Brain Studies Suggest Ways to Improve Learning

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by Jason von Stietz - February 6, 2015

Photo Credit: Scientific American


Do brain training games work? Neuroscientists often study the underlying processes involved in learning in hopes of developing interventions to help children with learning difficulties, as well as to booster learning in other children. However, parent’s and educators are often unsure of what interventions to use, as evidence of their effectiveness are often mixed. Gary Stix discussed studies examining learning processes and interventions in a recent article of Scientific American: 


Eight-month-old Lucas Kronmiller has just had the surface of his largely hairless head fitted with a cap of 128 electrodes. A research assistant in front of him is frantically blowing bubbles to entertain him. But Lucas seems calm and content. He has, after all, come here, to the Infancy Studies Laboratory at Rutgers University, repeatedly since he was just four months old, so today is nothing unusual. He—like more than 1,000 other youngsters over the past 15 years—is helping April A. Benasich and her colleagues to find out whether, even at the earliest age, it is possible to ascertain if a child will go on to experience difficulties in language that will prove a burdensome handicap when first entering elementary school.


Benasich is one of a cadre of researchers who have been employing brain-recording techniques to understand the essential processes that underlie learning. The new science of neuroeducation seeks the answers to questions that have always perplexed cognitive psychologists and pedagogues.


How, for instance, does a newborn's ability to process sounds and images relate to the child's capacity to learn letters and words a few years later? What does a youngster's ability for staying mentally focused in preschool mean for later academic success? What can educators do to foster children's social skills—also vital in the classroom? Such studies can complement the wealth of knowledge established by psychological and educational research programs.


They also promise to offer new ideas, grounded in brain science, for making better learners and for preparing babies and toddlers for reading, writing, arithmetic, and survival in the complex social network of nursery school and beyond. Much of this work focuses on the first years of life and the early grades of elementary school because some studies show that the brain is most able to change at that time.


The Aha! Instant

Benasich studies anomalies in the way the brains of the youngest children perceive sound, a cognitive process fundamental to language understanding, which, in turn, forms the basis for reading and writing skills. The former nurse, who later earned two doctorates, focuses on what she calls the aha! instant—an abrupt transition in electrical activity in the brain that signals that something new has been recognized [see “The Aha! Moment,” by Nessa Bryce].


Researchers at Benasich's lab in Newark, N.J., expose Lucas and other infants to tones of a certain frequency and duration. They then record a change in the electrical signals generated in the brain when a different frequency is played. Typically the electroencephalogram (EEG) produces a strong oscillation in response to the change—indicating that the brain essentially says, “Yes, something has changed”; a delay in the response time to the different tones means that the brain has not detected the new sound quickly enough.


The research has found that this pattern of sluggish electrical activity at six months can predict language issues at three to five years of age. Differences in activity that persist during the toddler and preschool years can foretell problems in development of the brain circuitry that processes the rapid transitions occurring during perception of the basic units of speech. If children fail to hear or process components of speech—say, a “da” or a “pa”—quickly enough as toddlers, they may lag in “sounding out” written letters or syllables in their head, which could later impede fluency in reading. These findings offer more rigorous confirmation of other research by Benasich showing that children who encounter early problems in processing these sounds test poorly on psychological tests of language eight or nine years later.


If Benasich and others can diagnose future language problems in infants, they may be able to correct them by exploiting the inherent plasticity of the developing brain—its capacity to change in response to new experiences. They may even be able to improve basic functioning for an infant whose brain is developing normally. “The easiest time to make sure that the brain is getting set up in a way that's optimal for learning may be in the first part of the first year,” she says.


Games, even in the crib, could be one answer. Benasich and her team have devised a game toy that trains a baby to react to a change in tone by turning the head or shifting the eyes (detected with a tracking sensor). When the movement occurs, a video snippet plays, a reward for good effort.


In a study reported in 2014 babies who went through this training detected tiny modulations within the sounds faster and more accurately than did children who only listened passively or had no exposure to the sounds at all. Based on this research, Benasich believes that the game would assist infants impaired in processing these sounds to respond more quickly. She is now working on an interactive game that could train infants to perceive rapid sound sequences.


The Number Sense

Flexing cognitive muscles early on may also help infants tune rudimentary math skills. Stanislas Dehaene, a neuroscientist at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, is a leader in the field of numerical cognition who has tried to develop ways to help children with early math difficulties. Babies have some capability of recognizing numbers from birth. When the skill is not in place from the beginning, Dehaene says, a child may later have difficulty with arithmetic and higher math. Interventions that build this “number sense,” as Dehaene calls it, may help the slow learner avoid years of difficulty in math class.


This line of research contradicts that of famed psychologist Jean Piaget, who contended that the brains of infants are blank slates, or tabula rasa, when it comes to making calculations in the crib. Children, in Piaget's view, have to develop a basic idea of what a number is from years of interacting with blocks, Cheerios or other objects. They eventually learn that when the little oat rings get pushed around a table, the location differs, but the number stays the same.


The neuroscience community has amassed a body of research showing that humans and other animals have a basic numerical sense. Babies, of course, do not spring from the womb performing differential equations in their head. But experiments have found that toddlers will routinely reach for the row of M&Ms that has the most candies. And other research has demonstrated that even infants only a few months old comprehend relative size. If they see five objects being hidden behind a screen and then another five added to the first set, they convey surprise if they see only five when the screen is removed.


Babies also seem to be born with other innate mathematical abilities. Besides being champion estimators, they can also distinguish exact numbers—but only up to the number three or four. Dehaene was instrumental in pinpointing a brain region—a part of the parietal lobe (the intraparietal sulcus)—where numbers and approximate quantities are represented. (Put a hand on the rear portion of the top of your head to locate the parietal lobe.)


The ability to estimate group size, which also exists in dolphins, rats, pigeons, lions and monkeys, is probably an evolutionary hand-me-down that is required to gauge whether your clan should fight or flee in the face of an enemy and to ascertain which tree bears the most fruit for picking. Dehaene, along with linguist Pierre Pica of the National Center for Scientific Research in France and colleagues, discovered more evidence for this instinctive ability through work with the Mundurukú Indians in the Brazilian Amazon, a tribe that has only an elementary lexicon for numbers. Its adult members can tell whether one array of dots is bigger than another, performing the task almost as well as a French control group did, yet most are unable to answer how many objects remain when four objects are removed from a group of six.


This approximation system is a cornerstone on which more sophisticated mathematics is constructed. Any deficit in these innate capacities can spell trouble later. In the early 1990s Dehaene hypothesized that children build on their internal ballpark estimation system for more sophisticated computations as they get older. Indeed, in the years since then, a number of studies have found that impaired functioning of the primitive numerical estimation system in youngsters can predict that a child will perform poorly in arithmetic and standard math achievement tests from the elementary years onward. “We realize now that the learning of a domain such as arithmetic has to be founded on certain core knowledge that is available already in infancy,” Dehaene says.


It turns out that dyscalculia (the computational equivalent of dyslexia), which is marked by a lag in computational skills, affects 3 to 7 percent of children. Dyscalculia has received much less attention from educators than dyslexia has for reading—yet it may be just as crippling. “They earn less, spend less, are more likely to be sick, are more likely to be in trouble with the law, and need more help in school,” notes a review article that appeared in Science in May 2011.


As with language, early intervention may help. Dehaene and his team devised a simple computer game they hope will enhance mathematical ability. Called the Number Race, it exercises these basic abilities in children aged four to eight. In one version, players must choose the larger of two quantities of gold pieces before a computer-controlled opponent steals the biggest pile. The game adapts automatically to the skill of the player, and at the higher levels the child must add or subtract gold before making a comparison to determine the biggest pile. If the child wins, she advances forward a number of steps equal to the gold just won. The first player to get to the last step on the virtual playing board wins.


The open-source software, which has been translated into eight languages, makes no hyperbolic claims about the benefits of brain training. Even so, more than 20,000 teachers have downloaded the software from a government-supported research institute in Finland. Today it is being tested in several controlled studies to see whether it prevents dyscalculia and whether it helps healthy children bolster their basic number sense.


Get Ahold of Yourself


The cognitive foundations of good learning depend heavily on what psychologists call executive function, a term encompassing such cognitive attributes as the ability to be attentive, hold what you have just seen or heard in the mental scratch pad of working memory, and delay gratification. These capabilities may predict success in school and even in the working world. In 1972 a famous experiment at Stanford University—“Here's a marshmallow, and I'll give you another if you don't eat this one until I return”—showed the importance of executive function. Children who could wait, no matter how much they wanted the treat, did better in school and later in life.


In the 21st century experts have warmed to the idea of executive function as a teachable skill. An educational curriculum called Tools of the Mind has had success in some low-income school districts, where children typically do not fare as well academically compared with high-income districts. The program trains children to resist temptations and distractions and to practice tasks designed to enhance working memory and flexible thinking.


In one example of a self-regulation task, a child might tell himself aloud what to do. These techniques are potentially so powerful that in centers of higher learning, economists now contemplate public policy measures to improve self-control as a way to “enhance the physical and financial health of the population and reduce the rate of crime,” remark the authors of a study that appeared in 2011 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.


Findings from neuroscience labs have bolstered that view and have revealed that the tedium of practice to resist metaphorical marshmallows may not be necessary. Music training can work as well. Echoing the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, researchers are finding that assiduous practice of musical instruments may yield a payoff in the classroom—invoking shades of “tiger mom” author Amy Chua, who insisted that her daughters spend endless hours on the violin and piano. Playing an instrument may improve attention, working memory and self-control.


Some of the research providing such findings comes from a group of neuroscientists led by Nina Kraus of Northwestern University. Kraus, head of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory there, grew up with a diverse soundscape at home. Her mother, a classical musician, spoke to the future neuroscientist in her native Italian, and Kraus still plays the piano, guitar and drums. “I love it—it's a big part of my life,” she says, although she considers herself “just a hack musician.”


Kraus has used EEG recordings to measure how the nervous system encodes pitch, timing and timbre of musical compositions—and whether neural changes that result from practicing music improve cognitive faculties. Her lab has found that music training enhances working memory and, perhaps most important, makes students better listeners, allowing them to extract speech from the all-talking-at-once atmosphere that sometimes prevails in the classroom.


Musical training as brain tonic is still in its infancy, and a number of questions remain unanswered about exactly what type of practice enhances executive function: Does it matter whether you play the piano or guitar or whether the music was written by Mozart or the Beatles? Critically, will music classes help students who have learning difficulties or who come from low-income school districts?


But Kraus points to anecdotal evidence suggesting that music training's impact extends even to academic classes. The Harmony Project provides music education to low-income youngsters in Los Angeles. Dozens of students participating in the project have graduated from high school and gone on to college, usually the first in their family to do so.


Kraus has worked with the Harmony Project and published a study in 2014 that showed that children in one of its programs who practiced a musical instrument for two years could process sounds closely linked to reading and language skills better than children who only did so for a year. Kraus is an advocate of the guitar over brain games. “If students have to choose how to spend their time between a computer game that supposedly boosts memory or a musical instrument, there's no question, in my mind, which one is more beneficial for the nervous system,” Kraus says. “If you're trying to copy a guitar lead, you have to keep it in your head and try to reproduce it over and over.”


Hype Alert


As research continues on the brain mechanisms underlying success in the “four Rs,” three traditional ones with regulation of one's impulses as the fourth, many scientists involved with neuroeducation are taking pains to avoid overhyping the interventions they are testing. They are eager to translate their findings into practical assistance for children, but they are also well aware that the research still has a long way to go. They know, too, that teachers and parents are already bombarded by a confusing raft of untested products for enhancing learning and that some highly touted tools have proved disappointing.


In one case in point, a small industry developed several years ago around the idea that just listening to a Mozart sonata could make a baby smarter, a contention that failed to withstand additional scrutiny. Kraus's research suggests that to gain any benefit, you have to actually play an instrument, exercising auditory-processing areas of the brain: the more you practice, the more your abilities to distinguish subtleties in sound develop. Listening alone is not sufficient.


Similarly, even some of the brain-training techniques that claim to have solid scientific proof of their effectiveness have been questioned. A meta-analysis that appeared in the March 2011 issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatryreviewed studies of perhaps the best known of all brain-training methods—software called Fast ForWord, developed by Paula A. Tallal of Rutgers, Michael Merzenich of the University of California, San Francisco, and their colleagues. The analysis found no evidence of effectiveness in helping children with language or reading difficulties. As with the methods used by Benasich, a former postdoctoral fellow with Tallal, the software attempts to improve deficits in the processing of sound that can lead to learning problems. The meta-analysis provoked a sharp rebuttal from Scientific Learning, the maker of the software, which claimed that the selection criteria were too restrictive, that most studies in the analysis were poorly implemented and that the software has been improved since the studies were conducted.


The clichéd refrain—more research is needed—applies broadly to many endeavors in neuroeducation. Dehaene's number game still needs fine adjustments before it receives wide acceptance. One controlled study showed that the game helped children compare numbers, although that achievement did not carry over into better counting or arithmetic skills. A new version is being released that the researchers hope will address these problems. Yet another finding has questioned whether music training improves executive function and thereby enhances intelligence.


In a nascent field, one study often contradicts another, only to be followed by a third that disputes the first two. This zigzag trajectory underlies all of science and at times leads to claims that overreach. In neuroeducation, teachers and parents have sometimes become the victims of advertising for “science-based” software and educational programs. “It's confusing. It's bewildering,” says Deborah Rebhuhn, a math teacher at the Center School, a special-education institution in Highland Park, N.J., that accepts students from public schools statewide. “I don't know which thing to try. And there's not enough evidence to go to the head of the school and say that something works.”


A Preschool Tune-up


Scientists who spend their days mulling over EEG wave forms and complex digital patterns in magnetic resonance imaging realize that they cannot yet offer definitive neuroscience-based prescriptions for improving learning. The work, however, is leading to a vision of what is possible, perhaps for Generation Z or its progeny. Consider the viewpoint of John D. E. Gabrieli, a professor of neuroscience participating in a collaborative program between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a review article in Science in 2009, Gabrieli conjectured that eventually brain-based evaluation methods, combined with traditional testing, family history and perhaps genetic tests, could detect reading problems by age six and allow for intensive early intervention that might eliminate many dyslexia cases among school-aged children.


One study has already found that EEGs in kindergartners predict reading ability in fifth graders better than standard psychological measures. By undergoing brain monitoring combined with standard methods, each child might be evaluated before entering school and, if warranted, be given remedial training based on the findings that are trickling in today from neuroscience labs. If Gabrieli's vision comes to pass, brain science may imbue the notion of individualized education with a whole new meaning—one that involves enhancing the ability to learn even before a child steps foot in the classroom.


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