Kids, Language & Brains


Music: the Brain’s Universal Language?

Charles Limb, M.D., and professor of Otolaryngology at UC/San Francisco is also an avid saxophone player and jazz aficionado with love for music being something he shares with many other scientists.  In his most recent studies he has been able to show that music may be the world's universal language--neuroscientifically speaking.  While it is especially hard for scientists and artists (here musicians) to come together for the purposes of analysis, the architectural nature of music and its heavy use of mathematics mean scientists find music easier to study empirically.  Scanning the brains of musicians having "a musical conversation" showed they were definitely communicating as they played together.  Their use of the language areas of the brain when improvising, more so than when they played memorized selections, demonstrated it was the music dialogue itself that got the brain going without drawing on the brain areas of semantic cognition or vocabulary.  Because music conveys emotion so well Limb concludes emotion is a fundamental part of the musical experience. Emotion motivates composition, the performance and the listener.  Are there changes in the creative brain when emotion is used as a target for improvisation? Yes!  He concludes emotion is likely one of the drivers that influences which creative form the brain may take.  Essentially Limb is offering an argument for the study of the arts.  He wants to dispel the idea of the arts for entertainment alone and make the argument for the arts as essential to the proper development of the brain. He hopes to help people understand the arts reflect a fundamental kind of neurological activity that is linked to problem-solving, innovation, creativity and the generation of new ideas.  Kayt Sukel,, 24 January 2017.


Adult-like Organization in Infant Brains?

Do the structures and functions of adult brains take years of experience to form as has been hypothesized or are many of these regions in the visual cortex already present in the brains of infants?  Using a specially adapted MRI scanner to make working with infants four to six months old a possibility, neuroscientists at MIT have found that in some ways the organization of infant brains is surprisingly similar to that of adult brains. Special modifications were introduced to make the MRI machine more baby-friendly, such as reducing the noise level, designing a special reclining infant seat, and creating space for a parent or researcher to sit next to the baby during the testing. While the baby watched movies playing continuously in a mirror in front of his or her face, researchers scanning the baby's brain were able to study how the infant responded to specific types of sensory input and then compare these responses with those of adults. According to Ben Deen, now a postdoc at Rockefeller University but then a graduate student at MIT and lead author on the study, the adult-like organization of the infant visual cortex provides a scaffolding to guide the subsequent refinement of responses via experience that ultimately lead to the strongly specialized regions observed in adults. Rebecca Saxe, professor of brain and cognitive sciences, member of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and team leader, says their study suggests there's a stronger biological predisposition than expected for cortical regions to end up with special functions. Ann Trafton, Brain in the News, February 2017.


Busting Some Favorite Neuromyths

We've all heard at one time or another we use only 10% of our brain power. However, because we know from research focused on the constant self-pruning our brains undergo, meaning unused neurons die and unused circuits atrophy, the only valid conclusion we can reach must be that when we're thinking, the entire brain is in use.  And although some will argue children can learn only when their environment is richly stimulating, it turns out that when children don't learn, when their development doesn't progress, it's because their environment is truly impoverished, unnaturally devoid of opportunities for them to play and interact. Doubtless you've figured out what kind of a learner you are, which learning style suits you best.  It appears that even when a child is more inclined to be a visual rather than a verbal learner, for instance, the actual success of the instruction has little to do with the child's preferred learning style.  In other words, there is no relationship between learners' preference and the style of instruction.  If you recognize that you've embraced some or all of these neuromyths, don't feel too bad!  It seems those most inclined to buy into these myths have been the teachers themselves, the very people so keenly interested in seeing how neuroscience can impact children's education. Even if the culture at large may find these myths appealing, rooting them out of the classroom is a worthy and realistic goal.   Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, Wall Street Journal, November 17-18, 2012.   


Early Childhood Brain Development

As much as we adults would like to think we're in charge of our minds, choices, preferences, etc., it appears that much is already set from early childhood.  Results of a study focused on 18,000 mostly college-educated, mostly middle-class participants revealed how significant childhood experiences are.  The more adverse the childhood experiences, the more likely a person was to be obese as an adult, or to have drug and alcohol addiction, to suffer from depression, to have attempted suicide, to smoke, to have had more than 50 sexual partners, or to have gotten pregnant or have gotten someone else pregnant as a teenager.  Another high risk area of early childhood development was found in children adopted from under-staffed orphanages where they hardly received the attention they needed as infants. The carry-over from such neglect was significant and devastating. Charles Nelson of the University of Minnesota found that once children were cared for by foster parents they could make dramatic recovery in growth and brain development. He and fellow researchers helped create the first formal foster care system in Romania, a former communist-bloc country that at one time had 100,000 children in orphanages.  The children who were lucky enough to live in foster families did significantly better in nearly all measures of performance. However the most dramatic improvements came in children who left the orphanage before they were 26 months old.  Karen Auge, Brain in the News, February, 2003.