Kids, Language & Brains


A Plea for Cultural Diversity

Nature is busy creating absolutely unique individuals, whereas culture has invented a single mold to which all must conform.  It is grotesque. This warning from Krishnamurti (1895-1986) is worth considering.  What is the value of multi cultures not to be found in a single, monolithic, reductionist version?  Pico Iyer, acclaimed travel writer and the product of multi cultures himself--parents from India, birth and education in England, long-time residencies in California and Japan--encourages us to think of home not as a fixed geographical place, but as something we carry around inside us. At least some of us can choose our sense of home, create our sense of community, fashion our sense of self and maybe step beyond some of the black and white divisions of our grand-parents' age.  He says that in the not too distant future, the number of people like him, living in countries not their own, will exceed the population of the United States. Home is not where you were born, he says, but where you become yourself. He identifies with Marcel Proust's definition of the real voyage of discovery: It consists not in seeing new sights but in looking with new eyes. With new eyes, everything, everywhere changes. And suddenly you're alert to the secrets, the patterns of the world. For him,  the question isn't about where you come from, but about where you're going. As he says, home in the end isn't just the place you sleep, it's the place where you stand.               Pico Iyer, Ted Talk, June, 2013.



Recovering Language

Aphasia is a language disorder caused by damage to the brain.  It ranges from failing to remember words to losing language completely.  Stroke is a frequent cause. A rule of thumb has been that rehab can only succeed in the first six months immediately following the stroke, with many therapists believing the brain reaches a recovery threshold and stops healing.  That was the prevailing theory until Sargent College professor of Boston University, Swathi Kiran, and Ph.D. candidate Jeffrey Johnson put it to the challenge. Using fMRI to measure brain activity by blood flow, they confirmed their own theory that the brain keeps healing--even years after a stroke. Observing hyperactivity in the brain regions surrounding the damaged parts of the brain's language center responsible for naming, they concluded the hyperactivity was due to the brain struggling to make connections it had once made easily, naturally.  Professor Kiran says healthy people have a very efficient way of going about language processing. What happens as a function of a stroke...language processing becomes laborious.  They paired a control group of 16 healthy individuals with a group of 15 people who had had a stroke in the brain's left hemisphere, where language is processed, at least ten months before the study.   At the end of the 12 weeks of the study, the comparison of the participants' brain function before and after treatment showed stroke victims had improved, as expected.  What surprised the researchers was how the improvement was characterized in the scans:  The overactive brain had quieted to a level of activity more consistent with the brain of a healthy adult.  The damaged regions of the brain were normalizing.  But there were more surprises to come.  The study also showed healing didn't take place as expected on a right-brain, left-brain divide, with the undamaged regions compensating for those damaged by the stroke.  It's not about right or left.  It all depends on which parts of the network are damaged and how the rest of the network figures itself out, says Kiran.  One  of the real benefits of this study is that it gives therapists "predictive power" so their efforts to help individual stroke victims recover language can now be guided with accuracy, and they can say with confidence the damaged brain will continue to get better. Laura Ehrlich, Brain in the News, December 2016.


The Evolutionary Birth of Consciousness

How we become aware of ourselves is a question neuroscience is now trying to explain. Theories of consciousness have sprung from religion, philosophy, and cognitive science but not so much from evolutionary biology. The Attention Schema Theory (AST) is enabling scientists to begin to account for consciousness.  According to this theory, consciousness arose as a solution to the basic problem of the nervous system:  With so much information constantly flowing, how can it be filtered to allow for the processing of select signals ?  If the theory is right...then consciousness evolved gradually over the past half billion years and is present in a range of vertebrate species.  Intense competition among the neurons vying to achieve dominance meant only some neurons would rise above the noise and influence the brain's behavior.  This pattern of selective signal enhancement existed even before the evolution of the central brain.   According to the AST some 300 million years of reptilian, avian, and mammalian evolution have allowed the self-model (how we see and understand ourselves) and the social-model (how we see and understand others) to evolve in tandem, each influencing the other.  At least 70 thousand years ago, a sophisticated language had evolved among humans, a means of accessing the consciousness so it could be talked about.  Trying to pinpoint a more causal relationship between language and consciousness isn't possible, but human beings, dispersed all over the globe, did share an awareness of consciousness.   Michael Graziano, a neuroscientist and the author of this article, says the evolutionary story brings human consciousness--something we ascribe to ourselves, to others, and to a rich spirit world of ghosts and gods in the empty spaces around us. ...The AST covers a lot of ground, from simple nervous system to simulations of self and others.  It provides a general framework for understanding consciousness, its many adaptive uses and its gradual and continuing evolution.  Michael Graziano, "A New Theory Explains How Consciousness Evolved," Brain in the News, July/August 2016. 



Why Child-Driven Free Play?

Researchers in neurology, psychology, evolutionary biology, educational theory, and wildlife biology believe child-driven free play to be a powerful technique for brain building, eliciting empathy and allowing for the development of complex social groups.  At the core of childhood play is a foundation built on imagination and innovation.  It may even serve as a short-term boost for problem-solving skills.  Because play is more about process than content, it is flexible and adaptive.  Whether carried out at low volume or high, in groups or alone, whether mental or more physical, play seems to be the most effective way to keep the brain open to new possibilities.  It is perhaps one of the best tools we have for developing our brains in ways that can help us learn how to survive in an unpredictable world.  Nature seems to favor species exhibiting playful behavior over less playful species, and the result of this favoritism seems to be an increased potential for survival.  Laboratory studies of young mammals show an increase in development among the more playful when compared to young mammals who are only exposed to rote learning and are deprived of opportunities to play.  Susceptibility to both fear and stress is also more characteristic of those less-oriented to play.  Ironically, since the mid-20th century, the trend has been to limit the amount of time children, another group of young mammals, are allowed opportunities for free play.  This is the same time period when psychiatrists have tracked marked rises in narcissism, depression, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness. This move for children away from free time toward more structured time parallels these rises and suggests a causal relationship.  Always so eager and ready to try something new, we are finding that going back to "old school ways" is not such a bad idea.  Unstructured play was, and is, how children learn how to learn.  They learn to experiment and they learn that they have the power to make changes in their world, according to Susan Linn, research associate at Boston Children's Hospital.  Jake Miller, Brain in the News, June, 2014.


Keeping the Brain Alive and Kickin’

While there's still no final word on the effectiveness of brain training games and programs to assure the long-term well-being of our brains, the picture coming into focus isn't all that positive for even the more sophisticated efforts.  It would be really nice if you could play some games and have it radically change your cognitive abilities, but the studies don't show that on objectively measured real-world outcomes, according to Daniel Simons of the U of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Simons was one of the authors of the latest study published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.  He joined six other scientists to review more than 130 studies of brain games and other forms of cognitive training.  To evaluate the studies they focused on the kinds of evidence the studies provided. For the most part, they did not find the kind of rigorous attention to creating the studies they, as scientists, expected to see.  However, there were some good studies and they did show that brain games do help people improve at specific tasks; yet the evidence didn't support the claim that practicing a narrow skill led to overall improvements in memory or thinking.  George Rebok, involved in brain training research at Johns Hopkins University for some 20 years now, welcomed the study as a means of raising the bar of the level of science that must be aspired to. He remains optimistic about how brain training can improve mental functioning and delay the effects of aging, but he believes brain games will have to be made more demanding in order to work the brain harder and for more extended periods of time. In the meantime, the brain training industry is facing scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission.  Jon Hamilton, Brain in the News, November 2016.