Exercises for Your Brain

Scientific Learning claims it can turn cognitive weaklings into smarties.

What if intelligence wasn’t innate? What if you could choose a child’s IQ by the things you did together?

Well, maybe you can. Scientific Learning makes software that it claims can build brain power. The Oakland company is built around two neuroscience discoveries: That the brain continues to change in response to experience throughout our lives; and that you can improve its ability to learn by exercising the parts that aren’t as strong as they should be.

Scientists used to think that how well your brain functioned — i.e., how well you thought — was determined by your genes. Some kids are born to be math or reading whizzes; most can learn these things at least well enough to get by; and a few just don’t have the mental wattage to be taught, they thought. And, while the brain responds strongly to early stimuli, by the time you reached kindergarten, scientists figured, your brain had done all its growing, and you’d be using those same brain circuits throughout your life, for better or worse.

Then, in the early 1990s, four scientists came to conclusions that challenged these assumptions. Neuroscientists Paula Tallal and Steven Miller were at Rutgers, studying learning disabilities in children. They found that children with language disabilities have problems discerning the different sounds that make up human speech. Their brains aren’t fast enough to catch the cascade of phonemes in normal speech. At the same time, Michael Merzenich of UCSF had discovered that neural plasticity, the ability of the brain to rewire itself if it’s damaged or nerve connections have been severed, continues on into adulthood. He and UCSF’s William Jenkins were also examining the neural basis of learning disabilities.

When they met at a conference, they put these ideas together and came up with a theory about how to pep up the activity of crucial parts of the brain.

“If you compare the brains of a good reader and a weak reader, in the weak reader there are parts of the brain that don’t light up,” Miller said. “We decided that you could build exercises that target a particular part of the brain and build those up, just like going to the gym.”

In 1996, these researchers did a study showing that exercises disguised as computer games could improve the brain function of learning-impaired children. Their phones started ringing, and a year later, they formed Scientific Learning.

We know young children have to roll over, sit, crawl, and toddle before they can run. Scientific Learning’s products are based on the theory that the ability to learn to read is based on a similar set of stages that begin the first time a baby’s mother speaks to her.

But not every kid gets even the basics she needs for her brain to wire itself correctly. A baby propped in front of the TV for hours, or one whose mother never reads and seldom talks to her, may not strongly develop her language centers. One simple but devastating problem that can result is a lag in the time it takes her brain to process speech.

By the time language-impaired children reach kindergarten, there’s a 30-million word gap in their language portfolio, according to Miller. By the time they’re thirteen, there’s a five-year language gap. This impairment in auditory processing also affects their ability to learn to read, because the brain uses the same circuits for all language activities. Even if these children suddenly began to learn at a normal pace, they’d still be always five years behind.

Scientific Learning’s Fast ForWord is software that acts like physical therapy for the brain, an intensive series of exercises to close the gap. The three Fast ForWord products, for language, literacy, and reading, are designed to train the brain to process written and aural information so that a child has the basic thinking skills he needs to participate in class. For example, Inside the Tummy teaches kids to pay attention while developing their ear for language. To play, you drag colored shapes onto matching shapes inside a cartoon bear’s stomach. When you make a match, the game’s audio plays slowed-down, carefully articulated speech, such as “yellow triangle.” According to the company, each exercise targets and develops one or more of the processing skills needed for successful reading and learning.

The result, says Miller, is like switching from a dial-up modem to broadband. The child can take in information as fast as the other kids in the class.

Scientific Learning donated software and hardware for a pilot project at Oakland’s Lighthouse Charter School, a K-12 college prep school with 185 students, mostly from low-income households.

“We believe every student can learn at high levels,” said Melissa Barnes Dholakia, director of instruction for the elementary grades. “The brain can build in both its capacity and how easily it processes the information. Knowing the research, knowing what we believe, and seeing the products, which are doing exactly that, it really resonated. We jumped right in.”

In the first twelve weeks of the program, two-thirds of the Lighthouse students who’d completed a Fast ForWord program had moved up their reading levels by at least half a year, according to Dholakia. One special-ed student worked her tail off and increased her reading level by a year and eight months.

With success like this, you’d think Scientific Learning would have a place in every school. But most curricula focus on content, not basic learning skills, Miller complains. “Exercises like ours raise IQ scores,” he said. “But a lot of districts and the public just don’t get that.”

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