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KID'S BRAIN POWER
Steve Nadia (The Oregonian, Technology Review, 12-15-93)
(reprinted with permission from The Oregonian)
Here is one of the best articles we've found which cites the research findings of
several eminent brain researchers on the subject of the young child's ability to
Parents and teachers have long known that a child's brain can soak up information
like a sponge. But now, researchers have scientific evidence to back up the theory,
along with advice on ways to help children reach their full potential. Perhaps the
most convincing new corroboration of the young child's phenomenal learning capacity
comes from neurologist Harold Chugani, head of the PET Center at the Children's
Hospital of Michigan. While at UCLA during the 1980's, Chugani had been examining
PET scans to pinpoint the brain-seizure sites of his epilepsy patients. But he also
has used these scans to observe which brain structures were metabolizing the most
glucose and therefore were the most active.
Citing new evidence, researchers suggest the U.S. education system take a new look
at young minds.
By examining the glucose metabolization of patients ranging from newborns to adults,
Chugani uncovered the timetable under which various regions of the brain develop.
By age 4, for instance, the cortex begins operating at adult activity levels. By
4, a child's brain is more than twice as active as an adult's. The brain continues
to consume glucose at this feverish pitch through age 10 and then slows down until
age 16, when it levels off at adult values.
The child's brain burns much more glucose than an adult's brain, Chugani said, because
it must maintain trillions of connections between neurons, more than twice as many
as are ultimately retained.
"Initially, the brain provides too many connections in the cerebral cortex," he
said. "Then, there's a waiting period to decide which ones you want to keep."
These connections represent potential pathways that an electrical impulse may travel.
Connections are strengthened by repetition, and those that are not used become vulnerable
"If we teach our children early enough, it will affect the organization, or 'wiring,'
of their brains."
Michael Phelps, UCLA biophysicist
"The thing that determines which connections are saved is education in the broadest
sense of the term," says UCLA's Michael Phelps, a biophysicist and co-inventor of
the PET scan. "If we teach our children early enough, it will affect the organization
or 'wiring,' of their brains." Unfortunately, UP.S. education does not take full
advantage of this opportunity, Phelps said.
For example, foreign-language instruction is often deferred until high school, despite
the fact that youngsters can learn to speak like natives -- that is, to think in
the language without having to translate -- whereas teenagers or adults usually
cannot. When small children learn a new language he said, "the ability to use that
language is wired in the brain." Musical training is another familiar example. "By
encouraging young children to learn music and practice, you're really doing them
a big favor." Chugani said.
"Once a child has learned an instrument, he or she can stop playing, then pick up
the instrument 20 years later and do much better than an adult just starting out."
Deprivation -- the opposite of enrichment -- can also permanently affect the organization
of the brain. For instance, the language centers of the cortex are not able to reach
full maturity without proper stimulation, says psychiatrist Arnold Scheibel, director
of UCLA's Brain Research Institute.
That's why so-called "feral" children who grow up in the wilderness without adults
cannot master a language if they are brought back to civilization after the age
Likewise, experiments by neurobiologists David Hubel of Harvard and Torsten Wiesel
of Rockefeller University have shown that cats can be blinded simply by covering
their eyes during critical periods of infancy.
Although the retina remains intact, the connections between the retina and brain
are permanently impaired. When blindfolds are applied to adult cats, their vision
is not permanently affected because the essential wiring is already in place.
The lessons from studies such as these are clear, contends Martha Pierson, a neurobiologist
at Baylor College of Medicine. "Children need a flood of information, a banquet,
Early education, she adds, "shapes the basic architecture of the computer (brain).
If you are exposed to enough things, you'll develop a processor that can handle
the flood of data that life throws at you later."
Merlin Wittrock, head of UCLA's Division of Educational Psychology, maintains that
much of the instruction in today's schools is based on a flawed premise.
"For a long time, we've assumed that children should get an immediate reward when
they do something right," he said. Courses, therefore, typically revolve around
exercises broken up into tiny chunks with answers supplied at every conceivable
juncture. "But the brain is much more complicated than most of our instruction."
Wittrock said. "It has many systems operating in parallel."
In place of the usual "drill and practice" programs, he advocates complex problems
without simple solutions that engage numerous systems in the brain and strengthen
the connections among them. Because children may grapple with these problems for
an extended period of time, the experience also should make a much more lasting
Chugani concurs. Since repeated stimulation stabilizes the connections between neurons,
he said, "It's better to expose a kid to a lot of things over a period of years,
rather than trying to cover subjects one at a time in brief, intensive workshops."
"Children need a flood of information, a banquet, a feast."
Martha Pierson, Baylor College of Medicine
UCLA's Scheibel cautions, however, that pushing youngsters too hard can be counterproductive.
"When the level of exposure becomes excessive," he said, "stress hormones are released
that actually destroy nerve cells."
A balance must be struck between too little exposure and too much. Another important
issue is the proper time to begin the educational process. Clearly, we shouldn't
force kids to learn too much too soon. "But why wait until age 5," said Yale biologist
Martha Constantine-Paton, "When the evidence clearly shows that brain development
begins much earlier."
For example, she said, before a child can begin to learn how to read, the basic
neural wiring has to be in place: Kids have to be able to track things with their
eyes, focus attention and interpret symbols.
This points to the importance of preschool programs such as Head Start, she said,
where children can get the stimulation necessary to prepare them for reading and
other challenges ahead.
All of this is not to suggest that we should give up on educating adults. "Although
there is a great window of opportunity for learning up to the age of 10, said Scheibel,
"That doesn't mean you're over the hill at 12 or 14 of 40."
Even in old age, the brain retains some "plasticity." If we stay healthy, he added.
"we can continue learning right up to the day we die."
For other enlightening articles on brain research and neurological development in
early childhood education: