Kids, Language & Brains


This Is Your Brain on Shakespeare!

The positive correlations between music and math in the brain are already widely touted; so it's reassuring to learn that similar correlations are found to exist between the brain and literature.  Researchers at Liverpool University have found that reading the Bard and other classical writers has a beneficial effect on the mind, catches the reader's attention and triggers moments of self-reflection.  A comparison of brain activity upon reading simplified versions of the texts and the more challenging prose and poetry of the classical authors' originals presents strong evidence that the brain really lights up and stays lit longer when the classical authors are being read.  In addition to poetry's expected effect on the brain's left hemisphere, the language center, reading poetry also has a marked impact on the right hemisphere of the brain, causing readers to reflect on and reappraise their own experiences in light of what they are reading. According to Philip Davis, an English professor involved in the research, serious literature acts like a rocket-booster to the brain. The research shows the power of literature to shift mental pathways, to create new thoughts, shapes and connections in the young and the staid alike.  Julie Henry, Brain in the News , January 2013.


How Culture Sculpts the Brain

Different cultures see the world differently, a fact revealed in their use of language. It's long been said that if you want to really understand how a particular culture sees the world, knowledge of that culture's language is essential. Now, research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track brain activity shows marked differences between how Westerners and East Asians perceive the world.  Younger participants on both sides showed more similarities, but with older participants,the differences were quite strongly marked.  And, despite the effects of globalization, very significant differences in values between these cultures are evident, even among young, educated Asians versus young, educated Americans. With Asian cultures tending to place their emphasis on interdependence, their world view is tilted toward analyzing background information, taking in the full picture. Western emphasis on individualism orients the world view toward analyzing the object or individual in the picture. Language continues to create meeting places where these varied cultural perceptions can lead to better understanding. Kelli Whitlock Burton, BrainWork, September-October 2007.


Learning to the Rescue!

Research is showing the more the brain is challenged, the higher the survival rate of the constantly rebuilding supply of neurons in the brain.  Knowing now that hundreds of thousands of new nerve cells are "born" daily, finding the best ways to assure their longer-term existence has become a key focus in the scientific inquiry of neurogenesis.  Far from existing in a static environment, the dynamic characteristics of neurogenesis have dramatically changed the way science understands the brain.  Scientists still wonder why so many cells are generated if so many of them are to die off in a short period of time.  There's a strong possibility these cells play a major role in memory and learning, according to one hypothesis. Because these newborn cells have no previous experience and therefore no existing synaptic connections, they are ripe to make new connections.  Animal studies show that good learners retain more new cells than poor learners.  The rate of cell survival in poor learners is no higher than that of animals that didn't learn at all. Learning rescues cells from death, according to Tracey Shors of Rutgers University.  The more engaging the task, the more effectively the new cells are rescued.      "News from the Frontier" BrainWork, Vol 16 #6, November-December, 2006, p. 11.


The Arts and Learning

Even as the arts continue facing stiff budget challenges in elementary schools, research is showing more and more clearly how the arts are correlated to positive cognitive changes.  It appears attention networks in the brain benefit from children's participation in the arts as does their performance in other academic subjects such as math and reading. According to Dana Gioia, Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, what we're seeing here is quantitative scientific data that confirms traditional assumptions about the interrelationship between the arts and learning.   According to a leading theory, paying attention to something is a strategy for learning it well, and children interested in the arts practice them with determination which builds motivation to higher levels of efficiency that ultimately leads to cognitive improvement. To test the theory, researchers led by Michael Posner of the U. of Oregon devised a video game to win young children's interest and motivate them the way it is assumed arts training does. After five days of training there was clear evidence of improvements in the efficiency of a key attention network in the brain.  Giota declares that a bogus opposition between arts learning and other learning has developed in the U.S. today.   While he agrees more research is needed, he doesn't hesitate to argue enough is known already to say that education policy and budget makers are following a false model.  Brenda Patoine, BrainWork, Vol 18 No.2, March-April 2008.