Bilingualism strengthens the brain

Being bilingual makes you smarter, writes Yudhijit Bhattacharjee in the New York Times. Juggling two languages gives “the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.”

The collective evidence from a number of such studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind — like remembering a sequence of directions while driving.

The cognitive benefits may even prevent dementia in old age.

I’m tutoring a bilingual first grader in reading. When she asked if Spanish was bad, I gave her a pep talk on bilingualism making the brain stronger.

“Dogs can’t really talk,” she responded.

“They can say ‘arf’,” I said. She was not impressed. “No, dogs can’t really talk,” I said. We moved on.

Better brains through chemistry

Neuroenhancing drugs, such as Adderall and Ritalin, are  popular with college students who want to study and party, but not necessarily sleep or eat, writes Margaret Talbot in The New Yorker. Research in 2005 estimated 4.1 percent of undergrads “had taken prescription stimulants for off-label use; at one school, the figure was twenty-five per cent. ”

 . . . white male undergraduates at highly competitive schools—especially in the Northeast—are the most frequent collegiate users of neuroenhancers. Users are also more likely to belong to a fraternity or a sorority, and to have a G.P.A. of 3.0 or lower. . . .  they are decent students at schools where, to be a great student, you have to give up a lot more partying than they’re willing to give up.

 Most students who use stimulants get them from an acquaintance diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder who has prescription. Since students have grown up with classmates on ADHD meds, they assume they’re safe.

For us elders, “smart pills” may prevent cognitive decline — or make it possible to work harder for longer. The undrugged may not be able to compete.

Via This Week in Education.

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.