Archive for March, 2011

The Thirsty Linguist reviews Oliver Sacks’ latest book “The Mind’s Eye”

March 31, 2011

Doctor and author Oliver Sacks is known for bringing neuroscience to the masses. In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings (which was made into a movie starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams), Sacks explores neurological disorders with the writing skills of a novelist.

Our friend, the Thirsty Linguist, reviews Sacks’ latest book, The Mind’s Eye, which explores the human experience of vision:

As in some of his previous books, Sacks presents case histories of individuals suffering from neurological injury or disease, and uses these histories as a means to probe the capacities of the mind. Lilian Kallir, for example, is a pianist who loses the ability to read, even though the rest of her vision remains intact and, puzzingly, she can still write. Sacks follows Lilian’s story over a period of three years, describing the coping strategies she develops, such as color-coding items in her home, as well as the new talents that arise unexpectedly with her condition, such as the ability to re-arrange musical pieces in her mind without consulting a score. Howard Engel, featured in another case history, is a writer who also loses the ability to read, but he approaches his situation differently: he rejects audiobooks, refuses to give up the world of text, and painstakingly learns his ABCs all over again.

Lilian’s and Howard’s cases both suggest that the brain has a specific location dedicated to reading. But it is not at all obvious why this should be so. Unlike spoken language, which evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, written language is a relatively recent cultural invention that offered no survival advantage to humans in primitive societies. Plasticity offers a potential answer to this conundrum: we can and do use structures in the brain for purposes very different from those for which they evolved. Sacks casts a wide net to gather evidence for this idea. He describes case histories of nineteenth century neurologists, who treated patients with symptoms similar to Lilian’s and Howard’s. He cites evolutionary thinkers from Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba, tracing the history of the notion of “exaptation,” a biological adaptation which gets put to a new use. He presents key results from imaging studies which demonstrate that different areas of the brain are active during reading versus listening. And he summarizes a computational study of over 100 writing systems which shows that, despite their diversity, these systems share basic visual signatures which resemble those found in natural settings.

The Mind’s Eye thus offers narrative science writing of the most satisfying kind. We delight in pedagogical moments because Sacks weaves them seamlessly into the case histories. We get drawn into the topics of evolution, brain imaging, and computation because we want to follow people like Lilian and Howard. “Make characters the matter of your narrative,” advises James Shreeve in A Field Guide for Science Writers, “and let the science spill from their relations.” Sacks does precisely that.

If Sacks’ work intrigues you, you might also be interested in:

It’s About Time…

March 29, 2011

Auditory processing describes what happens when the brain recognizes and interprets sounds. Humans hear when energy that we recognize as sound travels through the ear and is changed into electrical information that can be interpreted by the brain. For many students, something is adversely affecting the processing or interpretation of this information. As a result, these students often do not recognize subtle differences between sounds in words, even though the sounds themselves are loud and clear. For example: “Tell me how a chair and a couch are alike” may sound to a child struggling with auditory processing like “Tell me how a hair and a cow are alike.”

These kinds of problems are more likely to occur when the child is in a noisy environment or is listening to complex information.

The Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center (TDLC) at the University of California is one of six Science of Learning Centers funded by the National Science Foundation. Its purpose is “to understand how the element of time and timing is critical for learning, and to apply this understanding to improve educational practice.”

What is the role of timing in learning? From the TDLC Web site:

When you learn new facts, interact with colleagues and teachers, experiment with new gadgets, or engage in countless other learning activities, timing plays a role in the functioning of your neurons, in the communication between and within sensory systems, and in the interactions between different regions of your brain. The success or failure of attempts to communicate using gestures, expressions and verbal language also depend on timing.

In short, timing is critical for learning at every level, from learning the precise temporal patterns of speech sounds, to learning appropriate sequences of movements, to optimal training and instructional schedules for learning, to interpreting the streams of social signals that reinforce learning in the classroom.

Learning depends on the fine-scale structure of the timing between stimuli, response, and reward. The brain is exquisitely sensitive to the temporal structure of sensory experience:

  • at the millisecond time scale in the auditory system;
  • at the second time scale in reinforcement learning;
  • at the minute time scale for action-perception adaptation; and
  • at the day-to-week time scale for consolidation and maturation.

Each level of learning has its own temporal dynamics, and its own timing constraints that affect learning. These levels are not independent, but instead, timing constraints at one level affect learning at another level in a nested way. For example, the dynamics at the cellular level, which is often on the order of milliseconds, implement learning on the whole-brain and behavioral level on much longer time scales, including memories that last a lifetime.

The past decade of neuroscience research demonstrates that the intrinsic temporal dynamics of processes within the brain also reinforce and constrain learning. For example, we have discovered that slow learners tend to have slow “shutter speeds” in terms of how their brains take in and process information. For some poor readers, the underlying problem is the their inability to perceive fast acoustic changes in speech sounds (phonemes) that must be accurately perceived in order to learn letter-sound correspondence rules for reading.

Fortunately, says the TDLC Web site, “Neuroscience-based training regimes that improve this temporal processing ability improve both spoken and written language learning in struggling readers.”

One such training program is the Fast ForWord program, which can be an effective intervention for children with struggling with processing rates because it goes right to the cause of the problem, strengthening the gray matter in the area of the brain responsible for processing auditory information. With Fast ForWord, children are first exposed to sounds that are modified to enhance the minute acoustic differences between similar speech sounds. As children demonstrate proficiency and build new neural pathways, the program automatically reduces the level of modification, until eventually students are challenged to process normal speech sounds.

When their brains are processing speech sounds at peak efficiency, students can better  recognize and discriminate the rapidly changing sounds that are important for discriminating phonemes (the smallest units of speech that distinguish one word from another). As a result, they will more easily:

  • Attend and respond to directions and class discussions
  • Remember questions, directions, and information
  • Learn to read and become a better reader

Competing Memories

March 25, 2011

Does something like this ever happen to you?  From Yale psychologist Brice Kuhl, quoted in a NY Times article about memory:

“I park in a garage every day at work, and I park in a different space every day, depending on availability. And I very often walk to where I parked the day before. It’s not that I totally forgot where I parked, it’s just that I still remember yesterday’s spot.”

When the brain is cluttered with similar items (say a new password replacing an expired one, or a new phone number), we have difficulty recalling just one. Kuhl’s research (published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) indicates that this difficulty is reflected in “more ambiguous” neural activation when engaged in competitive remembering as compared to “more robust” activation for non-competitive memories.

High creativity in adults with ADHD

March 24, 2011

Research conducted at the University of Michigan and Eckerd College, and published in the current issue of Personality and Individual Differences suggests that adults with ADHD are more creative than their non-attention-impaired peers. The research also indicates that adults with ADHD are “ideators” (they like to generate ideas), while non-ADHD adults tend to be “clarifiers” (who prefer to define and structure problems) and “developers” (who who elaborate or refine ideas and solutions).

We frequently think about ADHD as a disability, and it can have crippling effects on students’ ability to focus in a classroom setting and to adjust academically and socially. However, as study co-author and associate professor at the University of Michigan Priti Shah says (quoted in a Science Daily article summarizing the research): “Individuals who are not succeeding as well academically may benefit from understanding that there may be tradeoffs associated with ADHD. With extra motivation to overcome difficulties in planning, attention, and impulsivity, they may be able to take greater advantage of their creative strengths.”

TED Talk: Dr. Michael Merzenich on Rewiring the Brain

March 23, 2011

Dr. Michael Merzenich is a pioneer in brain plasticity research. In this TED Talk, recorded in 2004, Dr. Merzenich describes impairments to the brain’s processing ability, and how we can train the brain back to normal processing:

We now have a large body of literature that demonstrates that the fundamental problem that occurs in the majority of children that have early language impairments, and that are going to struggle to learn to read, is that their language processor is created in a defective form. And the reason that it rises in a defective form is because early in the baby’s brain’s life the machine process is noisy. It’s that simple. It’s a signal to noise problem. Okay? And there are a lot of things that contribute to that. There are numerous inherited faults that could make the machine process noisier.

Every sound the child hears uncorrected is muffled. It’s degraded. The child’s native language is such a case is not English. It’s not Japanese. It’s muffled English. It’s degraded Japanese. It’s crap. And the brain specializes for it. It creates a representation of language crap. And then the child is stuck with it.

Now the crap doesn’t just happen in the ear. It can also happen in the brain. The brain itself can be noisy. It’s commonly noisy. There are many inherited faults that can make it noisier. And the native language for a child with such a brain is degraded. It’s not English. It’s noisy English. And that results in defective representations of sounds of words, not normal, a different strategy, by a machine that has different space constants. And you can look in the brain of such a child and record those time constants. They are about an order of magnitude longer, about 11 times longer in duration on average, than in a normal child. Space constants are about three times greater. Such a child will have memory and cognitive deficits in this domain. Of course they will. Because as a receiver of language, they are receiving it and representing it. And in information it’s representing crap. And they are going to have poor reading skills. Because reading is dependent upon the translation of word sounds into this orthographic or visual representational form. If you don’t have a brain representation of word sounds that translation makes no sense. And you are going to have corresponding abnormal neurology.

The point is is that you can train the brain out of this. A way to think about this is you can actually re-refine the processing capacity of the machinery by changing it. Changing it in detail. It takes about 30 hours on the average. And we’ve accomplished that in about 430,000 kids today. Actually about 15,000 children are being trained as we speak. And actually when you look at the impacts, the impacts are substantial.

Think of a classroom of children in the language arts. Think of the children on the slow side of the class. We have the potential to move most of those children to the middle or to the right side. In addition to accurate language training it also fixes memory and cognition speech fluency and speech production, And an important language dependent skill is enabled by this training — that is to say reading. And to a large extent it fixes the brain. You can look down in the brain of a child. in a variety of tasks that scientists have at Stanford, and MIT, and UCSF, and UCLA, and a number of other institutions. And children operating in various language behaviors, or in various reading behaviors, you see for the most extent, for most children, their neuronal responses, complexly abnormal before you start, are normalized by the training.

There’s some stuff about monkeys in the middle that went a little over our heads, but the talk is worth the 20 minute investment.

Brain Foods

March 10, 2011

Family Education Network breaks down the top brain foods, which can improve your mood, thinking, and mental skills.

Some aren’t surprising (and won’t come as very welcome news to children): broccoli is a great source of vitamin K, which enhances cognitive function. And pinach improves learning capacity and motor skills while slowing down age-related brain function.

But there are a few pleasant surprises for those who don’t get too excited about eating their vegetables:

  • Eggs contain choline, which boosts the memory center of the brain.
  • Yogurt improves alertness and contains tyrosin, an amino acid that produces dopamine (a neurotransmitter).
  • Walnuts contain vitamins E and B6, which are good for the nervous system, and fatty acids that help brain function.

And of course, the kicker: dark chocolate. It contains antioxidants and flavonoids that are great for the brain.

The full slide show is on the Family Education Network Web site. You might also be interested in these posts on our blog about brain-based eating:

Creativity in Young Learners

March 8, 2011

Two blogs we follow have recently tackled the topic of creativity in young learners, each from a slightly different perspective:

A recent post at features an excerpt from John Medina’s book Brain Rules for Baby that looks at the link between creativity and a certain kind of risk-taking. Medina describes “functional impulsivity”, the presence of which makes you more creative:

What ever their gender, creative entrepreneurs have functional impulsivity instincts in spades. They score atmospherically high on tests that measure risk­ taking, and they have a strong ability to cope with ambiguity. When their brains are caught in the act of being creative, the medial and orbital sectors of the pre­frontal cortex, regions just behind the eyes, light up like crazy on an fMRI. More “managerial types” (that’s actually what researchers call them) don’t have these scores—or these neural activities.

Medina is careful to differentiate functional impulsivity from, say, putting life and limb at risk on a dare, which tends to be associated not with creativity but with substance abuse.

At Scientific Learning’s Science of Learning blog, the topic of creativity is focused on the books of Edward de Bono, who proposes methods for teaching students to think creatively and “create context from nothingness.”

In one example, he describes how a teacher shows his students a photo of people dressed in street clothes wading through water at a beach. The teacher then asks the students to come up with interpretations as to what is going on in the picture. The teacher has de-emphasized the context; the crux of the activity is to develop the context using their imaginations.

In this situation, de Bono says that students might respond by saying that the picture shows a group of people caught by the tide, or a group crossing a flooded river, or people wading out to a ferry boat which cannot come to shore, or people coming ashore from a wrecked boat.

The fact that the photo is actually of a group of people protesting at a beach is completely irrelevant. The author stresses that the right answer is not important; generating as many interpretations as possible is. The teacher has created a safe, controlled environment and activity where students are encouraged to think outside the box and exercise creative habits of mind, free from qualitative judgment. He even goes on to suggest that if a student comes up with a particularly unfeasible interpretation, the teacher should not judge, but continue to question the student until the context for the interpretation becomes clear, encouraging cultivation of the student’s creative skill.

Medina’s books on the neuroscience of development differentiate between the “seeds”, which is what a child is born with, and the “soil” which is what parents and others can do to nurture that raw material. These two posts, taken together, indicate that when it comes to creativity, both play a role.

Happy National Grammar Day!

March 4, 2011

Grammar gets a bad rap, but today, National Grammar Day, we celebrate it!

If learning to read and write is like packing for a trip around the world, grammar is your socks: something you need, but nothing you’re going to get too excited about.

But grammar (understanding the elements of language, including proper word order, syntax, vocabulary, prefixes and suffixes, plurals, and subject-verb agreement) is critically important for strong listening comprehension and reading comprehension. Knowledge of grammar allows students to understand the different meanings conveyed by different sentence structures and grammatical markers. Students with a better understanding of grammar conventions derive more meaning from what they hear in the classroom, and more easily master reading and writing skills.

So today, just for today, celebrate grammar! Check out for a playlist of songs with grammatically incorrect lyrics and grammar day poems and stories.

Learning to Read vs. Reading to Learn

March 1, 2011

Around 2nd or 3rd grade, students begin the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. In the process, they open their minds to a flood of critical information across disciplines. And to incorporate this new knowledge, students must have mastered the basics of reading and achieved automaticity.

At Scientific Learning’s Science of Learning blog, Terri Zezula addresses the criticality of automaticity for students to begin the transition to reading to learn:

In achieving automaticity, we free our brains – our working memories – from the details of the task, allowing us to use that brain power to do more, building on those sets of automatic skills. For our students, achieving automaticity  in reading is essential not only to their becoming effective readers, but becoming effective all-around learners. The majority of students make the shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” around second or third grade. At this stage, their reading skills have developed to a point of automaticity where they no longer need to use their working memory to facilitate the task of reading, and they can use that memory for things like interpretation, comprehension and creative thinking.

On the other hand, continues Zezula:

Imagine what learning becomes for the struggling student who does not develop this automaticity alongside his or her fellow students. As others begin to learn more and more from their reading, the struggling reader must engage their working memory in the challenge of getting through the letters and words of each sentence as opposed to using that valuable memory to glean meanings and assimilate information. As their reading skills lag, their overall ability to learn suffers.

A previous post here at Thoughts from Be Amazing Learning addressed the same phenomemon:

We hear from parents a lot that their child does just fine with the mechanics of reading (decoding, spelling, etc.), but struggles with comprehension. Reading comprehension is a difficult task, as it represents the synthesis of so many language and literacy skills, from phonemic awareness to sequencing and working memory. As such, it takes time and a lot of practice to develop reading comprehension skills.

It’s important to note, however, that while kids may be struggling with comprehension, the root cause of their struggle may be more foundational in nature. For example, a child may decode well, but if his brain is working overtime on decoding, there may just not be anything left when it comes time to comprehend what he’s just read. Comprehension requires things like a working memory that’s developed enough to remember the beginning of a sentence when you get to the end. Or the first sentence of a paragraph when you get to the last. But if we can get a child’s brain to process more efficiently, the mechanics of reading become easier, which frees up energy for more complex tasks like comprehension.

The good news is that we can help kids’ brains process more efficiently. Just like we exercise our bodies in the gym or on the track to build physical fitness, we can build brain fitness through targeted exercises that adapt to our abilities. If you have a child struggling with reading comprehension or other learning challenges, visit our Web site at or call (800) 792-4809 to learn how developing foundational cognitive skills can help your child successfully make the transition to reading to learn.

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