ScienceMasterIf it's your job to develop the mind,
shouldn't you know how the brain works?
What Everyone Should Know About the Latest Brain Research
- Written by Kenneth Wesson Kenneth Wesson
- Published: 19 March 2003 19 March 2003
We all regularly demand "body compatible" chairs that match our body contours comfortably and hand-compatible tools for our work. Why then, don't we also insist on "brain-compatible schools" for our children? Taking advantage of the vast knowledge reservoir from neuroscience will surely advance parenting and education in the 21st Century.
If it's our job as parents and educators to develop young minds, shouldn't we know how the brain works? The human brain is the best organized, most flexible, and highest functioning object in the known universe. We ask, "How is it that collective actions inside a three pound, 2-millimeter thick organ composed of over one trillion brain cells, 100 billion of them neurons, with vast ensembles of neural circuits numbering in the hundreds of millions, intricate wide-area networks crisscrossing the brain, with a large number of strangely shaped sub-cortical structures housed just beneath the cerebral cortex, all work together giving rise to children who learn, walk, talk, think, memorize, invent wild stories, do long division, and develop an astounding catalogue of other phenomenal and uniquely human capabilities?"
If we want our schools to be successful learning institutions, it is essential that both parents and educators become keenly aware of the best information and that they are regularly using that very same information. Attending the annual "Back to School Night" is hardly sufficient, if we want students and schools to succeed. Our best efforts need to be aligned and based on the very best information in brain research or significant progress in education will continue to elude us. Otherwise, staff development targeting school faculty members exclusively will unwittingly lead to a situation comparable to marriage counseling designed for husbands only. That experience is doomed to failure.
No future conversation about learning should ever take place unless the human brain is the centerpiece of that discussion. A clear understanding of the brain's development, functions and processing strategies should be the first area of study for all parents and educators worldwide.
If you are a parent or educator, you should be aware of these important brain facts:
1. In a developing human fetus, brain cell production reaches a peak production period during which brain cells are produced at the amazing rate of over 250,000 every minute. Once born, life's experiences sculpt a child's brain. Experience determines how much, in what regions, and even when, if, and where development will take place in the brain. As new learning occurs, neurons respond by reaching out to one another in an elaborate branching process that connects millions of previously unaligned cells into neural networks creating "magic trees," as UC Berkeley's Marian Diamond refers to the dense newly formed "neural forests" that are produced. The number of neural pathways inside the brain will constantly expand or contract based on the quantity and the richness of our experiences.
A child's brain has twice as many neural circuits as an adult's brain. This overpopulation of neural matter guarantees that the young brain will be capable of adapting to virtually any environment into which a child is born.
When new learning occurs, it literally changes the very architecture of the human brain. (Reading this information is changing your brain as you mentally process these words). In recent research headed by Yale University's Sally Shaywitz, a team of scientists is even tracking the physical changes taking place in the brain that occur in children both before and after they learn how to read.
2. Healthy brain cells will perish (they get unceremoniously "pruned away") or "reassigned" to another function if they fail to find a job to perform during the critical periods of a child's developmental years. There is no "neuronal welfare." For instance, if a child does not hear human language by the age of nine or ten, he will encounter enormous difficulty in learning to speak any language at any subsequent time, if he learns to speak at all. Correspondingly, the lack of visual stimuli "turning on" the brain cells for vision during infancy can rob a healthy eye of its ability to see. Only those brain cells in the visual cortex with linkages to the active visual pathways are allowed to survive the ongoing "pruning down" and "linking up" processes.
3. There is no single place in the brain where pictures are stored for later recall. Instead, when any "picture" enters the brain during the active processing of seeing, the first thing the brain does with this incoming sensory information is to "deconstruct" it. Each element is sent to a different part of the brain for processing. Color goes to one place, movement is processed in another, shape goes elsewhere to be dissected, line orientation is sent to still another region of the cerebral cortex, and so on, all for a completely different form of processing.
The "pieces" or elements of the object that is in view later get recombined after being successfully "matched" with comparable elements, patterns, or traits recognized from previous experiences and stored along the well-established neural networks. At this point, the search is deemed complete. If that same deconstruction process and the subsequent search for recognition end with no match being found, then considerable confusion or persistent questions are the final conclusion.
The brain is a "pattern-detecting device," aggressively searching for those patterns which will help give meaning to new or incoming stimuli. If the feedback from this "deconstruction and matching" loop has identified no discernible match with elements composing an existing neural network, the incoming information will likely be discarded or it will become part of a dormant record to assist in a similar analysis at a later time. The brain in essence says, "That was interesting, but it also seemed quite irrelevant."
4. Greater brain stimulation promotes an increase in the number of dendrites ("little trees") connecting the billions of cells in the brain. Neurons sprout and re-sprout new dendrites connecting more and more brain cells throughout one's life giving all of us the neuro-physiological wherewithal to learn throughout our entire lifetime.
Multisensory experiences further extend these plentiful and precious connections throughout the entire cerebral cortex and they form additional links with other sub-cortical structures inside the brain. Conversely, reducing the quantity and/or quality of experiences and learning opportunities diminishes the brain's neural pathways permanently decreasing one's ability to learn. However, the human brain is capable of creating trillions of interrelated neural networks rendering our capacity to learn virtually limitless, if the proper foundations are laid early in life during the critical periods of the developing brain.
New neural connections are created as a result of incoming information from at least 19 sensory systems (there are not just five senses). However, within approximately 18 seconds the brain makes a functional determination regarding whether or not to lay down a memory trace for new information. The attentional mechanisms in the brain function primarily based on an orientation for survival. If an object threatens our survival, then it is important enough to warrant our attention. If, on the other hand, the same object or situation helps us feel good, then that too is worthy of our attention. However, the "good, bad, and the ugly" are stored along a completely different neural circuits. If the brain does not get the message that, "This is important. We'd better remember this", the full experience can degenerate and the pathway disintegrates.
Just as the lack of visual stimuli will prevent a healthy eye from seeing, a child reared in an emotionally destructive environment will experience "psychosocial dwarfism" where his physical growth will be curtailed along with the reduction in his emotional development.
5. While the "power" of a brain can increase in direct relationship to the number of cells composing it, the human brain's capability is best calibrated by the number of connections that develop among its billions of brain cells. Neurons are constantly rearranging their 500 trillion-plus connections (via the dendrites) in response to new information and experiences. UCLA's Arnold Scheibel stated that, "Only when the neuron develops these extensions from itself, does it begin to significantly increase its surface area as a total unit and provide more and more of a ‘landing field' for other incoming neural messages" coming in from active healthy neurons.
6. We know that all human brains start off as "female" brains. Distinct neurological and behavioral differences emerge in the early developmental stages and persist throughout a lifetime. Veteran teachers and parents interacting with children of both genders have stumbled over this realization hundreds of times.
Neurobiological differences appear to be responsible for many of the gender-specific patterns in learning, behavior, and information processing, as well as in those problem solving strategies preferred by young girls compared to boys. Girls and boys learn at different rates and favor divergent methods of learning, during their developing years. Language fluency is one of those critical areas of distinction. Females average approximately 11% more brain cells than males giving them a distinct neurological advantage associated with a permanent edge in language-related abilities. Five years after his birth, a boy who is born prematurely in August is regularly placed into the same Kindergarten classroom as a girl who is born full-term in March. These two classmates will perceive things differently and their academic performances will be sharply different due to their comparative development, particularly in language-based activities. It may take this young boy several years before he is the "neurological equal" to his female counterpart.
We must modify our educational practices to address cultural differences in the new century's school environment, but recent research findings related to gender differences in the brain also deserve consideration in "brain-compatible" classrooms. There are numerous other important adjustments that should be heeded regarding learning style differences, developmentally appropriate content, along with accommodations made for gender differences. Merging our understanding of the latest brain research on gender differences with teaching, assessment, and curriculum planning will do more for both genders than insisting on identical performances by boys and girls in all subject areas and at all learning levels.
7. An enriched learning environment is one that provides a wide range of ways in which students can learn. That ideal environment treats learning as an active enterprise that adapts to learning cycles typified by high levels of focused attention with built-in plans for periodic "downtime." During the psychological downtime, students continue to process information, which is helpful for later recall. This time is best described as opportunities to "reflect and connect". The brain establishes a vast number of neural connections as a result of our learning experiences. However, when there is entirely too much incoming information, the brain cannot transfer the details to the association areas of the cerebral cortex fast enough for processing, feedback, decision-making, and subsequent memory storage. Young learners in particular should not be forced to sit almost motionless for extended periods of time during the school day. The brain needs a steady supply of oxygenated blood, which it gets from physical movement. The traditional classroom in which all students must remain silent, in neat little rows prohibited from moving, listening to a sometimes monotonous voice and seldom allowed to talk, all present requirements that run counter to optimal learning environments in which the human brain learns best. There are three places in our society where we continually insist on lengthy periods of immobility -- prisons, mental hospitals, and schools.
Immobility is incompatible with complex learning experiences. Throughout the world of science, we have observed that a brain is not really necessary for stationary life forms. Trees don't need a brain because they cannot move and do not engage in any form of learning activities. Preventing learning by suppressing, ignoring, or even punishing the brain's natural inclinations to move inhibits learning in all environments designed for human beings at all ages.
8. Chronic stress and fear can lead to the physical destruction of neurons in the hippocampus, a sub-cortical structure that plays an important role in memory formation. Cortisol, is a hormone that activates important brain and body defenses as a response to fear, prolonged tension, or stress. Even low levels of ongoing stress in a classroom can increase learning difficulties (especially with short term memory) for students preventing schools from effectively carrying out their most important mission -- learning.
One's thinking is not at its best when tension has been added to the learning/recall equation. For instance, when we are desperately trying to recall the name of someone who says "Hello" to us, but we cannot remember her name. Later, around 2:00 a.m., when we are asleep, relaxed and the tension of the moment has passed, that name suddenly "comes to us" in a neural "flash," but at a time when there is no urgency and no tension. Of course, the information has no value either at that time. Most importantly, when our brains initiate a neural search for information, the inquiry continues unconsciously and we are completely unaware of the effort. Once the brain is committed to such a research assignment, it will continue its search even though we believe that we have terminated the request for that piece of information. This fact has very important implications in teaching and learning. It highlights the instructional value (for parents and teachers) of posing questions and allowing youngsters time to process and reprocess their answers.
9. In the past, it was assumed that human emotions had no place in the learning process. There was a mutually exclusive choice of being either "intellectual" or "emotional" in our thinking. However, emotions dictate attention. It is biologically impossible to learn something to which the brain has not paid attention. Emotions are now known to be a primary catalyst in the learning process. The two essentially pave the way for successful subsequent learning to take place.
The problem of forgetting, we now realize, is not always a memory problem. It is often the neural consequence of attention-related problems. The brain pays little attention to information that it feels is irrelevant. Young healthy brains are typically on "alert", frequently operating at 225% the energy level of adult brains and processing billions of bits of information per second. So, when we accuse children of not paying attention, we're absolutely wrong. Their active young minds are indeed paying attention. They just aren't paying attention to us! Our ancestors did not survive the past 4 million years by devoting enormous amounts of time and energy to processing information they felt was unimportant or immaterial to their existence. Relevance dictated attention and fostered the survival of mankind. Where there was a high level of emotional importance connected to an event, person, or object, there was a corresponding heightened level of attention that always followed.
10. Increased positive social interactions foster better conditions for both learning and remembering. The release of endorphins, the "feel good" neurotransmitters, can counteract the neurophysiological impact of stress and fear. Favorable social interactions such as an encouraging verbal response or other attentive reactions (compliments, smiles, hugs, etc.) from parents, teachers and others will elevate the level of endorphins and lead to more favorable learning and behavioral outcomes. Young boys spending alarmingly long periods of time at the computer screen, minimizing their social development, are of particular contemporary concern to neuroscientists and educators. When children lack active healthy social encounters with others, we find that the brain does not wire itself properly in the emotional centers. The physical development of the cerebral cortex can be reduced by as much as 20% as a result.
11. Music is good for both the developing young brain and the adult brain. Improvements in mathematical and spatial abilities have been attributed to children who learn to play a musical instrument before the age of eight.
Music at sixty beats per minute (Baroque music, Mozart, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and others) helps to lower blood pressure and aids in relaxing the body's large muscle groups, which allows for a greater amount of blood flow and blood utilization in the human brain. Although the brain is only 2% of the body's weight, it consumes over 20% of the body's energy, nutrients, and oxygen.
Reducing this vital supply of nutrients and energy to the brain limit its ability to function at its optimal levels. The brain requires an excessively large and disproportionate amount of our blood supply. Unlike other organs and muscles, it cannot store energy. Consequently, a pint and a half or blood must flow through the carotid artery (in the neck) and into the brain single every minute.
12. All young children have a viable, fully functioning photographic memory. However, this gift is lost early in school during the early school years. That loss appears to coincide with the onset of formal reading instruction. Remembering the numerous and detailed elements in the physical environment is the coin of the realm in the natural environment. However, the printed word is the chief means of transactions within the world of formal education.
13. "Educated" brains may better protect us against the ravages of Alzheimer's disease in later years.
Human Brain Misconceptions
The 1990s, the "Decade of the Brain," is over, yet there are strong indications that most parents and educators are still operating with a massive collection of misconceptions about how to help produce healthy children. Parenting and teaching can improve by simply understanding the human brain's natural inclinations to learn, understand, and make sense of the world around us.
The extensive efforts to meet the educational needs of an ever-widening student profile have focused on several new educational initiatives (along with some educational "retreads" comprised of the usual list of pedagogical suspects, including "back to basics"). The educational philosophy of the most recent decades has been to piece together new programs to meet the needs of specially targeted groups of youngsters. These new students are unlike those for whom our schools were originally intended (aristocratic, male, wealthy, and Northern European only). Today, the pockets of students who formerly constituted a "minority" are beginning to represent the new majority of learners. They come to our schools with learning backgrounds immensely different than anything we've seen in previous generations.
Our contemporary schools are based on a model that is approximately 140 years old. However, the human brain has been in existence, in varying developmental stages, somewhere in the evolutionary neighborhood of 4.2 million years. Why do we try to force-fit millions of years of brain development into a set of 140 year-old flawed educational practices? It is evident that these practices don't seem to work as well as they supposedly once did. Professor and neuroscientist Renate Caine stated that over the past 50 years, no place in society has changed less than our schools have. With the abundance of information now available from neuroscience, parents and educators are capable of setting the stage for new and exciting learning results in our educational systems and our homes no matter where in the world we happen to be.
Prior to the new brain imaging methodologies that were developed during the 1990s, the human brain was considered a mysterious "black box." The brain was extremely stingy when it came to breaching any of its secrets. We now can gather more information in 20 minutes about an individual by analyzing neural firing patterns that are monitored during specific tasks, than we could in 20 years previously. Today, we have techniques such as PET scans (Positron Emission Tomography) measuring "fuel" uptake in the brain; EEGs (electroencephalography) measuring the electrical patterns of brain waves; MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and fMRI identifying how atomic particles are reacting to different kinds of tissue (the new technique, fast MRI produces, four brain images per second). We can utilize CAT scans, which convert MRI information into a three-dimensional picture and MEG (Magnetoencephalography) which measures the tiny magnetic pulse in neuronal activity, rather than to the electrical signal that is used in EEGs.
With these new navigational tools for brain mapping, neuroscientists are prying that black box open in healthy, alive, alert and talkative subjects, and are no longer restricted to analyses from unresponsive cadavers. Twenty years ago, our conclusions were mostly speculative, unless we were examining the brain's inner terrain while performing an autopsy, where after-the-fact substantiation was completely useless diagnostic data. Today, neuroscientists are regularly discovering specific areas in the brain that seem to be devoted to singular functions. It is our hope that eventually classroom teachers will have access to modified versions of these brain imaging tools giving teachers a significantly clearer picture of the learning events occurring inside the cranial vaults of students during the instruction and even assessment.
Proponents of "brain-based learning" would point to any of the above "brain facts" and agree that their use will allow us to leapfrog past some of the current obstacles to learning. The last two decades offer ample testimony that teaching a rapidly changing student population has yielded some unsatisfactory results. It is quite evident that, even in their best moments, many of our traditional teaching approaches can no longer be stretched to meet the prevailing educational realities found in today's schools.
Cognitive neuroscience alone is not the elusive "silver bullet" we've all searched for over the past century and a half. However, infusing the findings from brain-based research into classroom practices will be significantly more fruitful than anything we've done to date. Parents, teachers, and administrators will, hopefully, develop an appreciable knowledge about the human brain, and invite more formal opportunities to learn about the brain-compatible considerations for homes and schools.
Collectively, we represent the very first group of parents and educators in the history of the world, who are in a position to take advantage of this dazzling new information. The extent to which we put this valuable science to good use hinges largely upon the honest commitment made by those parents and educators who understand and appreciate what is occurring inside the human brain, when it is engaged in that neuroanatomical event we call "learning."
With the new challenges facing us we are asking, "Why not take a fresh new look at these challenges through the lens of the latest brain research and cognitive neuroscience?" By doing so, we can indeed meet the learning needs of nearly all youngsters. Isn't this the stated mission of all of our schools and colleges? Taking advantage of the exciting new knowledge in brain research represents one of the most dramatic ways in which neuroscience can play a major role in our schools and our lives as we begin the 21st Century. Perhaps that partially explains why fifteen Nobel prizes for medicine and physiology were awarded to neuroscientists during the most recent 25-year period!
We are still in the initial stages of this fascinating cerebral journey, although we have discovered more in the past 10 years about the human brain than we had learned in all of our prior human history. By applying new information from neuroscience, all of us are capable of making vast improvements in our classrooms and our homes. Superior macro-outcomes and higher learning results for children of all ages are almost guaranteed in the 21st Century, if we will use what we now know about the human brain!
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Kenneth A. Wesson
Educational Consultant, Neuroscience
1497 Elsman Ct.
San Jose, CA 95120
(408) 323-1498 (office)
(408) 323-1497 (home)