Brain Power from the New York Times

Throughout 2009 the New York Times published a series of six articles that discussed the latest findings in brain research. Here they are, starting with the most recent.

  • Studying Young Minds, and How to Teach Them – explains how our brains learn math. It turns out there are optimal developmental times and methods for introducing our brains to math, and they aren’t when/what you might have expected.  The following comment got me thinking about when and how we teach reading:

A similar honing process is thought to occur when young children begin to link letter shapes and their associated sounds. Cells in the visual cortex wired to recognize shapes specialize in recognizing letters; these cells communicate with neurons in the auditory cortex as the letters are associated with sounds.

The process may take longer to develop than many assume. A study published in March by neuroscientists at Maastricht University in the Netherlands suggested that the brain does not fully fuse letters and sound until about age 11.

  • Surgery for Mental Ills Offers Both Hope and Risk – talks about psychosurgery and its impact on those with O.C.D. (obsessive compulsive disorder). To paraphrase Shakespeare: To intervene via surgery or not to intervene via surgery. That is the question.
  • After Injury, Fighting to Regain a Sense of Self – reminded me of anecdotes shared by V.S. Ramachandran in his book Phantoms in the Brain (probably THE book that pulled me in to the world of our brains). Essentially, injury can cause the brain to play some cruel tricks on itself, including fiddling with one’s sense of self. Is there a spot in our brains that defines who we are?
  • In Battle, Hunches Prove to Be Valuable –  Call it intuition, a hunch, a feeling in your gut, but most likely you’ve experienced that sensation where you just “know” something to be so. While this article discusses the sensing of danger, it made me think of how we size up people in general, for instance, being “street smart”.

But United States troops are now at the center of a large effort to understand how it is that in a life-or-death situation, some people’s brains can sense danger and act on it well before other’s do.

Experience matters, or course: if you have seen something before, you are more likely to anticipate it the next time. And yet, recent research suggests that something else is at work, too.

Small differences in how the brain processes images, how well it reads emotions and how it manages surges in stress hormones help explain why some people sense imminent danger before most others do.

  • At the Bridge Table, Clues to a Lucid Old Age – An avid bridge player, my 78 year old Aunt Joan would love this article! The article discusses the 90+ Study, which “has included more than 14,000 people aged 65 and older, and more than 1,000 aged 90 or older.” The question seems to be, which came first – being cognitively active and thus having a sharp brain, or having a sharp brain and thus being cognitively active. One area in which all scientists agree is the importance of social connections for maintaining brain health.

In isolation, a healthy human mind can go blank and quickly become disoriented, psychologists have found.

“There is quite a bit of evidence now suggesting that the more people you have contact with, in your own home or outside, the better you do” mentally and physically, Dr. Kawas said. “Interacting with people regularly, even strangers, uses easily as much brain power as doing puzzles, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this is what it’s all about.”

  • Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory – This title opens up all sorts of questions related to ethics. On the other hand, what about a brain that has some unhealthy parts? I did enjoy one possible way of thinking about how our brain keeps memories:

…brain cells activated by an experience keep one another on biological speed-dial, like a group of people joined in common witness of some striking event. Call on one and word quickly goes out to the larger network of cells, each apparently adding some detail, sight, sound, smell. The brain appears to retain a memory by growing thicker, or more efficient, communication lines between these cells.


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