Kid-Friendly Neuroscience

Friday, June 24, 2011

The human brain is a control center: It monitors everything our body does, every minute of every day. Chances are, your child's science teacher has introduced the human brain in passing. So, your child may not know that his brain, which sends messages to other parts of his body through nerves, or bundles of neurons, controls his movements and also makes his thoughts and emotions possible.

You may know a bit about neuroscience – the study of the nervous system – through books like Oliver Sacks’ recent Musicophilia, which compiles stories about unusual neurological disorders, some of which make people see certain colors when they hear a particular kind of music, or associate a specific scent with a musical octave. Another book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, shows that taste and smell are more powerful than sight: Memories from childhood, for example, are more vividly recalled through our tongue or nose.

Sounds fascinating, doesn’t it? Well, experts in this cutting-edge field are learning more about the brain’s mysterious nature, and its connections to perception, memory, and the development of our language. NeuroKids, created by youngsters Bo Erik and Shennendoah Hollsten, and the University of Washington’s Neuroscience for Kids both maintain colorful and illustrated resources on the brain. If your child loves science and is a gross-out guru, he'll enjoy picking apart the cerebrum, cerebellum, and other parts of a wrinkly, pinkish-gray plastic model of the brain.

But neuroscience trickles into disciplines other than science, like music, art, cooking, and literature. So if your child isn’t an aspiring scientist, an overview of the field is still helpful to understand how we learn new skills and remember information, move our bodies, or dream and imagine new ideas. The brain controls everything. And who knows? Your child may one day be a neuroscientist.

To understand, then, how the field relates to various interests or professions, consider these activities with your child:

The Memoirist:

If your child enjoys writing, telling childhood stories, or recounting places she’s been or people she’s known, she probably senses the power of words and the emotions and memories they evoke. The cerebral cortex, the outer layers of our cerebrum where most of our thinking takes place, is made up of different lobes. The temporal lobe – the hippocampus in particular – is associated with memory.

Exercise: Gather at least 25 objects in your house and spread them out on a table. Allow 30 seconds to study the items, and then cover them. Write down as many objects as you can remember. After, create a poem incorporating the words on the list. Compare your stanzas to see how a person’s unique memory creates a distinct poem.

The Psychologist:

Fascinated by Freud? If dreams and the unconscious intrigue your child – or he prefers movies or books of fantasy and the supernatural – he may be interested in his brain’s activity during sleep. Your child spends about 8 hours a day, or 122 days a year, in deep sleep! It may seem like a lot of time doing nothing. His brain, however, is very active while he snoozes, making sure his body is replenished with energy for the next day. Most dreaming occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a stage in which his eyes quickly move back and forth.

Exercise: To monitor the REM stage, quietly observe a family member as they sleep to see if the person’s eyes shift back and forth. There are only four or five periods of REM over the course of a night’s sleep, so you may miss it.

Another activity is to keep a dream journal. Leave a notepad and pen next to your bed before you sleep, and when you wake up, record visuals, sounds, and feelings from, as well as questions about, your dreams. Train yourself to gather fragments from dreams with your eyes shut after you wake up. We lose details from our subconscious the moment we open them.

The Chef:

If your child has seen Ratatouille, there’s a good chance the flavorful film got him interested, or at least hungry for, gourmet food. Budding chefs – and kids who simply appreciate delicious dishes – may be interested in learning how the brain relies on sensory receptors, like the tongue, to collect information about chemicals in food and drinks.

Exercise: Test your taste buds. In paper cups, create different “flavors” of water: Dissolve salt in cup A, mix sugar in cup B, squeeze lemon or add vinegar into cup C, and pour tonic water into cup D. Use a dropper or thick toothpick to graze different areas of the tongue – front, sides, middle, and back – with each liquid. (Rinse between each test with unflavored water). Are parts of the tongue more sensitive to salty, sweet, sour, or bitter tastes?

The Musician:

“Our ability to make sense of music depends on experience,” writes Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music. Over time, a person grows to prefer a particular style, such as rock, jazz, reggae, R&B, electronic, or classical, and finds certain rhythms, tempos, pitches, and melodies familiar and comforting.

Music – and most creative pursuits – has been associated with the brain’s right hemisphere, which deals with aesthetics, feeling, and intuition. “Each time we hear a musical pattern, we try to contextualize the sounds, and eventually, we create memory links between a set of notes and a particular place, time, or set of events,” writes Levitin. Often, listening to music is subjective and emotional.

Exercise: First, gauge your hearing acuity. You can try this several ways. Situate yourself in a park or busy (but safe) street intersection, put on a blindfold, try to detect various sounds, and compare your results. An indoor alternative is playing a recording of sound effects and identifying noises. (That CD used for last Halloween's haunted house is fitting!)

Next, proceed to more complex sounds. Choose several CDs of different genres: Classical, jazz, and rock are good bets because each is composed of different instruments, from string and wood to brass and percussion. Take note of the instruments you recognize and enjoy in each song, and which ones you dislike. What do you like about a particular sound, but not another?

Neuroscience is a fast-growing field, and scientists continue to discover new, unprecedented ideas about the brain. The possibilities for learning about this science are endless, so get that noodle working!

By: Cheri Lucas -

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Tips for Parents: Helping Parents Understand Their Profoundly Gifted Children

The very definition of profound giftedness includes the extremely individual nature of the development of these children. We can discuss this development in general terms, however, much of what we discuss will apply differently to each profoundly gifted child. Being familiar with the basic structure and function of the human brain will prove invaluable as we seek to understand how we might nurture profound giftedness.

Nature and Nurture

It has been established that at birth nearly all human infants come equipped with a marvelous, complex heritage that contains some 100 to 200 billion brain cells. Each neural cell is in place, ready to be developed and used for actualizing the highest levels of human potential. Such a structure will allow us to connect cells to process trillions of bits of information in our lifetime. However, it is estimated that we actually use less than 5% of this capability. How we use this complex system is guided by the patterns provided by our genes, the element within the cell nucleus that transmits a hereditary character and forms essential parts of our DNA that become critical to our development of intelligence, personality, and the very quality of life we experience as we grow. However, genes do not make specific bits and pieces of a body; they code for a range of forms under an array of environmental conditions. Moreover, even when a trait has been built and set, environmental intervention may still modify inherited effects. Enriched education can increase intelligence. Genes provide us with a structure or pattern but are dependent upon the environment for the particular characteristic that they will express. Whereas genes provide us with our own unique menu, the environment makes the actual selection within that range of choice. It is misleading to think of either genes or the environment as being more important: Genes can only express themselves in an environment, and an environment has no effect except by evoking genotypes already present. Siegel (1999), medical director of the Infant and Preschool Service and associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles concludes, "Genes contain the information for the general organization of the brain's structure, but experience determines which genes become expressed, how, and when" (p. 14).

Levels of Giftedness

The area of gifted education recognizes three levels of giftedness, the moderately gifted students that comprise the major group of gifted learners, the highly gifted persons who are as different from this major group as the moderately gifted are from average learners and the profoundly gifted learners. The highly and the profoundly gifted learners tend to evidence more energy than gifted individuals; they think faster and are more intent and focused on their interests. They exhibit a higher degree of ability in most of the traits we have identified with giftedness. Such children are less able to benefit from regular classroom experiences, and modifications to their educational programs need to be more comprehensive and developed to a much higher degree to meet their needs than is necessary for less gifted learners.

Studies of the profoundly gifted learners suggest that they differ significantly from highly gifted students as a result of differently wired neurons that allow more complex and efficient neural highways for transmitting information. They seem to have different value structures, which usually allow them to cope with the dissonance they find between their perception of life and that of the average person. They tend to be more isolated by choice and more invested in concerns of a meta-nature (e. g., universal problems). They seldom seek popularity or social acclaim.

A pressing issue is the provision of an appropriate education for profoundly gifted students. Typically, schools offer these students little; some educators suggest that tutoring with eminent authorities or homeschooling would be a far more productive educational plan. The higher the expressed intellectual ability, the more difficult will be the problem of finding a match between the school programs and the child. Although many school settings give limited priority to differentiating learning experiences for gifted students in general, even less concern is given to the highly and profoundly gifted student.

Characteristics of Profoundly Gifted Individuals

Profoundly gifted individuals seem to be characterized by their uniqueness; each is different from others their age and from others who are highly and profoundly gifted. There are, however, some characteristics that seem to be common among such children. These include both marvelous traits that provide joy and fulfillment to the individuals and those that result in deep frustration and despair as they confront structures that have no space for them and attitudes that have no understanding. Some of the most often found characteristics are:

* Extraordinary speed in processing information.
* Rapid and thorough comprehension of ideas and concepts.
* Unusual ability to perceive essential elements and underlying structures and patterns in relationships and ideas.
* The desire for precision in thinking and expression resulting in the need to correct errors and argue extensively.
* Ability to relate a broad range of ideas and synthesize commonalities among them.
* Early development of a high degree of ability to think abstractly.
* Appreciation of complexity; ability to find myriad alternative meanings in even the most simple issues or problems.
* Ability to learn in an integrative, intuitively nonlinear manner.
* An extraordinary degree of intellectual curiosity.
* Unusual capacity for memory.
* A long concentration span.
* A fascination with ideas and words.
* An extensive vocabulary.
* Ability to perceive many sides of an issue.
* Argumentativeness.
* Advanced visual and motor skills.
* Ability from an early age to think in metaphors and symbols; a preference for doing so.
* Ability to visualize models and systems.
* Ability to learn in great intuitive leaps.
* Highly idiosyncratic interpretations of events.
* Awareness of detail.
* Unusual intensity and depth of feeling.
* A high degree of emotional sensitivity.
* Highly developed morals and ethics and early concern for moral and existential issues.
* Unusual and early insight into social and moral issues.
* Ability to empathetically understand and relate to ideas and other people.
* An extraordinarily high energy level.
* A need for the world to be logical and fair.
* Conviction of correctness of personal ideas and beliefs.

A Summary of Clues from Brain Research for Educators at Home and School

There are exciting clues in brain research that can help parents optimize learning experiences for their youngsters. The following summary of ideas will help parents get a better idea of how to use the information:
An Enriched Environment

* includes a steady source of positive emotional support.
* provides a nutritious diet with adequate amounts of protein, vitamins, minerals, and calories
* stimulates all senses, but not necessarily at once.
* is stimulating and includes appropriate challenges that encourage curiosity, exploration, and the fun and excitement of learning.
* gives a child an opportunity to choose many of his or her own activities.
* provides an atmosphere with a degree of pleasurable intensity, but free of undue pressure and stress. (Note: Stress produces biochemistry for the adrenal cortex that dampens cerebral cortical function. Fear, threat, anxiety, and tension make it very difficult to learn.)
* presents a series of novel challenges that are neither too easy nor too difficult for the child at his or her level of development. (Note: The brain responds to novelty, to the unexpected, and to discrepant information. Novelty registers information independent of rewards or punishment, and such processing is more effective for learning. When asked to repeat, drill, or do reinforced repetitive activities, the brain habituates, that is, responds automatically without thought, and such practices may be counterproductive to learning concepts; doing something new and different is the way to gain information most effectively.)
* includes activities that are physical, cognitive, affective, and intuitive to ensure balanced and integrated brain growth.
* allows the child to be an active participant, rather than a passive observer.

At School:

* Individualized instructional planning is strongly indicated as each person responds uniquely to the environment.
* The use of single goals or objectives does not allow for developing patterns and relationships; bright minds require complexity.
* The brain does not just process information or amplify thought, it constructs meaning. Didactic teaching is no longer justifiable; instead, teachers must create problems to solve.
* The brain attaches emotional significance to information; good learning derives from exciting teaching. Emotional responses are often more important in making cognitive decisions than are our rational processes.
* Optimal development requires the active involvement of the learner.
* Concrete experiences and active sensory stimulation are needed at both elementary and secondary levels. Written material (e.g., texts and workbooks) alone is not appropriate to teach abstract concepts.
* The processes and content of both specializations of the right and left hemispheres of the cortex need to be included in curriculum planning to take advantage of their complementary nature.
* Opportunities must be given for alternative modes of learning and expression so that the whole cortex is used for support and integration, preventing the limits to knowledge and understanding brought about by teaching each discipline as a separate specialization.
* The brain is a model builder generating models of reality. Students' minds do not just record what is taught; the brain makes inferences.


1. The potential of brain development is essentially unlimited for most individuals.
2. The dynamic nature of the brain allows intellectual growth to progress or regress, but not to maintain or remain static.
3. How intelligence is expressed will depend on the individual genetic pattern and anatomical structure in interaction with the support and opportunities provided by the environment.

As we have seen, intelligence is dynamic. As relevant as the axiom "Use it or lose it" is when applied to abilities and talents, when it focuses on the profoundly gifted learner it is critical. They and we have so much to lose.

By: Barbara Clark - Davidson Institute for Talent Development -

Musical Intelligence

"Of all the gifts with which individuals may be endowed, none emerges earlier than musical talent" (Gardner, 1983, p. 99). Leonard Bernstein had lots of it; Mozart, presumably, had even more (Gardner, 1993b). Types of musical skills one might encounter in young, exceptionally talented individuals (called prodigies) might include playing a Bach suite for solo violin with technical accuracy as well as considerable feeling; performing a complete aria from a Mozart opera after hearing it sung but a single time; or playing on a piano a simple minuet the child has composed. There is a wide range of musical skills and abilities found in the human population and of ways in which people encounter music through the senses, media, and modalities. These abilities might be shown through singing, playing instruments by hand or with the mouth, writing or reading musical notation, listening to recordings, or moving to music.

Music has been described as the controlled movement of sound in time, and the "succession of tones and tone combinations so organized as to have an agreeable impression on the ear and its impression on the intelligence is comprehensible" (see Sessions, 1970). Composers, for example, work with tones, rhythms, and an overall sense of form and movement when deciding how much melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic repetition is appropriate and how much variation or elaboration is required to achieve their musical ideas (Gardner, 1983). Of the constituent elements of music, pitch and rhythm are central to the tonal and temporal aspects and provide the structural and organization components of the aural expression (Wright, 1985). While pitch and rhythm can exist independently, most often musical elements coexist.

Musical intelligence involves musical memory, a sensitivity to sound, and a responsiveness to sound sequences and structures. In addition, most people who have been involved intimately with music acknowledge the importance of emotions. Music conveys emotions or affects by capturing the forms of these feelings—it imitates the world around us and our human emotions (Worth, 2000). However, these emotions are more in the abstract than directly linked to events, objects, or persons. Music, which is perhaps the most abstract of the various art forms, is similar to abstract art—there is no object to which our emotions can be directed. In some ways, understanding music is a purer process than understanding language, because language is complicated with outside referents in order to determine meaning and to communicate. Music does not have easily detectable referents. Instead, it represents what is closest to us, too close to be put into words. It has the capacity not only to "go beyond words, but to exist only beyond words" (Worth, 2000, p. 105). Music is about "the experience that moves us, that reaches the deepest part of our interior world, that part in which the human spirit resides" (Eisner, 2001).

By: S. Wright - Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall -

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