Archive for February, 2011

Moonwalking with Einstein

February 28, 2011

Last weekend’s NY Times Magazine featured an excerpt from journalist Joshua Foer’s new book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. It’s the fascinating story of his quest to become the memory champion of the United States (add that to the list of things we didn’t know anything about).

As we’ve previously posted, there’s an important distinction between memory and memorization. Nonetheless, memorization techniques can give us clues about memory, particularly from an evolutionary standpoint. For example, Foer highlights a study that showed that expert memorizers have neither anatomically distinguishable brains nor above average levels of cognitive abilities. But what they do share is a higher level of activation in the area of the brain responsible for visual and spatial memory. Experts attribute this to the fact that our ancestors relied on visual spatial memory for survival (where’s the food? where are the predators?).

Foer’s journey to the title is interesting, at least in part because he really set out just to learn about memorization and ended up a champion. The Times article links to two resources for memorizing numbers and names. For more on Foer, check out this story by NPR’s All Things Considered.

TED Talk on the Linguistic Genius of Babies

February 17, 2011

In this great 10-minute lecture, Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington, shares her findings about how babies learn one language over another — by listening to the humans around them and “taking statistics” on the sounds they need to know.

Experiments and brain imaging show how 6-month-old babies use sophisticated reasoning to understand their world. Dr. Kuhl’s work has played a major role in demonstrating how early exposure to language alters the brain. It has implications for critical periods in development, for bilingual education and reading readiness, for developmental disabilities involving language, and for research on computer understanding of speech.

The pen is mightier than the keyboard

February 16, 2011

If you want to learn, scientists say, put pen to paper.

A recent article in Business Week cited research in France and Norway, which concluded that “writing by hand is actually a very different sensory experience than typing on a keyboard, with each activating distinctly different parts of the brain.”

Study co-author, associate professor Anne Mangen from the University of Stavangers Reading Centre in Stavanger, Norway, says:

Tests reveal that the act of handwriting — literally the feeling of touching a pen to paper — appears to imprint a “motor memory” in the sensorimotor region of the brain. In turn, this process promotes the visual recognition of letters and words, suggesting that the two seemingly separate acts of reading and writing are, in fact, linked.

In the study, participants were taught a new alphabet. Those who studied by writing out the letters by hand learned significantly more than those who studied only on a computer. Additionally, “brain scans revealed that while learning by handwriting prompted activity in a particular part of the brain known as Broca’s area, learning by keyboarding prompted little or no such activity.” Broca’s area is the portion of the brain most associated with speech production.

If you’re interested in more research-based study tips, check out these previous posts from our blog:

Hat tip to Posit Science for the link to the Business Week article.

“The cognitive functions are triggers that fully activate the love network”

February 14, 2011

Translation? “Happy Valentine’s Day!”

From Scientific American comes a depiction of the blood and brain chemical levels that give the sensation of love. The highlights:

  • More dopamine means more pleasure, more motivation and less sadness.
  • More oxytocin means more trust, more attachment and less fear.
  • More cortisol in the blood means more stress, more alertness and lower pain sensitivity.

Sounds about right.

Happy Valentine’s Day from Be Amazing Learning!

Blueberries on the brain

February 9, 2011

The January 2011 issue of Scientific American Mind picks up some research we have been following about flavonoids, which research shows may improve memory, learning and general cognitive function:

Emerging research suggests that compounds in blueberries known as flavonoids may improve memory, learning and general cognitive function, including reasoning skills, decision making, verbal comprehension and numerical ability. In addition, studies comparing dietary habits with cognitive function in adults hint that consuming flavonoids may help slow the decline in mental facility that is often seen with aging and might even provide protection against disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

We have previously posted about the impact of flavonoids (which also occur in chocolate) on math skills. In the article we cited, study authors indicated flavonoids worked by increasing blood flow to the brain. This more recent article indicates that researchers believe flavonoids impact cognition by interacting with proteins that are integral to brain-cell structure and function.

Either way, we like the idea of good-tasting foods being good for the brain!

Good kids who do dumb things with their friends

February 8, 2011

Parents of teenagers may frequently find themselves asking their children “What was going through your head?” New research from Temple University indicates that their friends may be to blame.

From the NY Times Well blog:

Teenage peer pressure has a distinct effect on brain signals involving risk and reward, helping to explain why young people are more likely to misbehave and take risks when their friends are watching.

In the study, teenagers and adults played a game with the goal of completing a driving mission in as little time as possible. In the game, participants had to make decisions such as whether to run a yellow light that could improve their time but also increased their chance of a crash. The participants each ran through the game alone and again after being told that two of their friends were watching them while they played. The results?:

Among adults and college students, there were no meaningful differences in risk taking, regardless of  whether friends were watching. But the young teenagers ran about 40 percent more yellow lights and had 60 percent more crashes when they knew their friends were watching. And notably, the regions of the brain associated with reward showed greater activity when they were playing in view of their friends. It was as if the presence of friends, even in the next room, prompted the brain’s reward system to drown out any warning signals about risk, tipping the balance toward the reward.

What’s a parent to do? Study co-author (and author of the book You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10-25) Laurence Steinberg, quoted in the Times article, says:

All of us who have very good kids know they’ve done really dumb things when they’ve been with their friends. The lesson is that if you have a kid whom you think of as very mature and able to exercise good judgment, based on your observations when he or she is alone or with you, that doesn’t necessarily generalize to how he or she will behave in a group of friends without adults around. Parents should be aware of that.

More research on the importance of auditory processing abilities for reading

February 7, 2011

We were interested to see new research from Belgium that looks at the link between early auditory processing abilities and later reading struggles. Published in January in Research in Developmental Disabilities, the longitudinal study showed that auditory processing and speech recognition struggles in kindergarten and first grade corresponded to dyslexia diagnoses in the third grade.

This new research is in line with previous studies that have determined that the auditory centers of the brain in dyslexic readers are under-activated compared to their typically developing peers (interestingly enough, the visual centers of the brain in dyslexic readers are hyper-activated).

Given the criticality of developing auditory processing abilities in young children, what’s a parent to do?

On her Parent Smart blog, Dr. Martha Burns has a couple suggestions:

  • Bed time stories: “It doesn’t matter what the stories are. Many very young children love to hear the same storybook over and over, that is just fine.   Try to make a habit of 15 or more minutes a day of “quiet time” before bed in which your child selects a book and you read it together.” Dr. Burns includes age-specific suggestions for story time as well.
  • Audio books: “Rather than bringing a DVD player along on a trip, try audio-books. The advantage of an audio book over a DVD is that it builds listening skills which are critical for doing well in school and allows your child to follow along with the written pages as they listen to the book, so it builds reading skills as well.”

An intervention like the Fast ForWord programs may be appropriate as well. A study of public school children with Auditory Processing Disorder showed improvement in phonemic decoding and sight word reading abilities after training with Fast ForWord. And the Stanford study referenced above showed normalization of activity in critical areas of the brain used for reading and significant improvements in reading and oral language skills on a number of assessments after Fast ForWord training.

Computer-based program relieves ADHD symptoms in children

February 4, 2011

The research validating the effectiveness of Cogmed Working Memory Training at improving attention skills keeps rolling in. Science Daily recently highlighted research by psychologists from Ohio State University, published in the November/December 2010 issue of the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology:

Researchers found significant changes for students who completed the program in areas such as attention, ADHD symptoms, planning and organization, initiating tasks, and working memory.

The study asked parents and teachers to complete observational surveys before and after training, as well as in a 4-month post-training follow up:

Results showed that parents generally rated their children as improving on inattention, overall number of ADHD symptoms, working memory, planning and organization and in initiating tasks. These changes were evident both immediately after treatment and four months later.

One interesting aspect of this study is that unlike previous efficacy studies for Cogmed, this one included students who were on and off medication for their ADHD:

“Most kids with ADHD are on some kind of medication, so it helps to know how this intervention works in these cases,” said study co-author Steven Beck.

In this sample, 60 percent of the students were on medication. The results showed the program was equally effective regardless of whether they were on medication or not.

“Medication for ADHD does not help directly with working memory, and the training program does, so it can be useful,” Beck said.

Solid foundational and efficacy research is a common characteristic of the learning programs we offer. It’s great to see additional research that documents the success of Cogmed with an ever-larger population of struggling learners.

Coach helps with ADHD

February 3, 2011

CNN’s Health Minute feature recently highlighted the use of a life coach by a college student with ADHD:

A little different from our approach, which focuses on the foundational cognitive skills that underlie attention (and other learning) challenges. But clearly helpful as a scaffold to keep this student on track.

How children’s brains acquire language

February 1, 2011

In adults, injury to the areas of the brain that are responsible for language skills (Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas) result in loss of language abilities. However, injuries to those same areas in early childhood don’t seem to impact language development in a negative way. As a result, researchers have long thought that a different area of the brain was active in language acquisition. But new research from UC San Diego, published in the Oxford University Press journal Cerebral Cortex says otherwise: “similar left frontotemporal areas are used for encoding lexico-semantic information throughout the life span, from the earliest stages of word learning.”

From a recent Science Daily article summarizing the research:

Combining the cutting-edge technologies of MRI and MEG, scientists at the University of California, San Diego show that babies just over a year old process words they hear with the same brain structures as adults, and in the same amount of time. Moreover, the researchers found that babies were not merely processing the words as sounds, but were capable of grasping their meaning.

Study co-author Kathleen Travis, quoted in the Science Daily article:

“Babies are using the same brain mechanisms as adults to access the meaning of words from what is thought to be a mental ‘database’ of meanings, a database which is continually being updated right into adulthood.”

And from co-author Eric Halgren, also in the article:

“Our study shows that the neural machinery used by adults to understand words is already functional when words are first being learned. This basic process seems to embody the process whereby words are understood, as well as the context for learning new words.”

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