Posts Tagged ‘writing’

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

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.

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