Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Right Brain, Left Brain, No Brainer

Sharon Wildwind

In the last decade neuroscientists have been busy hooking machines to people, and then asking them to do everyday tasks. The point is to watch which brain areas light up, when, and to what degree, when we go through our daily lives. What they’ve found so far is that our brain gospels are, in fact, myths. What they haven’t found is what to do with this new information, or more importantly, how to defeat those firmly entrenched myths.

New brain reality #1: there is no right-brain/left-brain division

Our brains work because of the huge amount of connective tissue that links both sides of the brains. When we do something brainy both sides of the brain are involved in doing it.

New brain reality #2: so-called learning styles are task-dependent rather than global

No, that’s not the call of a rare bird, but it’s a myth that should be extinct. It’s the abbreviations for learning styles
Visual = learn by seeing
Auditory = learn by hearing
Read-Write = learn by reading and taking notes
Kinaesthetic = learn by doing

In reality, each new learning situation is different, influenced by what we have to learn, how much of it is to be learned, how soon we have to learn it, the surrounding environment, and to what purpose and how soon we put the new knowledge to use.

All of which plays havoc, without offering solutions, with the idea of any group learning, such as in classrooms or at conferences. Learning will be different for each person at the desks or in the meeting room. One-size-fits-all won't work. As I said, researchers have yet to figure out how to apply these new realities.

New brain reality #3: learning is not age-dependent, it is interest-and-hard-work dependent

Study after study has shown that people of all ages can learn difficult and complex material. There is no best time of life to learn mathematics, or a second language, or a new art like weaving or pottery.

London taxi drivers have to have The Knowledge, yes, in capital letters. This means an intimate knowledge of London’s driving geography, her streets, her roundabouts, even her back alleys. To get The Knowledge they don’t rely on maps or GPS. They ride scooters for hours and hours through London.

Hooking them up to brain machines after they have passed The Knowledge exam shows that the brains of London taxi drivers have developed larger areas related to spacial representations and navigations. This is true across age groups, and independent of what language the drivers speak as their first language.

New brain reality #4: brain-training games work — for about six weeks

Whether it’s Sudoku, cross-word puzzles, Scrabble, or video games, all of them, done regularly, improve that aspect of the brain intimately involved in the task. In Sudoko for example, it’s the ability to determine which figure will meet the rules to fill a 9 x 9 square with numbers.

Contrary to the pervasive myth, Sudoku doesn’t improve memory, it doesn’t translate into better thinking skills, and the effect fades in about six weeks. By that time, the brain has learned Sudoku, so it files that skill with other learned tasks like brushing our teeth, or wearing matching socks. Then it’s ready for a new challenge.

What does seem to work in this new reality?

Exercise and eat healthy in order to keep the brain’s blood vessels and blood supply in good shape.

Exercise and sleep enough in order for our muscles to act as the chemical factories they were intended to be. Exercise stimulates dozens of chemical-productions in the  muscles; sleep gives our bodies a chance to distribute those chemicals in the body.

Prevent or reduce head injuries. Every injury, no matter how small, produce scar tissue. Damage from repeated injuries are cumulative; scar tissue does not go away. Scar tissue decreases brain function. If that scar tissue develops on the connective tissues that connect the hemispheres, it’s particularly devastating.

Immerse the mind and body in activities that are multi-dimensional, textured, ever-changing, require a variety of sensory inputs, and, many days, drive us crazy.

I think that’s an accurate description of being a writer.

Quote for the week
It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.
~ John Wooden, 1910 – 2010, American basketball player and coach


Sheila Connolly said...

Sharon, this is all so interesting that I don't know where to start. It's also encouraging, and intuitively logical.

One factoid I picked up recently: the brain scans of people in love strongly resemble those of people with a mental illness.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thank heaven for London taxi drivers. A California friend visiting me in New York this week asked a New York taxi driver for Grand Central Station, the Lexington Avenue side, and he said, "You'll have to tell me where it is."

Sharon Wildwind said...

Sheila, I believe their brains also strongly resemble people who have just had a large hit of dark chocolate.

Liz, what about us poor non-New Yorkers who don't know where GCS is. Okay, I keep a map of New York City beside my bed---I read a lot of mysteries set in New York---and I could probably find it.