can offer definite benefits to their players. In the latest edition of Brain in the News, November 2015, Ali Venosa says evidence supports the value of video gaming! In fact, they may be making people smarter. Drs. Shawn Green and Aaron R. Seltz argue that the mere variety of video games and their individual aspects mean drawing simplistic conclusions is out of line.  These authors claim it is the action games in particular, those with targets moving fast into and out of view against a cluttered background, which oblige their players to make rapid and accurate decisions, efforts particularly beneficial to cognitive function. Improvement of attention skills include brain processing and cognitive functions from low-level vision through high-level cognitive abilities. They argue many other types of games do not produce an equivalent impact on perception and cognition.  Without dismissing the negative side-effects of playing some video games with regard to classroom behaviors--lessened ability to pay attention, aggressiveness and changes in emotional capacities--their research attests to the positive effects these sophisticated games can have on altering behavior, producing learning, and promoting brain plasticity. Rather than being passive learners then, their video game players become active learners who reap the benefits of immediate feedback.


Why We Need to Train the Brain

In 1968, the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated, Jane Elliot, an elementary school teacher in Iowa carried out an insightful experiment with her 3rd graders.  Pitting the blue-eyed kids in her class against the brown-eyed kids, and then reversing their statuses the next day, she let her kids discover how arbitrary divisions can be, a lesson in critical thinking that has stayed with them ever since.  To see the original experiment and succeeding outtakes, google "blue eyes vs. brown eyes."  You've probably gone through this experiment or a version of it in a work-training situation.  It has the capacity to reveal how susceptible our brains are to manipulation, no matter if we're 3rd graders or adults.  Our job as responsible adults is to recognize how easily the brain can be tricked into embracing beliefs it would quickly, emphatically reject on a rational level.   In episode five of Neuroscientist David Eagleman's focus on the brain on PBS, he is trying to comprehend genocide as a recurring event in human history. He concludes our best defense is a good offense, and that means learning to think critically, testing/trusting our own experience to arrive at clarity.   The good news is that even young children, given age-appropriate tools to test their experience, are fully capable of achieving such insightful understanding.


Cognitive Optimism

In her article, "Cognitive Skills and the Aging Brain:  What to Expect," Diane B. Howieson, Ph.D., gives a good overview of what's been learned about the effects of time on our brains.   There are certainly examples of how the brain slows down and how younger brains can easily out distance older brains at specific tasks, but the overall message is not at all hopeless!   Language and vocabulary remain current, recall of general knowledge acquired early on and well-practiced skills can be depended upon. Howieson identifies these as age-resistant cognitive skills. Strengthened by experience, including situations that require reasoning and judgment, these cognitive skills do not desert older adults and can in fact give them a better overview or better appreciation of a situation than younger adults with less life experience.  One view supported in studies of social cognition is that older adults' limitations in the amount of information they can process quickly and accurately are often counterbalanced by increased social expertise from accumulated experience and knowledge.  All in all, the picture is far from bleak.  She concludes that a lifetime's worth of experiences in social situations can facilitate decision-making--and that is sometimes referred to as having wisdom.