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Using Fiction Writing Activities to Develop Creative Thinking in the Classroom

Creative thinking

We are always on the lookout for more effective ways of teaching creativity in the classroom. With much attention on the decreasing status of the United States in the world economy, the need for a stronger creative class, and the realization that the next generation of professionals and leaders will have to be more innovative than ever to solve the world’s problems, educators need more ways to teach children the ability to engage in creative thinking.

In the classroom, so much of what we do focuses on teaching our students to recognize and repeat patterns. Mathematical functions follow patterns. Letters and languages represent graphical and sound patterns that have meaning because of their repetition.

Creativity, on the other hand, is the breaking of patterns. In the creative act, the mind proceeds to a place where there is no existing path to follow, building something new where there was nothing before.

So therein lies our problem: if teaching strengthens the mind’s ability to recognize patterns of meaning, how do we teach creativity – an act that by its very nature breaks with patterns?

The neuroscience research behind brain plasticity has shown us how the brain responds to stimuli by forming neural pathways, and that the brain constantly changes, much like a landscape changes under the influence of the forces of water and wind. The brain adapts in order to more efficiently recognize and make use of the information and patterns that make up the world in which we live.

The answer: we need to teach the patterns that support creative thinking. Writing fiction and storytelling offer immense power and potential for us to help our students learn to break their patterns of thinking and develop these creative habits of mind.

Creative idea generation is not easy; in fact, it can be quite intimidating for a great many youngsters, not to mention adults. Our goal should be to help our students let go of their inhibitions and become comfortable with – or even better, excited about – undertaking creative challenges.

From a practical standpoint, we have access to endless activities to spur our students on to cultivate their creativity through writing fiction. These are just three of them:
 

  • Ask students to develop a “what if” question and then answer it with a story. That simple act of creating their “what if” question forces the mind to go to a place it has never been before, and in writing the story, they get to spin out that idea as far as it will go.
    Example: “What if mice could read minds?” or “What if we could send a spaceship to a black hole?”
  • Give each student a character from one well-known story, place that character in the context of another well-known story, and ask them to write about what happens. Example: “The giant climbs down the beanstalk and meets three little pigs. What happens next?”
  • Ask each student to select one item they would want with them if they were stranded on a desert island. Then, ask them to write a story about how they got to the island and how that item ensured their survival. Example: “I would want a small folding knife. When I fell off the ship during a storm, I had had it in my pocket because I had been carving a stick on the deck. Luckily, it didn’t fall out of my pocket when I hit the water…”

While it offers a higher level of challenge, I’d like to offer one final exercise to consider adapting for your students: the six word short story. Perhaps the most famous example is Ernest Hemingway’s story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” This kind of poetic and conceptual challenge forces students to combine creative thinking with a laser-focus on word choice.

For younger students, this can be adapted by asking students to write their own six-word versions of well-known stories and fables. More advanced students can be given the freedom to come up with their own stories.

While these fiction writing activities are primarily for elementary school students, they can all be adapted for adolescents and, especially in the case of the six-word exercise, adult learners.

But notice that each of these examples puts some limits around the creative process. This is the key to fostering creative thinking: through focusing each student’s effort into a tightly formulated creative problem, they are then freed to develop and follow their ideas to conclusion.

In such fictional writing, students learn that they have the power to break patterns of thinking and develop their own creative ways to think through problems, skills that will serve them well as they grow and mature into tomorrow’s creative thinkers and leaders.

In my own six words? Your instruction focused, their creativity unleashed.

For resources on teaching fiction writing, visit the National Writing Project and their resources for teaching fiction writing and Creative Writing: Teaching Theory and Practice.

Related Reading:

Teaching and Learning with Intent through Guided Reading Activities

The Great Homework Debate: Is Homework Helpful or Harmful to Students?

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10 Big Benefits of Using iPads in Schools

iPads in schools

Got an iPad yet?  School leaders say it’s not just a cool toy, but rather a powerful, versatile tool that is virtually changing the face of education.  With more than 15,000 “educational apps” available through Apple’s app store, teachers and students alike are having no trouble finding content and material for all areas of learning. 

From kindergarten through college, iPads offer educators more diverse methods for delivering instruction and engaging students for learning in the 21st century.  Here are 10 big benefits of using iPads in schools:

  1. Tablets fit students’ lifestyles – The appeal of using iPads in school is obvious and students find them easier to use than traditional computers.  This novelty leads to learning and when schools don’t implement what has now become “everyday technology”, we’re doing students a disservice. Besides, who wants to carry a backpack full of books?
  2. Classrooms are ready for the iPad – Tablets are fully compatible with online teaching and learning platforms which can be easily integrated into the everyday classroom.  Some of the most innovative instructional software is being developed specifically for tablets, and teachers and students alike are more comfortable using them.
  3. Students can run the helpdesk – Not only are kids eager to embrace new technology but many can troubleshoot and resolve computer issues faster than adults.  With many districts experiencing cutbacks in IT staffing, it’s a natural fit for students to handle many of the basic questions to assist in routine triage and problem solving.  And, there’s an app for that.  Check out the SchoolObject:helpdesk by Eduphoria in the App store!
  4. Collaborative content creation – Never before has it been easier to create and share content with others.  The touch interface of iPad revolutionizes the way we interact with computers, making it easier to leverage database and social networking technology, like wikis, to promote collaboration and communication for enhanced learning.
  5. Mobile data collection – From the science classroom to the gymnasium, students are now recording observations in the lab and on the court.  Today’s teachers can more easily integrate instruction in cross-curricular lessons, for example, when students studying physiology measure their heart and breathing rates during exercise and apply it to their cellular respiration lab.
  6. Tablets integrate with IT trends – With tablets and cloud-based computing systems, students can work from anywhere on campus with greater portability and connectivity.  Schools also don’t have to pay for computing power that they no longer need.
  7. iPads make mobile computing labs easier (and lighter) – Many schools utilize carts of laptops to bring technology into the classroom.  When you compare the cost, size and mobility factor, tablets win.
  8. Paperless innovation - School districts have found creative ways to use iPads to save money.  From homework and tests to digital textbooks, the iPad offers numerous ways to eliminate paper, saving dollars and the environment.
  9. No more missing the bus - Even if a child doesn’t ride a bus to school, chances are they’ll take one for a field trip.  When bus drivers are equipped with an iPad they can easily monitor when children enter and leave the bus, noting time and location, and ensuring everyone is safely accounted for.
  10. Virtual tour guide – iPads offer students an exciting way to experience field trip destinations.  From the aquarium to the zoo, children receive enrichment through interactive maps and exhibit-specific content.  And don’t forget to order your souvenirs--they’ll be ready for pickup on your way out.

Related Reading: 

Teaching Creativity in the Classroom

Building Unstructured Play into the Structure of Each Day

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Fast ForWord® Language Series Has Greatest Impact of Any Intervention Listed by NCRTI

NCRTI

Educators and families who are looking for appropriate learning interventions for students often turn to The Instructional Intervention Tools Chart from the National Center on Response to Intervention (NCRTI).  Now, the Fast ForWord® Language series has been added to the chart, with the NCRTI evaluations of research on the series supporting the claim that the products have high-quality studies, demonstrating their effectiveness when used for Response to Intervention (RtI).

The effectiveness of the Fast ForWord Language series is evident from the “effect size” found by the NCRTI. Effect size is a statistical way to measure the magnitude of the effect of an intervention.  Of the three studies on the Fast ForWord Language series that have been evaluated by the NCRTI, one showed a medium effect size and the other two showed a large effect size. In fact, two of the three Scientific Learning studies were ranked as having the highest scores in effect size, showing that the Fast ForWord Language Series had the greatest impact and the largest positive effect of any intervention listed by the NCRTI.  These evaluations of research on the Fast ForWord Language series validate the quality of the studies behind the products, demonstrating their effectiveness when used for RtI.

The impact identified in the NCRTI evaluations holds up in real-world implementations, as well.  For example, one district used the Fast ForWord program as its only intervention for kindergarteners during the 2009-2010 school year, to see what kind of difference the program could make when used as the sole intervention for participating students.  Westerly Public Schools in southern Rhode Island identified kindergarten students who scored at the deficient or very deficient levels in letter sound fluency and letter naming fluency on the AIMSweb benchmark, and placed these students into the Fast ForWord program, with no other interventions.

After using the Fast ForWord program, test scores for the participating students rose substantially, and many were able to move off of the personal literacy plans they had been placed on as struggling elementary students.  Because only the Fast ForWord program was used, the district was able to determine that these effects were due to the students’ participation in the program.  And because the students didn’t need as many interventions, the district also saved money.

The NCRTI is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). The center partners with researchers from Vanderbilt University and the University of Kansas to build the capacity of states to assist districts in implementing proven models for RTI.

Visit http://rti4success.org/instructionTools to see Scientific Learning’s listings on the NCRTI’s “Instructional Intervention Tools Chart.”

Watch the video on “effect size” and the NCRTI evaluation of the Fast ForWord Language series products.

Related Reading:

Results from a “Gold Standard Study” Show Significant Student Gains in Language and Literacy Skills

Intensive Intervention Tier 3: What Leads to the Need?

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Neural Prostheses: The Melding of Hardware, Software and Wetware

Neural prosthetics

Earlier this year, I wrote about a researcher named Dr. Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University Medical Center and his work with a monkey named Aurora. Through placing implants in Aurora’s skull, Nicolelis was able to record Aurora’s motor nerve signals as she used a joystick to play a simple video game. He then used a computer algorithm to convert those signals into code to power a robotic arm. Over time, because of her brain’s ability to adapt and learn, Aurora taught herself how to control the movements of that robotic arm by just thinking about it.

What we see in Nicolelis’s work is the complex interplay of three different elements of a neural prosthetic system: hardware, software, and what has been come to be known as “wetware.”

  • Hardware refers to the machine part of the system. This consists of the wires, computers, circuits, implants and manufactured devices that comprise the system.
  • Software refers to the set of instructions, data and algorithms – in other words, the set of rules – that govern the function and operation of the hardware.
  • Wetware refers to the combination of biological elements involved in the system, generally including muscles, hormones, nerves and the brain.

Through choreographing the delicate dance between these three systemic elements, biomedical professionals are becoming more able to develop neural prosthetics that continue to improve the quality of life for any number of disabilities, substituting motor, sensory or cognitive capabilities that have been damaged as a result of injury or disease.

Today, biomedical research has given rise to any number of neural prostheses. Visual prosthetics stimulate the optic nerve to counter certain types of blindness. Spinal cord stimulators induce sensations to mask and control pain. Pacemakers work with the muscle and nerves of the heart to monitor and regulate the heartbeat and control fibrillation.

One of the most common applications of the neural prosthesis concept is in the cochlear implant. Dr. Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus and neuroscientist, was the Principal Investigator back during the development of the first cochlear implants at the University of California, San Francisco. The work showed that in as little as six months, patients were able to develop remarkable speech discrimination abilities. It was found that speech discrimination abilities improved over time due to the brain’s plastic ability to change and adapt to these new inputs.

According to the NIH’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders, over 59,000 adults and children have cochlear implants. Just like Aurora’s robotic arm, a cochlear implant involves the integration of hardware, software and wetware. But instead of using motor neurons to articulate robotic fingers, cochlear implants form the technological bridge between the world of sound and the ability to perceive that sound in someone whose ears cannot convert sound vibrations to a nerve impulse. While the ones we developed had a single channel, today’s devices have up to 120, which allows for better input fidelity through stimulating different parts of the auditory nerve.

Of the three elements of the neural prosthetic system, hardware, software and wetware, the only one of them that can be expected – even depended upon – to change over time is the wetware. Both because of normal development and brain plasticity, an individual’s ability to effectively use neural prosthetic will naturally change over time as the individual’s own nervous system adapts to make better use of the hardware and software.

As Dr. Nicolelis demonstrated with Aurora, wetware is an amazingly malleable apparatus. We might imagine these neural prosthetic systems as fantastically complex in terms of their hardware and software. That said, research out of the University of Washington, Seattle, has suggested that, because of brain plasticity, we may be able to use simpler algorithms in the external hardware and software, and depend upon the plasticity of the wetware to make optimal use of these devices.

In the end, we as humans, with our drive to heal and discover, seem to have a limitless ability to develop innovations to remedy our physical ills. And yet, it is the plasticity of our nervous system’s innate ability to adapt that will apparently allow us to make the most of these innovations.

For further reading:

Fallon, J. B., Irvine, D. Shepherd, R. Neural Prostheses and Brain Plasticity. J Neural Eng. 2009 December.

Moritz, C. T., Perlmutter, S. I., Ftez, E. E. Direct Control of Paralysed Muscles by Cortical Neurons. Nature. 2008 December.

Related Reading:

A Gymnast, A Cursor, and A Monkey Named Aurora

Dr. Martha Burns on Brain Plasticity

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My Son Announced He Was Dropping Out of High School: Mary’s Story

This post is the fourth in a series aimed at sharing the success stories, both personal and professional, that Scientific Learning employees witness every day.

Mary’s Story:

I was hired at Scientific Learning in 2007 to educate people about the products as an Account Manager in the Midwest.  At the same time that I got the phone call to find out if I had interest in talking to Scientific Learning, our ninth grade son announced to us that he was not going to high school and he was going to drop out.  It took my breath away. Both his father and I have been educators for many years and we both hold advanced degrees. 

I said, “Todd, you have to go to high school,” and he said, “But I don’t want to go.” I said, “But you have to,” and he asked, “Well, what would happen if I didn’t go?” I said, “It’s the law, Todd.” Then he said, “I can’t read.  I can’t keep up with it.  You guys have done everything for me that is possible but I can’t read.  I can’t read at grade level.”

I called my son’s teacher (we convinced him to go to school) and I said, “Here’s the carrot.  My son doesn’t have to do any homework until he finishes this product.  This is his homework at night.”  And every night he came home and did Fast ForWord

And what he did is committed to doing 90 minutes a day and he was done is less than 4 weeks, and he did the post test and when I looked up the score my son had gone from seventh grade, one month reading level to tenth grade, two months reading level. He was a year above grade level and for the very first time in his life he said, “I love to read.”

All I can say is thank you to all the scientists that did all the work to bring this product to not only my son but to the parents and kids out there in America who need it so desperately.

Related Reading:

Language Skills Increase 1.8 Years After 30 Days Using Fast ForWord

Implementation Fidelity: Maximizing Your Fast ForWord® or Reading Assistant™ Investment

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The Great Homework Debate: Is Homework Helpful or Harmful to Students?

Homework debate

Sometimes, I feel as if I have been doing homework my entire life.  As a child growing up, I moved from worksheets, dioramas and book reports to essays, major projects and term papers.  When I began teaching, I had lessons to prepare and my students’ homework became my homework for grading.  (And, on occasion, it was quite obvious that I was putting a bit more effort into MY homework than they put into theirs!)  As my children reached school age, “Mom’s rules” on homework included:  homework comes first, don’t wait until the last minute on a project, etc.  But somehow their homework still bled over into my life…

So, how important is this icon of education?  Is homework helpful or harmful?  Is it something that, as many students claim, just eats up their time and energy for no real purpose?  Do we, as educators, need new practices that move away from homework or are we simply afraid to change, stuck on those famous eight words, “But, we’ve never done it that way before…”?

In support of the view of homework as helpful, many educators stress that specifically aligning homework to the learning task is part of the strategy for building understanding.  The website Focus on Effectiveness cites several studies showing that in elementary school, homework helps build learning and study habits (Cooper, 1989; Cooper, Lindsay, Nye, & Greathouse, 1998; Gorges & Elliot, 1999).  Also noted is the point that 30 minutes of daily homework in high school can increase a student’s GPA up to half a point (Keith 1992).  Many students need time and experience to develop the study habits that support learning, and homework can provide that as well as the ability to cope with mistakes and difficulty (Bempechat, 2004).  Those teachers who take the time to add instructive comments to their feedback to homework get the greatest return on their efforts in after-school work. (Walberg, 1999).

But what about the students who are doing it wrong and then have to “unlearn” incorrect information?  When considering the view that homework is harmful, author and speaker Alfie Kohn states that there is no real evidence showing homework to be beneficial to elementary students.  In an EdWeek article, he writes that he found no correlation between homework and improved standardized assessment scores.  Regarding secondary students, Kohn said that there is a slight correlation between homework and improved test scores and grades but there is no evidence that the improvement is because of homework rather than other activities.  Stating that there is no proof that homework benefits students in other ways such as good study habits, independence or self discipline, Kohn could find no disadvantage to reducing or even eliminating homework altogether but finds the homework trend continues to grow. 

So, what is the answer – is homework helpful or harmful?  Do we continue current practices or throw homework out altogether? 

A balanced perspective most likely is the best response.  Time spent on homework should align with the student’s age – a short time spent in elementary school, up to 90 minutes for middle school or junior high aged students and between 1½ and 2 ½ hours per night (not per subject!) in high school (Harris, 2006). Another suggestion is to multiply the student’s grade by ten to determine the appropriate number of minutes of homework per night (example – a fifth grader should have no more than 50 minutes of homework per night). If we want the best results, we’ll keep homework time within these time ranges with allowances made for individual needs of students and families. 

Key takeaways:

  1. Remember the main purposes of homework:  to build rote memorization and automaticity; to provide time to deepen understanding though elaboration and to increase readiness for new information.
  2. Assign homework that includes very few concepts so students can learn them on a deeper level (Healy, 1990).
  3. Match homework to the learning goal for a more focused learning experience.
  4. Provide appropriate and timely feedback.  Students need to know what was correct, what needs to be changed, etc., and they need this information sooner rather than later.  Waiting several days or even weeks to provide feedback limits or even eliminates the effectiveness of the assignment.
  5. Parental involvement should be limited to facilitating the completion of homework – not teaching content or doing the work for a child.   Parents who get too involved in an assignment inhibit rather than enhance learning.

Homework and Practice. (n.d.) Retrieved September 7, 2011, from http://www.netc.org/focus/strategies/home.php

Cooper, H. (2006). Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? Retrieved September 7, 2011, from http://today.duke.edu/2006/09/homework_oped.html

Kohn, A. (2006). The Truth About Homework: Needless Assignments Persist Because of Widespread Misconceptions About Learning. Retrieved September 7, 2011, from http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/edweek/homework.htm

Related Reading:

Students who Struggle in the Mainstream: What their Homework Patterns May Tell You

Building a Foundation for School Readiness for Low Income Children 

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Improving Auditory Processing in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Summary:  A recent study by Nicole Russo of Northwestern University and her colleagues, published in Behavioral and Brain Functions in 2010, evaluates whether auditory training programs such as Fast ForWord® can alleviate the auditory processing deficits so frequently seen in ASD children.

Russo’s study examines how effectively Fast ForWord could strengthen the auditory processing of speech sounds in similar ASD children. Her team hypothesized that such training would modify the neural processing of sound in children with ASD, and that such children “would show improvement in the neural encoding of speech syllables, including faster response timing, greater fidelity of the response relative to the stimulus, and more accurate pitch encoding over time.” (p. 3)

Results showed that training appeared to have benefited all participants in the experimental group, affecting their neural transcription of speech. According to Russo and her team, “each of the five children who underwent FFW training improved on at least one measure of cortical speech processing relative to the control group, with response timing improving in both quiet and noise for some children.” (p. 13)

Russo and her team were able to conclude that directed auditory training using Fast ForWord shows great promise for improving auditory processing in children with ASD – specifically, those high-functioning children who have hearing in the typical range. 

 

Content:  This study was published in Behavioral and Brain Functions in 2010 and was done at Northwestern University by Dr. Nicole Russo and her colleagues.   It evaluates whether auditory training programs, such as Fast ForWord, can alleviate the auditory processing deficits so frequently seen in children with autism spectrum disorders. Children with autism spectrum disorders or ASD demonstrate impairments in their use of language for social and communicative purposes.  These impairments are typically apparent prior to three years of age.

There is emerging evidence that the neural encoding of speech sounds may be impaired in some children with autism spectrum disorders leading to atypical auditory brainstem responses to speech sounds and difficulties processing speech-specific stimuli such as detecting speech in background noise. 

Since the Fast ForWord products provide auditory training including listening and sound-sequencing exercises, as well as exercises on auditory attention, auditory discrimination, phoneme discrimination, and memory, Dr Russo and her colleagues were interested in investigating the impact of the products on children with ASD.

High-functioning children with ASD who had participated in an earlier study were invited to partake in this one.   The children all had a formal diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.  They had typical peripheral hearing, average mental abilities and average or near-average language scores.

Eleven boys with an average age of 9.2 completed the entire testing protocol and met the criteria.   The children were then given the option of taking part in the intensive auditory training. Five children opted for the training and formed the experimental group.  The other six children who opted not to take part in the training were willing to take part in the post-test and formed the control group. There was not a significant difference between the two groups in terms of age, IQ, or language ability.

Students in the experimental group used the intense intervention: the Fast ForWord Language Series which entailed the Fast ForWord Language product for an average for 20 days followed by Fast ForWord Language to Reading for an average of 32 days.

Auditory brainstem responses (ABRs) and Event-Related Potentials (ERP’s) were recorded from both groups.  These tests measure the size and the timing of electrical activity that occurs in the brainstem and brain in response to a sound.  In this case, the sounds were synthesized vowels that were heard in the presence of background noise, as well as in quiet.  Auditory brainstem responses are subcortical events occurring less than 10 ms after the stimuli is presented while  event-related potentials are cortical events occurring a few hundred milliseconds after the stimuli is presented.  Both ABR’s and ERP’s measure the aggregate response of neurons and neither requires active involvement by the participant. 

Due to the small number of participants, and the variations between them, the analysis involved defining a “typical change” as the average change for students in the control group plus one standard deviation, and defining a “significant change” for one of the participants as a change that was more than the control’s change plus one standard deviation. 

The researchers were particularly interested in subjects that had two or more measures with significant change.  All five students improved more than one standard deviation on at least two tests. The researchers concluded that there is Initial evidence that directed auditory training may improve auditory processing in a specific population of children with ASD – specifically high-functioning children with ASD who have hearing in the typical range.

They also concluded that computer-based training may benefit some children with ASD by acting on biological processes.

Read the complete report on this research at the link below:

Nicole M Russo, N., Hornickel, J., Nicol, T. Zeckler, S. Kraus, N. Biological changes in auditory function following training in children with autism spectrum disorders. Behavioral and Brain Functions 2010, 6:60.

Related Reading:

Understanding Autism in Children

Language Skills Increase 1.8 Years After 30 Days Using Fast ForWord

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Brain Research, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning, Scientific Learning Research

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My Nephew Was A Struggling Learner (Not Anymore!): Carrie’s Story

This post is the third in a series aimed at sharing the success stories, both personal and professional, that Scientific Learning employees witness every day.

Carrie's Story:

My name is Carrie. I'm a Marketing Specialist with Scientific Learning, and I have a story about Fast ForWord with my nephew, Izaak.  Back in 2006, he went to kindergarten for his first year.  At the end of kindergarten, his teacher told my brother and sister-in-law that although he had a beautiful smile and that beautiful smile could get him through the third grade, it wouldn’t get him past the third grade. 

He started with the Fast ForWord Language Basics program.  It took him five days to get through the product and then he went in to Fast ForWord Language.  Three or four days into Language Basics for Izaak, he was able to have a complete conversation with my brother and sister-in-law and my brother was just amazed that Izaak was able to actually have a conversation as opposed to short answers or short sentences. 

He got through the Language program.  He got back into kindergarten for his second year in the fall of 2006 and today he is at the top of his class.  It’s just very, very exciting to know that these products are life changing and they can make such a difference, and I am very grateful to all the founders and the people that have made the software what it is today so that kids all over the US and the world can…have their lives changed forever.

Related Reading:

Jolene’s Story: “I Saw Tremendous Change”

Leigh Ann’s Story: Making a Difference in Children’s Lives

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Categories: Family Focus, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning

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Separating Brain Fact from Brain Fiction: Debunking a Few Neuroscience Myths

Brain and neuroscience myths

The brain is one of the most mysterious and misunderstood organs in the body. It represents the seat of our judgment, our senses, perceptions and our creativity.  More than any other aspect of our anatomy, the uniqueness of our brains is at the core of what makes us truly human.

While neuroscience advances every day, there are a number of myths about the brain that are accepted by many people as fact. As a scientist, I and my colleagues have worked to uncover the brain’s truths.  So what are some of these myths – and what are the true stories behind them to the best of our scientific knowledge?

Fiction: We use only a small percentage of our brains.

Fact: General thinking is that we use only about 10% of our brains. Nothing could be further from the truth. Brain scans such as MRI and PET scans show that we regularly use all parts of our brains. Certainly, different areas of the brain are activated during different types of tasks, and some parts of the brain are less critical to support vital functions than others. But as even small brain injuries can show, every part of the brain performs essential functions in how we process, communicate with, and move through the world around us. Read more at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=do-we-really-use-only-10.

Fiction: The wrinkles on the surface of the brain appear and become more pronounced as we learn.

Fact: The ridges and crannies – more correctly, the gyri and sulci – on the surface of the brain actually all appear by the time a fetus is 40 weeks old. As the human brain evolved, gyri and sulci appeared as a result of the brain having to fold in upon itself as it grew larger to fit inside a correctly proportioned skull. While the gyri and sulci do not change as we learn, the brain itself – as we know from research in brain plasticity --  does continue to change throughout our lives.

Fiction: Brain damage is permanent.

This is an interesting myth, in that it is the result of ambiguous language. The brain is made up of a collection of neurons – brain cells – that are all networked together. When the brain suffers trauma and neurons are destroyed or damaged, those neurons cannot regenerate. In that sense, the damage to them is permanent. That said, those neurons are linked together at synapses to form complete networks. While a single neuron cannot be repaired, the pathways and connections throughout the brain can rewire themselves and form new pathways. If a connection is lost due to injury, we can reestablish that connection if the damage is not so acute that the entire network cannot be rewired. For a scholarly treatment of how the brain recovers from injury, see http://web.uvic.ca/~skelton/Teaching/General%20Readings/Robertson%20Murre%201999.pdf.

Fiction: A person is either “left-brained” or “right-brained.”

The theory goes that left-brained people are more logical and right-brained people are more creative. Certainly there are asymmetries associated with locations of certain brain functions. For example, mathematical computation and the grammar and vocabulary aspects of language seem to be controlled in most people in the left brain, while numerical approximation and comparison, along with interpretive aspects of language like prosody and intonation, appear to be controlled in the right.  These ideas date back to original research done in 1861 by French physician Pierre Paul Broca. Today, through MRI and PET imaging techniques, we have a much more complex view of the way the brain’s hemispheres control functions and interact with one another. The two perform a complex dance of information exchange that gives rise to our abilities. For a look at results of some of these MRI tests in children, see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8780075.

Fiction: There are five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch.

These five are simply the ones that we are most aware of in our conscious minds, but we perceive and sense the world in a great many other ways. For example, “proprioconception” describes how our bodies are oriented in the world. “Nociception” is how we perceive pain. We sense changes in temperature. We sense balance. We feel thirst and hunger. We sense the passage of time. For a quick and easy description of the senses – in humans as well as other species – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sense.

As scientists continue our search for the facts, there is much we don’t know; we are expanding our knowledge of the brain’s truths every day. As new discoveries are made, it is natural for facts to become distorted and reinterpreted with each new telling.   As educators and scientists, we should take the time to explain the truths about the brain and rectify any misunderstandings we may hear others repeat. The brain is amazing, and communicating the truths about it will further society’s understanding as a whole.

Related Reading:

Dr. Martha Burns on Brain Plasticity

How Learning to Read Improves Brain Function

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