Information Age Education Blog
Improving Brain Health
Research in Brain Science (Cognitive Neuroscience) has been making great strides in recent years. We now know a lot more about brain plasticity, memory, learning, concussions, Alzheimer’s, sleep, dyslexia, ADHD, and a host of other aspects of brain functioning. I enjoy reading about this research progress and the efforts to translate the research into improvements in the everyday lives of all people.
I am particularly interested in improving education. So, I keep asking myself, “What have we learned from brain science that makes a significant difference in the quality of education being received by students of all ages and throughout the world?”
As one example, we have learned from the research that early detection of disabilities such as dyslexia (reading) and dyscalculia (math)—followed by early intervention—can make a huge difference in the lives of some students. At the current time, substantial research efforts are focusing on Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, a worldwide problem area with no “cure” in sight.
Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of a brain to “rewire” itself, grow new neurons and dendrite connections, and repurpose existing neurons. These are ongoing brain-changing processes as we acquire new knowledge, and make or don’t make use of our previously acquired knowledge.
Alvaro Fernandez’s article, Twenty Must-know Facts to Harness Neuroplasticity and Improve Brain Health, provides a brief summary of current research on neuroplasticity (Fernandez, 6/21/2016). Here are a few highlights from Fernandez’s article.
• We tend to seek and expect to find simple solutions to complex problems. Thus, you have probably memorized the statement, “Use it or lose it.” However, our brains are very complex, and thus the “it” refers to a wide range of brain capabilities. The research reports that our brain health is improved by making use of the wide variety of capabilities of our brains. For example, an over emphasis on the use of rote memory in education and/or an under use of abilities such as focusing one’s attention or understanding what one is memorizing, is neither good for brain health nor for obtaining a good education.
• Research reports on the protective effects of social and cognitive engagement, physical exercise, and the Mediterranean diet. However, carefully done research indicated that the average benefits appear quite limited, so we need to have realistic expectations. Beware! Some advertisers of various brain-related products and services tend to far overstate the results of using their products and services.
• Mental stimulation helps to build cognitive reserve, helping the brain to better cope if damage occurs. However, routine activities do not challenge the brain to build this cognitive reserve. A brain benefits from going to the next level of difficulty and trying something new. As an example, brain science research strongly supports the value of an adult learning another language.
• Research suggests that watching a lot of television results in a cognitive decline. Becoming a couch potato definitely is not physically or mentally healthy.
• Quoting from Fernandez’s article: "The larger and the more complex a person’s social network is, the bigger the amygdala (which plays a major role in our behavior and motivation). There is no clear evidence to date on whether “online” relationships are fundamentally different from “offline” ones in this regard."
Sherry Turkle has done extensive research in this area. She suggests that social networking via computer is producing a marked decline in the ability of people to interact socially in face-to-face settings. I highly recommend her TED Talk (Turkle, February, 2012).
I believe this to be a particularly valuable area of research. For me, it suggests that a good modern education includes a strong emphasis on developing social skills and people skills, as well as learning to make use of the steadily improving Artificial Intelligence capabilities of computers.
• Chronic stress is bad for your brain as well as for your physical health (Moursund, 1/23/2016).
• Quoting again from Fernandez’s article: "We will not have a Magic Pill or General Solution to solve all our cognitive challenges any time soon, so a holistic multi-pronged approach is recommended, centered around nutrition, stress management, and both physical and mental exercise."
“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.” (Jeffrey Eugenides; American Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist; 1960-.)
My recent book, Brain Science for Educators and Parents, is a broad introduction for the general public. It is available free on the Web (Moursund, 2015). The book includes links to more than 50 free videos, and each chapter ends with suggestions for effective applications of the chapter contents in teaching students and in interacting with one’s own children. Since the book first became available in 2015, it has had more than 120,000 hits and/or downloads.
What You Can Do
Think about your current level of knowledge about your physical body and your brain/mind. Each is a precious part of “you.” While doctors and other specialists can help you to have a “sound mind and body,” much of this is up to you. Chances are that you know more about taking care of your physical body than you do about taking care of your brain/mind. The bulleted suggestions given above are important, but they represent only a small part of what researchers now know about the human brain. My suggestion to you is, “Go forth and learn more, and help others to do the same.”
References and Resources
Fernandez, A. (6/21/2016). Twenty must-know facts to harness neuroplasticity and improve brain health. The Huffington Post. Retrieved 6/22/2016 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alvaro-fernandez/20-mustknow-facts-to-harn_b_10590748.html.
Moursund, D. (4/28/2016). IQ testing. IAE Blog. Retrieved 6/22/2016 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/iq-testing.html.
Moursund, D. (3/5/2016). Aging brains. IAE Blog. Retrieved 6/22/2016 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/aging-brains.html.
Moursund, D. (2/12/2016). Improving worldwide quality of life. IAE Blog. Retrieved 6/22/2016 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/improving-worldwide-quality-of-life.html.
Moursund, D. (1/23/2016). Brain science research on nature and nurture. IAE Blog. Retrieved 6/22/2016 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/brain-science-research-on-nature-and-nurture.html.
Moursund, D. (2015). Brain science for educators and parents. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Web: http://iae-pedia.org/Brain_Science. Microsoft Word file: http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/270-brain-science-for-educators-and-parents.html. PDF file: http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/271-brain-science-for-educators-and-parents-1/file.html.
Turkle, S. (February, 2012). Connected, but alone. TED Talks. (Video, 19:48.) Retrieved 6/22/2016 from http://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together?language=en.