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 Sharpbrains.com 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 NationalGrammarDay.com 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 http://www.beamazinglearning.com or call (800) 792-4809 to learn how developing foundational cognitive skills can help your child successfully make the transition to reading to learn.

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.


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