Archive for November, 2010

Baby’s Developing Brain

November 3, 2010

Over at the Science of Learning blog, Dr. Martha Burns has just completed a two part series on the development of the infant brain. The good news and bad news for parents is that we play a significant role.

In August, Dr. Burns described the infant brain as a learning machine: working to determine the relevant information about language and the environment, while designing itself, quickly, to become an expert in said language and environment. The parents’ role is to provide an environment that fosters the development of skills that will be helpful later in life.

In her recent conclusion, Dr. Burns provides some more detail on how parents can help the developing infant brain, especially with the goal of developing the kind of sustained attention skills required in a classroom. The brain, says Dr. Burns, wires itself for learning based on early stimulation and experience. To facilitate this development:

  • Parents of infants can build sustained attention to speech by ensuring that children are seeing and hearing speech at the same time. In other words, get in their face!
  • Parents of older children should set aside time for reading together or talking about the highlights of the day.

Getting a child accustomed to sitting for 30 minutes and listening to songs or stories will establish the attention skills required in school.

Oh. And unfortunately, while this probably goes without saying, lay off the TV:

The American Pediatric Association has recently published research indicating that too much exposure to television during the first two years of life seems to increase the likelihood that the child will be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder in the early school years.

We have previously posted about the importance of engaging children with language. From that posting:

Particularly in the critical stage of brain development (when only stimulation is required to develop neural pathways), continuous exposure to language is of utmost importance. The differences in students early experiences with language and literacy are meaningful: by first grade, children whose parents have engaged them with language know twice as many words as those whose parents have not. And it continues: high school seniors near the top of their class know four times as many words as their lower-performing peers, whose vocabularies are equivalent to high-performing third graders.

Baseball on the brain

November 2, 2010

We’ve got Giants fever here at Be Amazing Learning. For the first time since relocating to San Francisco in the 50s, the Giants are World Series Champs! In honor of that accomplishment, we devote today’s post to the intersection of baseball and the brain.

Last week, we posted on the role of the prefrontal cortex in fans’ near-religous devotion to their teams. Today, it’s the neuroscience of hitting.

Steven Small, professor of neurology and psychology at the University of Chicago, is a contributor to Your Brain On Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans. His research examines the batter-pitcher match-up from the point of view of the neural networks that control if, when and how the batter swings the bat. From a U of C Medical Center press release:

“If the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand at 100 miles per hour,” Small said, “it will take it 0.367 seconds to reach home plate–less than the time between successive heart beats. For elite batters, such as the Cubs’ Alfonso Soriano, such extraordinary skill can only be accomplished by figuring out what the pitcher will do before he even releases the ball.”

Small, an expert on the brain imaging of human behavior, uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study how the brain of professional athletes plans complex movements, such as swinging a baseball bat. With fMRI, researchers can peer into the brain while an athlete focuses on a video of a real situation, such as a pitcher preparing (e.g., winding up, gripping the ball and then releasing the pitch. The scanner can identify the various parts of the brain that activate as the batter prepares his swing.

In several related studies, Small has found patterns that are common as people learn a new task and then slowly master that skill through practice. Based on this research, it would be expected for a novice baseball player to have more brain activation when preparing to swing a bat than an expert. Experts require less brain power because their brains become more efficient at that task as they gain proficiency.

Professional athletes, he found, activate only the regions of the brain that are critical to a precise activity, such as swinging the bat. The novice, on the other hand, has to activate several other regions, some tangentially connected to the movement and others linked to the neural foundation of emotion.

“When doing something for the first time,” Small said, “there is a lower ability to concentrate and greater involvement of emotion than after gaining expertise. Adding these factors to the brain’s neural programming, makes it more complex and therefore less efficient.”

Congratulations to the World Champion San Francisco Giants! And thanks for the opportunity to veer slightly off topic in celebration of your accomplishment!

Multi-tasking: Can we do it?

November 1, 2010

Sure. But only up to a point. Our brains can handle two activities, but not three. Which might explain why we have a hard time making decisions when we’re faced with more than two choices.

In the brain, the medial prefrontal cortex (MFC) keeps track of what we’re doing. When we’re working on two tasks, it can divide its attentions, with one half of the region focusing on one task, and the other half on the second task. But, according to researcher Etienne Koechlin of the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, we’re actually “divide tasking”, rather than multi-tasking. And things get pretty muddled if we try to add a third task.

Koechlin’s research, “Divided Representation of Concurrent Goals in the Human Frontal Lobes,” was published in the journal Science.

In an interview for Live Science, Koechlin said:

What the results really show is that we can readily divide tasking. We can cook, and at the same time talk on the phone, and switch back and forth between these two activities. However, we cannot multitask with more than two tasks.

Koechlin’s study used fMRI brain scans to monitor 32 subjects as they watch upper case letters on a screen. The subjects had to determine if the letters were presented in the correct order to spell a certain word, such as B-R-A-I-N. They received a monetary reward if they made no errors. As the rewards increased in value, the researchers saw more activity in the MFC.

The subjects were then presented with lower case letters as well, and had to determine if both the upper case and lower case letters spelled a word, B-R-A-I-N and b-r-a-i-n. This required the subjects to switch back and forth between tasks.

During this dual task, the MFC divided up the labor. One hemisphere of the brain encoded the reward associated with the upper case letter task, and so showed activity during that task, while the other region encoded the reward associated with the lower case task.

Essentially, the brain behaved “as if each frontal lobe was pursuing its own goal,” Koechlin said.

When researchers introduced a third letter-matching task, they saw the subject’s accuracy drop considerably. In essence, there was no where for the third task to go.

As for decision-making, Koechlin thinks his results may explain why it’s difficult for us to decide between more than two options:

Previous work has indicated that people like binary choices, or decisions between two things. They have difficulty when decisions involve more than two choices, Koechlin said. When faced with three or more choices, subjects don’t appear to evaluate them rationally; they simply start discarding choices until they get back to a binary choice.
This is perhaps because your brain can’t keep track of the rewards involved with more than two choices, Koechlin said.

If you’re interested in reading more about multi-tasking, check out this episode from NPR’s Talk of the Nation, featuring NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton and University of Michigan professor Daniel Weissman.

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