The Miracle of the Human Brain and How It Learns
By Linda Narun, M.A., CCC-SLP
We so take for granted that children will go to school and learn to read, write and do math. If we stop to think about how complicated a process learning is, it is a miracle that most children do it with relative ease. In fact, we are quite shocked or upset when our bright children encounter difficulty learning what appears to be a basic skill. We are beginning to understand that in fact the brain is complicated and needs to be organized and work like a well oiled machine for the process of learning to be successful. Sometimes, the brain needs a little help to become an efficient machine.
The more we understand about the way the brain learns the more successful we will be in helping all children accelerate learning efficiently. Very often as teachers and therapists, we concentrate on the reading program rather than the underlying ability of the child to benefit from what we are teaching. Improving the organization of the brain and increasing neural connections while teaching reading, for example, the greater the success that the child will have. Teachers are assigned the task of teaching skills at a fairly rapid rate. It is difficult for teachers in a regular classroom to include programs that enhance brain efficiency because of time and curricular demands.
It is important that we do as much as we can to help the brain make the connections it needs for our children to learn as we expected them to when they first entered school and to increase their confidence and to enjoy learning.
Let’s first understand what organization in the brain means, by using the analogy of airline schedules. It is quite remarkable than planes fly all over the country and pick up and drop passengers at large and small airports and cities. The airline companies achieve this process efficiently by creating “hubs”. An example of a hub would be American airlines having bases or “hubs” in Dallas and Atlanta. There planes fly through the hubs where connections to more remote locations can be obtained. These connections must be made rapidly if the system is to work efficiently. If they do not work well or are not profitable, the airline might drop the route. Getting to the more remote location then becomes more expensive and probably more inefficient. So, airlines have hubs and routes that connect to them efficiently. (Sometimes it doesn’t feel efficient, but it is remarkable nevertheless)
The brain has its own version of hubs and routes. They are not called hubs, but are referred to as Connectomes where various neural pathways come together for efficient firing, and then send signals from these connections to various parts of the brain so that activities can be completed rapidly and efficiently. When learning language and reading, for example, these connections help the brain process what the ear hears and translate it into comprehension, reading, etc. The saying, “Neurons that fire together wire together.”
Now, let’s go back to the airport. New York is a very large hub, so that any delay in New York (snow, etc) will back the schedule up both for incoming flights and departures. A delay in New York then creates delays all over the country even if the weather is fine in other states. It’s not fun when the system goes down! In the developing brain a system can go down, with major consequences and delays. We tend to want to simplify the brain by saying it is a reading, language or visual disorder. However, the difficulties that a child will experience are rarely in only one aspect of learning. So helping the brain to get organized is likely to help more than one skill. There is much evidence that understanding the deficits in learning really depends on understanding the brain and how to create the necessary pathways and “connectomes”
What makes a brain less efficient than it should be??? Million dollar question. We do know that deprivation and poverty have major effects on learning. A genetic predisposition for learning difficulties can result in connectomes not being formed efficiently or early hearing loss can negatively affect learning. These are just a few factors that we understand and there are many others that we don’t. Whatever the reason, we also know that the brain is plastic and that changes can be made to create the organization in the brain that will facilitate greater learning. We know what kind of intensive stimulation and the frequency with which the brain needs to be stimulated for changes to occur.
Summer is an excellent time to work on the brain and the skill (writing, reading, math,) that needs to be acquired. It is amazing that we have had programs available for 20 years, but it has taken the “world” that amount of time to accept the new science. We are offering various programs at the center this summer which will facilitate this learning. We want to work on the entire “flight path”, i.e.as many pathways as possible to increase learning, self esteem, social skills etc. We need to get the connectome working more efficiently by exercising the brain and by working on the skill (reading, math etc) at the same time.
We are really looking at the whole child rather than just treating a modality. Every therapist and teacher has the same goal-create a good learner. We should all come together rather than simply working on 1 skill. At the Tarnow Center we are very fortunate to have many disciplines improving brain power, learning and self management. We work together to provide the most comprehensive interventions for all students.
Programs could include,
Individual Educational Therapy