Learn like a baby

Researchers are working on pills that enable learning by returning brain chemistry to “critical periods” of development, writes Olga Khazan in The Atlantic. Young children with rapidly growing brains can learn new skills more quickly than adults.

The goal is to help people with developmental disorders or brain injury in adulthood.

Modern teens are all thumbs

Today’s teenagers can’t use a hammer, writes Macleans, a Canadian magazine. And that could mean they can’t solve problems.

In Nisku, Alta., John Wright, the technical supervisor at manufacturing company Argus Machines, oversees 12 apprentices in the welding, machinist and millwright trades. Three years ago, he started noticing two tiers of applicants, those with basic mechanical skills and a new crop who, as he says, had no clue what they were doing.

Those who grew up on farms could figure out repairs — and show up on time.  The rest “couldn’t grasp basic nuts-and-bolts mechanics, they couldn’t solve simple problems.”

Occupational therapist Stacy Kramer, clinical director at Toronto’s Hand Skills for Children, says parents don’t put babies on the ground as much, so they do less crawling and don’t develop their hand control.

Then comes the litany of push-button toy gadgets, which don’t exercise the whole hand. That leads to difficulty developing skills that require a more intricate coordination between the hand and brain, like holding a pencil or using scissors, which kindergarten teachers complain more students can’t do. “We see 13-year-olds who can’t do up buttons or tie laces,” she says. “Parents just avoid it by buying Velcro and T-shirts.” Items that—not incidentally—chimpanzees could put on.

Hand development is linked to brain development, neurologists say.

So what happens if that all-important hand-brain conversation gets shortchanged at a young age?

“We don’t really know,” says neurologist Dr. Frank Wilson, author of The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language and Human Culture.

Can exercise build bigger brains?

Can Exercise Make Kids Smarter? Several recent experiments link aerobic exercise with brain development, reports the New York Times.

In a University of Illinois experiment involving  nine- and 10-year-old students, the fittest children, as measured by a treadmill test, performed best on cognitive challenges; MRIs showed “significantly larger basal ganglia, a key part of the brain that aids in maintaining attention and executive control.”

Since both groups of children had similar socioeconomic backgrounds, body mass index and other variables, the researchers concluded that being fit had enlarged that portion of their brains.

A second Illinois study focused on complex memory, which is associated with activity in the hippocampus. The fittest children had larger hippocampi than the least-fit children.

A Swedish study of more than a million 18-year-old boys who joined the army, found “better fitness was correlated with higher I.Q.’s, even among identical twins,” the Times reports.

The fitter the twin, the higher his I.Q. The fittest of them were also more likely to go on to lucrative careers than the least fit . . . There’s no evidence that exercise leads to a higher I.Q., but the researchers suspect that aerobic exercise, not strength training, produces specific growth factors and proteins that stimulate the brain, said Georg Kuhn, a professor at the University of Gothenburg and the senior author of the study.

Aerobic endurance, not muscular strength, was linked to a livelier  brain.

According to a new UI study, not yet published, Wii Fit will not make us smart. Twenty  minutes of running on a treadmill improved test scores immediately afterward;  20 minutes of “playing sports-style video games at a similar intensity” did not.

Is technology changing our brains?

Is technology changing our brains? Probably not, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham on Answer Sheet. “The cognitive system is flexible and adaptive, sure, but it’s not that adaptive.”

Perhaps using technology “doesn’t change the basic cognitive architecture, but it knocks it around a bit.” If so, we could expect students to be better at skimming information and worse at reflective thought. That wouldn’t be a big deal, Willingham argues.

Teachers know in what mental process they want students to engage; often it’s reflection, sometimes it’s skimming, and so forth. So maybe students will start off somewhat less skilled in one type of thought than comparable students from a generation ago. That sounds like it requires a tweak, not a major rethinking of classroom practice.

Or it’s possible that new technologies are letting kids’ brains do what they’ve always wanted to do.

In other words, technologies don’t make us more distractable. We’ve always been distractable, but now we have many more distractions available. And the distractions are more costly. Twenty years ago, a kid would daydream for a moment, and then return to his math homework. Today, he watches YouTube videos and doesn’t get back to his homework for 15 minutes.

We can learn to cope with technology’s “opportunity costs,” Willingham thinks.

Update: The Age of Opposable Thumbs has replaced the Age of the Index Fingers, writes Anthony Mullen, the 2009 teacher of the year, reporting from the International Society for Technology in Education convention in Denver.

Do children need to be bored?

Children need a little boredom, writes Nigel Farndale in The Telegraph.

 With more toys than ever, children are overstimulated and unable to focus their attention.

 How can a jigsaw puzzle that might take hours to solve compete with a PlayStation game that has the synapses fizzing within seconds?

We did succumb to a Wii last year, however, and I regret letting it into the house. Not only is it the rival of den-making, football-kicking and tree-climbing, it is the enemy of reading. But ordering your children to turn the Wii off and read a book instead hardly sends out a positive signal about the pleasures of reading – which is a shame, because a child who has discovered the magical world that lies between the covers of a good book is rarely bored. I have a feeling our Wii is going to meet with an accident any day now, and will take several months, possibly several years, to repair.

There’s no such thing as overstimulation, counters Amanda Marcotte on DoubleX. Farndale is just a curmudgeon, she writes.

Constant stimulation may annoy curmudgeons, but it helps work those growing brains into the sort of brains that parents supposedly want for their kids.

. . . After all, a good video game is a rapid-fire series of problem-solving situations. Shouldn’t we want kids to spend their leisure time working on that? (Scientist friend on hand wants it to be known that video games are used as therapy for ADHD kids, to retrain their brains to concentrate.)

Do kids need the stimulation provided by gaming? Or would they be better off spending the time with a jigsaw puzzle, a book, a ball or a tree? I’m pro-book, but I have almost no experience with video games.

Poverty stresses kids’ brains

Childhood poverty creates chronic stress which impairs working memory, research finds.

The longer 17-year-olds had lived in poverty, the higher their stress hormones and the lower their working memory scores, researchers found.

Those who spent their entire childhood in poverty scored about 20 percent lower on working memory than those who were never poor, (Cornell Professor Gary) Evans said.

I see a chicken-egg issue:  Is below-average memory the result of living in poverty or the result of being the child of a parent who’s chronically poor because of below-average memory.