Kids, Language & Brains


Play: A Vital Nutrient for Kids

Play (2009) is the name of the game in Stuart Brown's book by this title.  Calling this natural inclination preconscious and preverbal and seemingly purposeless, he prefers to leave it undefined, with freedom its most telling essence. The crucial lesson he wants parents of babies and young children to learn is that it is through play and socialization--playing with others--parents can best help their offspring reach full potential.   Extensive research has led him to conclude the following:  Play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself.  He argues the brain wires itself up by creating far too many neurons which create far too many connections with other neurons throughout the brain.  Then, following the rules of DNA,  signals passing along neuron circuits strengthen those that are doing the work and weaken or eliminate those that aren't.  Play enters the scene by creating new connections that didn't exist before, and even if their immediate functions aren't clear, it soon becomes evident when fired up by play they are essential to continued brain organization.  Other benefits of play he identifies include the following:  the ability to become smarter, a sense of belonging, adaptability, openness to change, sustained curiosity and the capacity to readily incorporate new information. Characterizing play as a state of mind rather than an activity, he's keenly interested in giving preschool teachers sound and useful information about rough-and-tumble-play.  Too often viewed as loud, chaotic and out-of-control, this kind of play benefits children by smoothing the way for later stages of their development. A guest on Krista Tippett's ("Play, Spirit & Character," June 19, 2014), Dr. Brown makes a strong case for the vital function of play as essential to children's learning and sense of well being .


Neuroimaging: A Caveat

Clearly, brains are hot.  But is fMRI imaging really the key to unlocking the most captivating riddle of our humanity or are we jumping the gun and putting too much faith in this newest tool in the chest of neuroscience?  The very colorful brain scans that appear to show the brain in action aren't what they seem. Rather, they are reports of increased oxygen consumption being picked up by scanning computers as subjects carry out assigned tasks. Here's the caveat: the meaning of these brain scans has yet be determined. To the dismay of serious science journalists and many neuroscientists themselves, this fact hasn't stopped some science writers and even  some neuroscientists from speculating on the eventual overriding of this final scientific frontier.  Neurocentrism, as Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld, authors of Brainwashed:  The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, characterize this too-often unchallenged way of explaining all of human behavior, claims to hold superior knowledge about why we humans do what we do.  Ignoring psychological and environmental factors by placing all their eggs in the physiology basket, neurocentrists fail to distinguish between brain and mind and their different frameworks for explaining human experience.  In the eyes of these authors, this failure bears crucial implications for how we think about human nature and how to best alleviate human suffering.  Brain in the News, July-August, 2013.



Not only were scientists wrong about possibilities inherent in the brain, the dogma they long defended claimed the brain was hard-wired and so delayed a more open-minded investigation of what was really going on. While the advent of fMRI changed all that, the idea of neuroplasticity has been around for a long time.  American psychologist and philosopher William James presented the idea in his Principles of Psychology about 120 years ago with his suggestion the brain was capable of reorganizing.  The first documented use of the term is credited to Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski who in 1948 argued that over time neurons coincidentally in the vicinity of firing neurons would create plastic changes in the brain. Donald Hebb, Canadian psychologist, furthered this finding by his study which is often summed up as neurons that fire together, wire together.  Paul Bach-y-Rita was one of the first neuroscientists to create modern applications of the concept of neuroplasticity for the benefit of stroke victims, starting with his own father.  Other prominent scientists who have furthered the study of neuroplasticity include Edward Taub, who created the most technologically advanced methods for treating people suffering from strokes or other neurological disorders; Michael Merzenich, a much awarded neuroscientist who has enabled many people to overcome brain impairment through neuro-tuning, brain training exercises; Norman Doidge, the Canadian-born psychoanalyst, psychiatrist and medical researcher best known for his book The Brain that Changes Itself (2009). Thanks to such research and researchers, we move closer to understanding the true capabilities of our brains.


Tools of the Mind: 2

Drawing on her research-based knowledge, Adele Diamond focuses on some learning approaches modern educators have tended to denigrate as old fashioned and therefore no longer fundamental to young children's basic skill sets. Foremost among these is play, which Diamond defines broadly as music, dance, sports, etc., any and all structured activities that allow children to learn by doing.  By getting up and out of their sedentary lives in today's typical classrooms and engaging, along with their classmates, their bodies and minds, they stimulate the growth of the prefrontal cortex, in evolutionary terms, the last part of the brain to develop.  Diamond considers the act of doing as transformative, characterizing it as yet another older approach that is totally in line with current scientific research.  In Diamond's eyes, dramatic play, championed by Russian psychologists and neuroscientists Lev Vytgotsky and Alexander Luria is an invaluable way to encourage children's social and cognitive development. By using these two intimately integrated skills, children are practicing executive function. Diamond points to research which shows that discipline, the ability to stick with something until it is complete, another example of executive function, holds far more promise for predicting positive outcomes over the life span than mere IQ scores.   Finally, in the unedited version of this dialogue with Krista Tippett, she calls memorization, another of those skills poo-pooed by current educators, an example of pushing back the learned wisdom of the ages.  In her eyes, memorization is a way to discipline the mind itself, making the ability to remember very important. Listening skills, correct spelling and cursive writing are other so-called outdated skills that have been rudely shunted aside without a true understanding of their roles in brain development. See the blog below, "Cursive Gets Its Due," for more on this topic.