Kids, Language & Brains


The Father of Neurobiology

Mentioned in the preceding blog, Spain's only Nobel Laureate in the sciences, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, was the father of modern anatomy and neurobiology as well as the scientist responsible for the way we picture our brain and nervous system. His classic, Advice for a Young Investigator, first published in 1897 remains a valuable read for the young investigator in today's globalized, interconnected world.  His initial advice was to learn from but not to trust the work of commentators.  His choose to place his emphasis on preparation because it takes into account the role of chance in science. In his eyes, perseverance is the single most important virtue of the scientist.  While he urged appropriate respect for authority, he never accepted that it should be blind. He firmly believed in the need for the scientist to strike a balance between intense concentration and relaxation, an approach allowing the intellect to thrive.  He argued that it's not the scientist's role to determine in advance the worth or application of the finding.  Good science makes for good applications, not the other way around. Given the need to choose between independence and funding, he was firmly of the independent camp, knowing the independent young investigator might well see way beyond the originating problem.  Finally, he urged all young investigators to relish this time when science continues to be our best way of discovering what remains incompletely understood.  For him, science is far more than a collection of techniques or strategies. It is an ethical stance of commitment to the truth in its production of knowledge. Cerebrum, 10/29/2016.


Only Connect

E.M. Forester's line from the front piece of his novel Howard's End has an unforgettable ring to it.  Experience tells us that when we can make connections, insight, information and understanding will follow.  What scientists from Boston University have learned however appears as a contradiction.  Santiago Ramón y Cajal, credited with the creation of  exquisite images of neurons intertwining in the brain around the turn of the 20th century, changed brain science by making it clear these long-armed neurons--communicating over gaps called synapses--are the basic unit of our nervous system.  Using a newer imaging system, these scientists have been able to study neurons on a much finer scale, one they hope will lead to insights into issues from developing brains to devastating mental disorders. One point they're quick to acknowledge:  the brain is much more complex that had ever been acknowledged.   Going into their study on the assumption that the brain was nicely ordered, that neurons connected with each other in predictable fashion, they quickly learned that false logic concluded neurons close to each other are more likely to form synapses. Just because two neurons spend a lot of time together doesn't mean they make a connection says Narayanan "Bobby" Kasthuri of the School of Medicine who co-authored their research paper with Jeff Lichtman of Harvard.  Kasthuri is quick to admit this insight pertains for now only to adult brains and to certain parts of the brain. More imaging will tell if this is also true of a baby's brain and of other parts of the brain.  Rather than taking the kind of hypothesis-driven approach scientists typically value, these scientists are collecting and storing data, much as in the Human Genome Project, expecting the data to spawn new insights and technology. Lichtman argues that as long as data is showing you things that are unexpected, then you're definitely doing the right thing.   Barbara Moran, Brain in the News, October 2015.


Opening the Brain to Change

As someone committed to ongoing physical exercise, wouldn't you be glad to know your decision benefits your brain's plasticity?  And if you learned plasticity were the path to resisting aging, wouldn't you feel even more committed to staying active? Learning, memory and brain repair depend on the ability of our neurons to change with experience. Researchers like Claudia Lunghi, University of Pisa, Italy, and Alessandro Sale of the National Research Council's Neuroscience Institute are providing the first demonstration of the power of even moderate physical activity to enhance neuroplasticity in the visual cortex of the adult human brain.  Our potential for plasticity is greatest early in life during the period when the developing brain is being molded by experience. While the decline of the brain's flexibility over time is especially pronounced in the sensory brain, physical activity has now been seen to elevate the levels of plasticity in the visual cortex.  Although this research was initially centered on lab animals, researchers then turned to humans to measure the residual plastic potential of the adult visual cortex.  Using the test of binocular rivalry, that is covering one eye with a patch to make the closed eye become stronger as it compensates for the lack of visual input, the strength of the resulting imbalance between the eyes is a measure of the brain's visual plasticity.  The tests were run with the adults at rest as they watched a movie and then again with the adults exercising on a stationary bike for 10-minute intervals during the movie. The results are clear:  exercise plays an important role in enhancing the brain's visual plasticity. Kendall Morgan, Brain in the News, December, 2015.


Language Is the Issue

Just read an Instagram where singer-songwriter Solange Knowles was defending the decision to let her son be taught in a French Immersion program, as if speaking fluent French was a negative for him, a contradiction, a distraction that took him away from getting to know his own African-American history.  His mother's kind but pointed response focused on the good things her young son had acquired because he could speak French when they traveled in Africa: real friendships with French-speaking kids. According to a 2010 Wall Street Journal article, "Lost in Translation," rapidly accumulating cognitive research on language shows how profoundly it influences the way people see the world.  By the early Middle Ages, King Charlemagne of  the Franks and Holy Roman Empire would claim that by learning to speak another language, one acquired another soul.  And despite Noam Chomsky's 1960's theory proposing a universal grammar for all languages, differences among languages are significant and amount to different ways of conceptualizing space, time and causality as well as other domains of thought.  The new research shows that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express.  The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality.  How do we come to be the way we are?  An important part of the answer: the language or languages we speak. Lera Boroditsky, Weekend Journal, 7/24-25/2010.


Practice Makes Perfect

Call it rehearsing, call it practice, call it over-learning.  Just don't underestimate the effectiveness or the necessity of honing skills to be reliably productive.  Tiger students, spelling-bee whizzes, and winners of all kinds of high school meritocracies have one thing in common and it isn't genetics.  According to a recent analysis, while Asian students may currently dominate the academic scene, their success is due more to good habits than to any innate superiority. They have learned to work hard and they don't give up.  In fact, as we know well from observing anyone who succeeds at academics, sports, music, etc., they owe much to the spirit of tenacity that fuels their drive to master the skill sets they need.  Once they've achieved mastery, they can do whatever they do so well that only others equally determined  and practiced can compete with them.  Although a certain amount of suspicion comes attached to the notion of competition, when it's a matter of skills that have been practiced to the point of great control and high reliability, we are all impressed and grateful for the determination that produces such high quality performances. To deprive students of the joy resulting from such achievement is unthinkable.