New York Times: The Bilingual Advantage and the Efficient Brain

Switching back-and-forth between languages is like a workout for the brain reports the New York Times, which explores how research is exploring why bilingualism might be a big advantage in a child’s cognitive development.

Much like learning music, it turns out that bilingualism plays, well, a dual purpose: giving kids the advantages of knowing a second language but also better preparing their brains for learning.

Having a bilingual brain means that there are often two language systems working concurrently. This can help hone the brain to suppress unneeded information and ‘train’ the brain to run more efficiently. Not only do the brains of bilingual kids weed out irrelevant information but they’re also tend to monitor there environment more effectively, this is especially true for children whom must switch languages briskly.

Image from New York Times

Why Bilingual Brains are More Efficient
“Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often — you may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language,” says researcher Albert Costa of the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain.

“It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.”

In a study comparing German-Italian bilinguals with Italian monolinguals on monitoring tasks, Mr. Costa and his colleagues found that the bilingual subjects not only performed better, but they also did so with less activity in parts of the brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more efficient at it.”

The Times also reports on research by Dr. Ellen Bialystok who will be a keynote presenter at the Brain Power Conference, May 3-4.

“In a 2004 study by the psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee, bilingual and monolingual preschoolers were asked to sort blue circles and red squares presented on a computer screen into two digital bins — one marked with a blue square and the other marked with a red circle. In the first task, the children had to sort the shapes by color, placing blue circles in the bin marked with the blue square and red squares in the bin marked with the red circle. Both groups did this with comparable ease. Next, the children were asked to sort by shape, which was more challenging because it required placing the images in a bin marked with a conflicting color. The bilinguals were quicker at performing this task.”

Setting the Stage for Lifelong Cognitive Fitness
The benefits of being bilingual are not spent entirely on children. Research from The University of California, San Diego details the effect of bilingualism on the elderly as well. Bilingual adults are showing increased resistance to Alzheimer’s disease, the more proficient in language skills a person is the later Alzheimer’s onsets.

Join us at the Brain Power Conference as these and other issues are explained and explored with practical tips for parents and teachers on how the findings of neuroscience can give every child a leg-up on lifelong learning.

Selfish Child, Selfish Brain? It May Be Built In

Every parent has witnessed their little ones being selfish at least once, but it turns out they may be ‘wired’ that way! It turns out that selfish behaviour can be blamed, in part, on an underdeveloped region of the brain.

LiveScience reports on a new study suggesting that this could in fact be the case. The study was conducted at the Max-Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany. During the study 146 children paired off and played two different games with each other:

In the study, 146 children participated in two games, played in pairs. In the “Dictator Game,” one child offered to share a reward, and another child could only accept what was offered. In the “Ultimatum Game,” one child could propose sharing the reward, but the other child could accept or reject the offer. If the child rejected the offer, neither child received a reward.

As was expected older children were more generous than their younger counterparts inferring that impulse control matured with the child. Brain scans were conducted on on both children and adults involved in the study that showed “a region called dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, located in the left side of the brain, toward the front, was more developed in adults. The area is considered to be involved with impulse control.”

LiveScience reports that “the results suggest that selfish behavior in children may not be due to their inability to know ‘fair’ from ‘unfair’, but rather an immature part of the brain that doesn’t support selfless behavior when tempted to act selfishly.”

Understanding how a child’s brain works is the topic of the Brain Power Conference, May 3-4 in Toronto. But just as important as understanding it is giving tools and insights to parents to know how to help their kid’s learn and grow – and when not to worry because sometimes a selfish act is all in the mind!

The Creative Left Brain? It Takes Two to Tango

Creative tasks aren’t the exclusive domain of the right brain, according to research from USC, where neuroscientists are trying to pin down the source of creativity.

The research “demonstrated that while the right half of your brain performs the bulk of the heavy lifting when you’re being creative, it does call for help from the left half of your noggin”, reports Science Daily.

The findings confirm what neuroscientists have discovered when examining musical improvisation: that the brain doesn’t parcel out tasks to just one side of the brain, and that the left brain plays an important supporting role.

The study sheds insight into why things like learning a language or playing an instrument can have such a powerful impact on cognitive development: tasks are shared across the brain, and the impact of the ‘transfer effect’ is that although you might be primarily exercising one part of your brain, you’re also creating neuronal connections across the hemispheres.

Understanding how the brain ‘shares’ functions is a key topic at the Brain Power Conference, May 3-4 in Toronto. By understanding how this works, it’s possible to ‘strengthen’ the brain and increase a child’s capacity to learn.

The Atlantic: Kids Are Changing, Neuroplasticity is Real, and Education Needs a Revolution

Image from The Atlantic

Neuroplasticity is ‘real’ reports The Atlantic, and our understanding of how the brain is wired and changes arrives at a time that “multitasking is, indeed, the new norm; that hyperconnectivity may be leading to a lack of patience and concentration; and that an “always on” ethos may be encouraging a culture of expectation and instant gratification.”

Elon University and the Pew Internet and American Life Project released a report this week which is generating a lot of discussion online – particularly for its findings on the ways in which Millenials will ‘suffer’ in a hyper-connected age. Says the report:

Analysts generally believe many young people growing up in today’s networked world and counting on the internet as their external brain will be nimble analysts and decision-makers who will do well. But these experts also expect that constantly connected teens and young adults will thirst for instant gratification and often make quick, shallow choices. Where will that leave us in 2020? These survey respondents urge major education reform to emphasize new skills and literacies

The Atlantic points out that perhaps the key to the findings are its implications for what happens in the classroom:

(It was a) matter of general consensus among the experts they surveyed: that our education systems will need to be updated, drastically, to suit the new realities of the intellectual environment. “There is a palpable concern among these experts,” Rainie puts it, “that new social and economic divisions will emerge as those who are motivated and well-schooled reap rewards that are not matched by those who fail to master new media and tech literacies.” As a result: “Many of the experts called for reinvention of public education to teach those skills and help learners avoid some of the obvious pitfalls of a hyper-connected lifestyle.”

The report explores the contentious idea that brains are being ‘rewired’ in the face of technological change. Cathy Cavanaugh, an associate professor of educational technology at the University of Florida, notes in the report:

“Throughout human history, human brains have elastically responded to changes in environments, society, and technology by ‘rewiring’ themselves. This is an evolutionary
advantage and a way that human brains are suited to function.”

Susan Price, CEO and chief Web strategist at Firecat Studio and an organizer of TEDx in San Antonio, Texas, is optimistic. “The amazing plasticity of the brain is nowhere as evident in the rapid adaptations humans are making in response to our unprecedented access to electronic information,” she wrote. “Those who bemoan the perceived decline in deep thinking or engagement, face-to-face social skills and dependency on technology fail to appreciate the need to evolve our processes and behaviors to suit the new reality and opportunities. Young people and those who embrace the new connectedness are developing and evolving new standards and skills at a rate unprecedented in our history. Overall, our ability to connect, share and exchange information with other human beings is a strong net positive for humanity.

Not everyone agrees with the concept that brains will evolve or ‘rewire’ because of a hyper-connected age. But what most of the respondents agree to is that a revolution will happen in the classroom.

The entire report makes for provocative reading. Many of these issues will be hot topics, of course, at the upcoming Brain Power Conference, May 3-4 in Toronto. We hope you’ll join us for this two day exploration of a child’s brain and its implications for parenting, teaching, and a life of learning.

You Can’t Always Change a Child’s Mind, But Can You Change Their Brain?

For the past year or so I’ve been lucky enough to work closely with some of the leading scientists in the field of ‘neuroeducation’. These are the neuroscientists, educators, researchers and media developers who are advancing our understanding of how the brain works and what it means for the future of childhood development.

As we head towards the Brain Power Conference in Toronto, I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned.

Because to be honest, if you’re a parent or teacher you’re probably reacting a lot like I did when I first learned about this field: talking about neuroscience in the same breath as “preschool” sounds a lot like science fiction.

Or if you imagine a day when how we teach is influenced by what we know about the brain it can seem kind of scary.

If I’m a parent, will I be hooking my kid up to a scanning machine so I can track their brain waves? Will great teaching disappear in the face of ‘neurologically programmed curricula’?

But what I’ve learned over the past year is that we truly are heading towards a revolution in teaching, parenting and childhood development.

It’s a revolution informed by our ability to understand the brain in ways we couldn’t before; by technologies that can make education more fun, engaging, and child-centred; and by a validation that holistic approaches matter – and that the science proves it.

So, What IS Neuroeducation?
I don’t know about you, but when I hear the term “brain training” it conjures up images of flip cards or computer games. I imagine being drilled with a bunch of math questions or trying to solve a Rubix-cube (and if you’re anything like me, you have a Rubix cube in a drawer somewhere which is the only real solution you could come up with!)

But there’s another term the scientists use: “neuroeducation”.

Maybe it’s ‘brain training’ under a different name, but it maybe gets us a bit closer to what the scientists are really talking about.

And the reason is this: ‘training’ implies that you’re getting a workout, you’re exercising, or you’re sharpening up skills that already exist. But that’s not what the neuroscientists think is possible based on their growing understanding of how the brain works.

The Capacity to Learn May Be As Important As What is Taught
Rather, neuroscience has shown us that it’s possible to change the way the brain itself works. It has shown we can directly impact a child’s capacity to learn – you can “educate the brain”, and by changing the brain you can make a child smarter, more attentive, and more receptive to what they learn.

A neuroscientist gave me the example of a mother who was concerned about their child’s slow acquisition of math skills. It turned out that the child’s brain had not yet established all of the neural connections that allow for focus and attention. It wasn’t that the child couldn’t understand the math, the problem was that the child’s cognitive processes didn’t yet allow the child to pay attention long enough to fully ‘receive’ the math concepts.

Neuroeducation would say that by focusing on developing that part of the brain which facilitates focus and attention, the capacity to learn math (or language or music or art) can be improved.

But Is It Practical?
At the Brain Power Conference we’ve invited some pretty amazing speakers to talk about the brain, childhood development and education. And I won’t steal their thunder – but what’s become clear to me over the past year or so is that ‘neuroeducation’ isn’t just something that scientists dreamed up in a lab – it will have practical, real-world implications.

And what’s also become clear is that ‘neuroeducation’ isn’t in conflict with great parenting or great teaching – in most cases, the science of the brain validates good old-fashioned common sense. It demonstrates that a holistic approach to a child’s development still matters, and things like nutrition or exercise or play don’t suddenly take a back seat to The Brain.

But in other cases, neuroeducation might be upsetting conventional wisdom: how teachers give exams, how a child studies, or how a child is rewarded for achievement are all areas that deserve a second look as we come to understand the mechanisms of a child’s brain.

It may never be possible to change a child’s mind (as far as I know, there’s no magic bullet to suddenly make spinach yummy!) – but as we learn about how we can influence the development of their brain, we might be giving them a head start on a life of learning.

As always, I invite you to the Brain Power Conference, May 3-4 in Toronto. We’ve arranged two-days of keynote presentations, small group workshops, hands-on demonstrations and lots of insight into these and other topics – and I hope you’ll join us for this landmark event.

Five myths about brain development in children

Parents want the best for their children and will go to great efforts to ensure they raise smart and successful youngsters. However, research has shown that parents may want to rethink about what’s best for their children. Five common myths have been identified and tips developed to help parents do a better job.

Myth #1: Breastfeeding increases intelligence. While it is true that children who are breastfed generally have higher intelligence, it probably has more to do with the mother than breastfeeding. A mother who has 15 more IQ points than say her neighbour, is twice as likely to breastfeed. Intelligence is partly genetically inherited and parental intelligence can create a more stimulating environment thus providing two advantages for the baby’s development. In essence: smart mothers have smart babies.

When these characteristics are taken into account, researchers have found little or no effect on IQ associated with breastfeeding. It has also been shown that giving the baby an occasional feed with formula will not have a negative impact on the baby’s intellectual development. In fact, feeding with soy or hydrolzyed-milk formula has an unexpected benefit: Children are more likely to eat vegetables such as broccoli at the age of five years. It’s not clear why this is but it could have something to do with the baby learning to link calorie content with bitter flavours which turn up later in vegetables.

Myth #2: Playing classical music to babies makes them smarter. Of all the brain myths around, this on is the most persistent even though the scientific evidence is completely lacking. While passive listening to music will not make a baby smarter, learning to play a musical instrument can increase IQ. The difference is that active engagement is essential to learning and intellectual development.

Myth #3: Pregnant women should avoid eating fish. It has long been assumed that women who are pregnant should limit their consumption of fish because exposure to mercury in the womb can harm a baby’s brain development. But fish are also a major source of omega-3 fatty acids, crucial for normal brain development. Prenatal deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids can lead to mental retardation. In one study in which researchers interviewed 11,875 women during their third trimester and then later on tested their children’s cognitive abilities found that mothers who had avoided seafood were more likely to have children with fine motor deficits, communication problems, poor social behaviour and low verbal IQ. While it may be good to avoid predator fish such as swordfish and shark as the mercury is concentrated in their tissues, other fish such as salmon and sardines are good for babies.

Myth #4: Baby videos improve brain development. While marketers claim that videos such as Baby Einstein and Brain Baby give children’s brains a head start, research shows the opposite. Before the age of two years, watching TV has no benefits and may in fact do harm. Babies watching two or more hours of TV a day before the age of one, are six times more likely to have a language delay.

What babies like about videos are the quick cuts and bright colours. However, exposure to fast-paced entertainment may interfere with the transition to voluntary attention, which happens after 10 months of age. And those who watch violent shows before the age of three, are more than twice as likely to develop attention-deficit disorder.

It’s far better for babies to hear many words from real, live adults. And the greatest effect is achieved when adults respond with excitement to what the baby is trying to say.

Myth #5: Building self-esteem increases achievement. Contrary to belief, children do not benefit from cries of “Good job!”. Children can detect empty praise and after the age of six years, they realize the adult is not expecting very much. It’s better to give praise for specific actions as that carries a clear message about the behaviour desired. By providing high but achievable expectations, children are given the tools to achieve real success and and ultimately self-esteem.


Sound, motion, graphics engage brain more fully

Using multimedia (sound, motion, graphics) may more fully engage the brain and help bring data to life. For example, images from the National Institutes of Health show brain activity that relates to processing and speaking words when multimedia is used.

While advertisers have known about the effects of multimedia and made effective use of it, there is the potential for making empirical data more engaging. While it can be stated what the cost is of say pollution, it also needs to be conveyed in a visual way.

The New England Journal of Medicine is starting to realize the importance of animated data. For example, the journal has used animated data to show the shifting patterns of obesity in a community. There is also a publication — Journal of Visualized Experiments — now available that examines the use of video to convey data.

Early training in mathematics can lead to academic success

Guest Article
This article was written by Madeline Harris. She is a graduate of Queen’s University with a degree in Psychology and English. She is actively pursuing a career in neuroscience and excited to be a part of the Brain Power Initiative.

Future academic success can be determined by a firm understanding of the basic concepts of mathematics at a very young age, say Douglas Clements and Julie Sarama from the Graduate School of Education at the University of Buffalo.1* This success is apparent not only in later mathematics performance, but also in subjects across the board including science and reading. However, many children throughout the world do not experience the degree of early education necessary to start this advancement process.

Children as young as three years have the potential to learn mathematics that is both “deep and broad”.1 Without the proper type of educational intervention, children who enter a classroom with less experience than their peers will continue to underperform by comparison. But according to Clements and Sarama, structured, research-based training has shown to be effective in increasing mathematical knowledge and bridging this gap.  In other words, children who enter a classroom at a lower academic level owing to a lack of learning opportunities in their early years are not necessarily destined to perpetuate this trend.

Key features of these supported research-based programs include the proper training and education of teachers,2 using familiar concepts and activities involving numbers as a foundation upon which to build,3 and assessing a child’s current mathematic abilities to identify an appropriate starting point.4 This means that teachers will introduce concepts such as quantity comparison and change using objects like blocks and puzzles with which children are already comfortable.

One of Clements and Sarama’s programs is called Building Blocks. In a 2007 study, children educated with the Building Blocks curriculum significantly outperformed children who were educated with a more traditional curriculum after 25 weeks of instruction.5 While the average pre-test scores for the traditional group and the Building Blocks group were similar, 8.44 and 9.67 respectively, the average post-test scores were 17.93 versus 29.46, a highly significant difference.

In addition to providing equal learning opportunities for children with different levels of experience, this training may also be effective in improving the potential negative effects of some teachers’ low expectations of children who typically underperform.6 With the research-based training, teachers are better able to observe the individual strengths of children and assess how to aid them in their continued academic growth.

As supported by the research above, teaching children mathematics should be less about “drilling basic facts” and more about building strong foundations at an early age that will better equip children for future academic growth.1 If this method of teaching is set forth, children will have the opportunity to succeed in learning key mathematical concepts no matter what their prior experience.


1. Clements DH, et al., Early Childhood Mathematics Intervention. Science 333, 968 (2011).

2. National Research Council, Mathematics in Early Childhood: Learning Paths Toward Excellence and Equity. Cross CT, Woods TA, Schwingruber H (eds.) (National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 2009.)

3. Clements DH, Sarama J. J Res Math Educ 38, 136 (2007).

4. Sarama J, Clements DH, Starkey P, Klein A, Wakeley A. J Res Educ Eff. 1, 89 (2008).

5. Clements DH, Sarama J. Effects of a Preschool Mathematics Curriculum: Summative Research on the Building Blocks Program. J Res Math Educ. 38(2), 136-163 (2007).

6. National Mathematics Advisory Panel, Foundations for Success: The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. (US Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Washington, DC, 2008).

Humor No Joking Matter When It Comes to a Child’s Brain: Stanford University

Child's brain

Image from CBS

Humor is no joke when it comes to its effects on a child’s brain according to research from Stanford University.

“How you relate to peers, how you understand your peer group, how they relate to you, whether they are accepting of your participation, and humor definitely plays a role during childhood,” said Reiss. He believes that humor helps make people resilient, improving their ability to cope with stressful circumstances.

With an increased ability to now ‘look inside the brain’ scientists are finding all kinds of new ways that a child’s brain reacts, grows and develops.

It turns out that you can even map the brain’s equivalent of the funny bone!

Findings reported in the “Journal of Neuroscience” show that some of the same brain circuitry that responds to humor in adults already exists in 6 to 12 year-olds.

“(It is) in a less mature state than adults, but it is already present in children ages 6-12,” said Reiss, senior author of the study. “That’s really interesting.”

The scientists speculate the by understanding how humor activates the brain opens the door to additional research on its impact on childhood development: “How does a brain that processes humor more effectively, or more robustly, correlate with a child’s quality of life, with temperament, with adaptation to stress?”

How a child’s brain develops and the value of neuroeducation is the topic of the first annual Brain Power Conference, May 3-4 in Toronto.

Playing helps children’s brains grow

The Scottish government’s Early Years campaign is asking parents and those who look after children to play, talk and read with their young ones more frequently. This comes as a result of research showing that during the  first three years of life, 75 per cent of brain growth is completed with an estimated 50 per cent of language being in place. Studies have also shown that parents who talk to their children a lot can increase the number of words their children know by as many as 250 by the age of two years.

Simple things such as singing nursery rhymes, kicking a ball with a parent or colouring in can have a major effect on a child’s ability to learn, social behaviour and chances in life.

“With so many pressures on parents these days it’s easy to lose track of what wee ones need to grow up bright, balanced and resilient. ‘Play Talk Read’ sums it up. From the moment they’re born, children need real-life play and fun activities to develop their physical co-ordination and control. They need mum and dad to talk to them about everyday events to develop their language and social skills. And they need stories, rhymes and songs to lay the foundation for success at school,” says Sue Sue Palmer, literacy expert and chair of the Scottish Play Policy Forum.

Playing with children doesn’t have to cost a lot. Through making time to read books, singing songs, pulling funny faces or playing with whatever is at hand, parents can give their child the best start in life. Some ideas include:
  • Grabbing some paper and letting them get creative with pencils and crayons.
  • Creating a secret hideaway by throwing a sheet over a table or chairs so they have a new space to play in.
  • Getting outside into the fresh air as often as possible so they have a chance to play with what nature has to offer.
  • Making salt dough — children love messy play.
  • Cooking with your children — making cupcakes is fun and a great way for them to get creative.

For practical tips on helping a child’s brain development the Brain Power Conference will offer hands-on workshops with experts in the field.