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Good News for Modern Brains

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Before birth, a baby has learned to recognize its mother’s heartbeat. Some babies have learned how to suck their thumbs. At birth, the brain is fully present but not wired yet. That is, all the neurons are not yet working together. The eyes see, but the brain has no memory of what is being seen, so it has to build those connections. Within a few hours, the baby’s broad, unfocused attention becomes focused on what is needed to survive. The baby learns to feed, and through his or her five senses, begins to interpret the world. Babies quickly establish control of their development. They acquire their primary skills of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching by interacting with their environment.

Babies learning to walk, first learn to hold their heads up, then roll over, balance in a sitting position, and eventually sit up from a prone position. Most babies learn to crawl first, then to stand, then walk with support, finally to walk alone, and eventually to run.

Every interaction with the world is feedback for the brain – what worked, what didn’t work. The baby keeps some attempts and discards most attempts. Babies use persistent repetition, making an attempt after attempt until their brain recognizes, “That’s right, you got it.”

From birth, babies hear 4-5 million words from their family members. Babies babble and their caretakers respond with interest to what sounds like words, tending to ignore everything else. Between 8 and 18 months of age in the Western world, babies say their ‘first word’, which is often an approximation of the word, but the parent reinforces that word and continues to give the baby more attention and feedback as the baby says more and more words. Some cultures talk to the baby constantly, some cultures do not, but a baby still learns language by hearing it repeatedly and experimenting with making similar sounds.

We are very much shaped by the culture we’re born into. Apparently, in San Paulo, Brazil, 40% of 8-year-old boys can run and bounce a soccer ball on their heads at the same time. Probably a healthy percentage of 8-year-old boys in Canada can skate and guide a puck at the same time. The skills and thinking habits we develop depend very much on the family and culture in which we are born.

As we grow older, we master skill after skill in coordinating our bodies and our brains. Our brain’s strategy is to evaluate the success of every attempt. We then create a model of a good attempt, both from our interaction with the world and from observing others.

For example, think of a child learning to use a spoon to feed herself: she uses relatively sophisticated feedback from her skin, muscles, joints, eyes, mouth, and senses of taste and smell. After thousands of attempts, eventually, she has enough successful attempts that she can feed herself with a spoon. Now her brain is wired differently, and within a few weeks, she does not have to concentrate to the same degree to feed herself with a spoon. It has become an automatic skill.

According to Dr. Michael Merzenich, a leading pioneer in brain plasticity research, we have finally understood that much of the brain is plastic throughout life. We now know that we can improve the brain at any age. The brain can be trained to catch up, correct and reverse poor wiring. We can recover more than we used to think of brain injury. We can also improve problems like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The program, Fast ForWord, was developed by Dr. Merzenich who has been studying brain plasticity for many years. Dr. Merzenich also helped to design the cochlear implant, a surgically-implanted electronic device that allows profoundly deaf people to hear. He later designed a Brain Fitness Program for older people who want to sharpen their hearing of language and their memories. Merzenich knew that as we age, our brains slow down and tend to get noisier, so we are not as good as we used to be at distinguishing sound details we hear.

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