Kids, Language & Brains


Counteracting the Brain’s Preference for the Path of Least Resistance

Isn't it rather troubling to learn that when we hear someone speak with a foreign accent, our natural tendency is to find the speaker and what the speaker is saying less than reliable? Some will simply refuse to listen in such cases. Others may not give up so easily as they smile patronizingly at the "incompetent" trying to convey information. Fortunately there are others who will slow down, take out the mental ear plugs and really listen to what is being said.  The further from native-sounding an accent is, the harder we have to work, and the less trustworthy we perceive the information to be.   So, what might clearly be labeled as prejudice or bias is really our lazy brain opting for the easier path. As a result, our brain ends up doubting the truthfulness of what the speaker with a non-native accent is saying.  In fact, researchers found the heavier the accent, the more skeptical the study participants became. Watching movies where the cast is speaking English even if it's the English of Great Britain, Australia or India, is an opportunity for us to tune our ears up and force our brains to make the extra effort for understanding.  This choice is the equivalent of stretching or growing, worthy options to embrace. Although it's frustrating to know our brains react in such a predictable fashion, the good news is that once we become aware of why our brains are resisting, we can and do develop workarounds with some success.  Unfortunately this isn't so much the case with heavier accents. Shiri Lev-Ari and Booz Keysar, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, November 2010.


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.   


Building Cognitive Reserves

Becoming bilingual is no magic potion capable of blocking the onset of dementia and Alzheimer's, but it does give the brain more time to function well. Scientists, who for years studied children, found that speaking more than one language takes a lot of mental work. Being bilingual at an early age can mean slightly smaller vocabularies and slowed abilities on verbal tasks; but that isn't the full picture.  Over time, regularly speaking more than one language appears to strengthen skills that boost the brain's so-called cognitive reserve, benefitting bilingual people as they age.  One brain function that seems to profit from bilingualism is known as inhibitory or cognitive control.  It allows bilingual speakers to selectively pay attention, to focus on one thing rather than another, to turn off one language to function in another.   This is what happens when they switch from one language to another and it's a skill that carries over.  It's too early to say how often the 2nd language must be used to maintain this skill, and it's not yet clear if becoming fluent in a 2nd language later in life will have the same effect.  Researchers in several different studies comparing monolingual and bilingual adults between 30 and 80 years of age, saw better performance blocking out distractions and better cognitive control recognizing correct grammar in test sentences by bilingual subjects.  This second advantage was even more pronounced in the older subjects.  Closer examination of records of memory patients results show that although bilingualism does not actually delay the brain's deterioration, bilingual individuals were better able to handle the memory deficits of old age. Shirley S. Wang, Wall Street Journal, 10/12/10.



Through Children’s Brains Via Language 3

From birth to about 12 years of age, children are endowed with brains that readily focus on language, so it is no mystery why the movement to introduce 2nd language study at much earlier learning stages in children's lives has become such a worthy cause.  Children who start 2nd language learning before the age of 12 or so, can acquire wonderful accents (mastery of the sound system) in 2nd languages as well as speak with far greater facility and confidence than their high school-aged siblings who really have to be willing to work hard to achieve even rudimentary 2nd language fluency.  Once in place and then maintained, the 2nd languages begun by children well before high school are superbly positioned to continue developing in high school and beyond.  More and more, high school teachers will meet their incoming students with the expectation they will be at ease in their 2nd languages as their siblings were not and as most adults who began studying 2nd language in high school never became. Imagine the difference!  This is the new world of 2nd language education and it puts pressure on all levels of 2nd language education to produce teachers able to meet and challenge these students where they are.


Through Children’s Brains Via Language 2

While the brain is no blank slate, even at infancy, it is subject to its genetic make-up but only in a rather flexible way.  Genes--keepers of our DNA--can't act unless circumstances provoke them.  And this means we can intervene and influence outcomes far more than we might have imagined in the past. This makes genes the ultimate tools of interactivity.  As one scientist says, no matter how hard-wired a trait may seem, there is always give and take between what's inside and what's outside.  The back and forth between genes and the environment is a constant to acknowledge and learn from.  Knowing the human brain's capacity to adapt, we can now recognize the nature vs. nurture argument as far too simplistic.


Through Children’s Brains Via Language I

Children's affinity for language grows out of their innate ability to absorb language naturally, without even trying.  According to the research, young infants respond to language at a level of sophistication we might hardly expect of them.  Yet, sensitivity to both vocabulary and grammar, in this case, words in sentences, is part of an infant's potential repertoire.  Use of fMRI imaging has shown the infant brain activates in many of the same areas as the adult brain in similar testing.  This strongly suggests that even in the first months of life, the brains of babies are already beginning to process language.  Such research supports the argument that language development in pre-born babies' brain is well underway and babies at birth are already beyond being mere "blank slates" upon which all future brain development will be written. Babies begin receiving, that is, making synaptic connections between neurons, even before birth.  During the latter part of gestation, the hair cells in their ears are already working and processing sounds.  With birth comes the explosive growth of synapses based on babies' encounters with actual experiences.  No wonder parents today are strongly encouraged to talk to babies and young children as much as possible.  These "wake up calls"--gaining even fuller intensity by pairing auditory with visual stimuli--solicit the brain to move into action and develop its truly redoubtable ability to learn.


Trapped in Failure Factories

Power games that allow for the justification of bad outcomes for others while maintaining the edge for their own come at a very high price.  For as long as the boy or girl entering American public education doesn't leave with the same shot at the American Dream as his or her peers, the price paid is calamitous for those kids, for our society now and for generations to come. According to one study, just closing the gap between our educational performance and that of other countries such as Finland and South Korea would increase our GDP considerably. Compound that gain over time and it's clear why a good education for all has to be a high priority.  While only 15 % of our big-city schools fit the description of "Failure Factories,"  these same schools account for the massive majority of our drop-outs. Throwing more money at the problem won't solve it. And yet, it's a problem we must solve because the cost of no solution condemns our society to second-class status. When we allow the children of other people to fail or leave school without an education, those children...become adults who cannot provide for themselves.  Our children, their children and their children's children will live to pay the price for such short-sightedness. Rupert Murdoch, Wall Street Journal, 10/8/2010.