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Review of  The Learning Brain

Reviewer: Alona Soschen
Book Title: The Learning Brain
Book Author: Sarah-Jayne Blakemore Uta Frith
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science
Book Announcement: 18.210

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AUTHOR: Blakemore, Sarah-Jayne and Uta Frith TITLE: The Learning
Brain. Lessons for Education YEAR: 2005. PUBLISHER: Blackwell
Publishing Dr. Alona Soschen, Department of Linguistics and
Philosophy and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT.
''The Learning Brain'' is written by two leading authorities in the
field. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is engaged in neuroscience research, for
which she obtained the 2001 British Psychological Society Award. Uta
Frith is the author of well-known books on autism and Asperger
syndrome. The present work provides a detailed account of how our
brain learns during the whole of development including adulthood, and
discusses the implications of this knowledge for educational policy
and practice. It aims to demonstrate, with examples, how brain
research on learning at different ages could influence and improve our
understanding of teaching. Cognitive psychology is viewed as
tailor-made for the role of a mediator between brain science and
education. 1. Introduction In the introduction, the authors
discuss the importance of interactions between brain scientists and
educators, nature and nurture factors, misconceptions about
neuroscience, genetics, disorders of the developing brain, and the
brain's aging. In addition, basic information on neuronal organization
is provided, accompanied by illustrations. Modern techniques used to
study the brain are addressed in a concise form; a more detailed
overview of these techniques can be found in the Appendix at the back
of the book. 2. The Developing Brain What changes in the
brain during development? Is it too late for change after the age of
three? The authors contend that synaptogenesis is considerably
longer. The process of adding myelin to axons - which acts as an
insulator speeding up movement of impulses down the neuron - continues
well into teens and twenties. Synaptogenesis may be linked to the
initial emergence of some skills and capacities, but their refinement
continues after synaptic densities are cut back through pruning (1).
The chapter addresses the important question of whether knowledge
about the world arises from formal education, or develops better
without any explicit teaching, through exploration and
communication. Would children develop better mathematical, language,
and musical abilities through intensive instruction such as
'hot-housing'? Aren't these important abilities based mostly on
everyday experiences such as social interaction and sharing? The
discussion focuses on several closely related issues, such as
sensitive periods in learning and the importance of enriched
environments. 3. Words and Numbers in Early Childhood This
part concentrates on the development of language and arithmetic skills
in children. The authors provide examples of experimental work showing
that abstract rules for learning a natural language are innate, while
language-specific parameters are not. In the process of learning, some
features such as certain phonological differences either become more
prominent or lose their significance, depending on the language being
acquired (2)(3). The authors address a foreign accent problem,
babbling in babies, fast-mapping and dyspraxia (difficulties in motor
coordination), and raise the question whether infants can be taught to
write before the age of five, given the under-developed fine finger
coordination at that age. Another important issue under consideration
in Chapter 3 is whether very young children have a concept of
number. 4. The Mathematical Brain The parietal lobe involved
in spatial orientation is also associated with mathematical
abilities. Calculation abilities depend on the hemisphere responsible
for different components of mathematics. The focus of this part is on
the studies of patients with brain damage and dyscalculia (4). As a
continuation of the discussion of mathematical abilities, the authors
introduce two controversial topics: the left brain/right brain theory,
and gender differences in the brain. 5. The Literate Brain
Brain research has shown that literacy has an effect on spoken
language processing. Chapter 5 concentrates on the experiments that
demonstrate differences between literate and illiterate brains and
expose the brain's reading system. Interestingly, the differences in
the weighting of certain regions of the reading system in different
languages show that more work is done either by the region responsible
for whole word recognition (English) or by the region responsible for
letter-sound translation (Italian). 6. Learning to Read and its
Difficulties The studies showed that even in the youngest
readers, reading induced neural activity in left hemisphere areas and
a switch of activity from right to left: activity declined in right
hemisphere areas during the same time period. The development of
reading skills, reading impairments such as dyslexia, teaching
dyslexic people to read, and the effects of remedial teaching are the
main focus of the experimental work under discussion. The studies
suggest that dyslexics can boost integration of the sight and sound of
words by recruiting their right parietal lobe, in contrast with
unimpaired readers who are automatically given this integration
through the specialized areas of the reading system in the left
hemisphere. 7. Disorders of Social-Emotional Development The
authors look at developmental disorders that affect social and
emotional experience, in particular the attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder ADHD, conduct, empathy and moral sensitivity
disorders, Asperger syndrome, and autism. A question that needs to be
answered is whether it is the existence of different modules in the
brain that accounts for the unusual talents in autism, showing that in
this case, only some but not all brain systems are disrupted. Is it
possible that instead of some kind of pre-programming inherent in the
brain, experience itself will lead to the gradual development of
modules in adults (5)? Theories of developmental disorders may have
effects on remedial teaching and help find the ways to overcome
problems such as mind blindness – the ability to relate to
other minds - in autism. 8. The Adolescent Brain The brain
undergoes a second wave of development during adolescence. How does
puberty affect it? As neurons develop, the transmission speed gets
faster, and vigorous synaptic pruning occurs after puberty in the
frontal lobes. The researchers concluded that a decrease in synaptic
density and a simultaneous increase in axonal myelination are
evidenced by the loss of gray matter and constant increase in white
matter. In behavior, social awareness seems to show a massive change:
fear might become rewarding, and peer pressure can start to determine
actions. Decision making and the ability to carry out multiple tasks
at once are abilities that might improve during adolescence; however,
the studies show that there is a dip of performance on tasks that
require decision making. The frontal cortex develops in a nonlinear
fashion; the teen frontal lobes undergo a phase of waxing and
waning. 9. Life Long Learning Recent research has revealed
that the adult brain is able to change in size and activity, thus
allowing it to continue learning. Plasticity occurs as a compensatory
mechanism in people who have lost some function. The visual cortex
takes over the job of processing tactile information in blind people
who read Braille, which attests to the adaptive capacity of the
brain. Adult brains can grow new cells: the important implication is
that exercise boosts both learning and brain development, releasing
the hidden powers of the human mind. 10. Learning and
Remembering Neuroscience is beginning to understand the brain
mechanisms underlying learning. The aim of this part is to reveal the
nature of learning itself, which can be achieved by studying the
neural structures involved in learning and memory processes. This
research will answer the questions of how learning can be enhanced,
and how we can learn without even being aware of it. In this chapter,
the authors discuss learning and remembering skills, different types
of memory and its disorders. We know hardly anything about what goes
on in the brain when we teach; the authors view theory of mind as a
prerequisite for purposeful teaching. 11. Different Ways of
Learning The older one gets, the harder rote learning –
i.e. by repeating words over and over – seems to become. Brain
science provides further evidence for other effective methods of
learning, such as visual and emotional imagery. It was discovered that
certain neurons in the premotor cortex of a monkey's brain 'fire' when
the monkey observes someone grasping an object. Interestingly, it is a
goal directed action performed by a hand that grasps the object that
interests those cells, not the object itself. Imitation is important
for learning: inhibition occurs gradually, allowing children to
imitate more, thus learning more. Experimental psychology has long
established that mental exercise is important for learning various
skills: it can be exploited in training of physical skills such as
sport and dancing. Cognitive therapy that retrains people in the way
they think about a particular issue is often successful in treating
problems such as phobias, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and
anorexia. 12. Harnessing the Learning Powers of the Brain In
the final chapter, the authors speculate about how various lines of
research are shedding light on biological and sociological aspects of
learning. This part provides a discussion of sleep, hypnosis, emotion,
reward, risk taking, and nutrients that change the brain
processes. For example, the brain, although fast asleep, is still
taking in salient information. Sleep deprivation has detrimental
effects on memory, while sufficient sleep facilitates
insight. Hypnosis may increase productivity in some individuals, while
emotionally charged events are always remembered better than neutral
events. Certain substances and foods are especially beneficial for
mental ability. Last but not least, the effect of social and other
rewards cannot be underestimated (6). In their conclusion, the
authors stress the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to the
study of learning mechanisms, a new science of learning that draws
from neurophysiology, psychology, and education (7). The book
also provides an Appendix, Glossary, References, Further Reading
Suggestions, and an Index. EVALUATION I enjoyed reading this
highly informative book, written in a way that makes it accessible not
only to specialists but to anyone interested in the study of
learning. The range of experimental work is particularly
impressive. Many of the experiments described are most interesting as
they are the ones that have not yet been widely reported. The chapters
are well-organized and accompanied by illustrations, many of which
will make you smile. Humor is definitely a powerful tool in bringing a
point across. I recommend this book to educators and others who wish
to know more about memory, learning, and cognition. In this
review, I have provided a brief summary of chapters, followed by
endnotes and references. In the endnotes, I offer some observations
and suggestions as to how the investigation of learning mechanisms
could be further developed and incorporated within the
interdisciplinary field that studies the human mind from a broader
perspective. ENDNOTES 1) Gallistel's The Organization of
Learning challenges commonly held beliefs about memory as consisting
of changes in the synaptic connections between neurons, and contends
that the only plausible elementary mechanisms common to learning in
general are the ones involved in the storing of the computed values of
variables and carrying out computation. This process is worthy of
intensive study at the neurobiological level and it ought to be of
interest to scientists who seek to discover the mechanisms that make
learning and higher cognitive function possible. Furthermore,
Gallistel suggests that the concept of a gradual learning curve is
inaccurate. Learning is more than the strengthening of associative
bonds between synapses - the reason why the rate of learning can vary
greatly from one subject to the next. 2) In the development of
visual perception, children born with cataracts after eye surgery
could distinguish between different faces but failed to distinguish
the ones that differed only in the arrangement of their features
(discussed on pp. 28-29). It shows that a human cognitive system
treats the significance of space as a parameter that has to be set
during a certain period of time. The example of children born with
visual defects can be regarded as parallel to certain cases of
individuals with language impairments. Those patients have their
vocabulary intact but their syntax - the dynamic part of language
responsible for the organization of lexical items – is
deficient. 3) See Kenneth Wexler's important work on the
development of language in children, syntax in particular. 4) The
observation that patients with an impaired system of calculation
(summation, subtraction) still preserve the ability to estimate
quantities confirms the idea that basic mental representations are
continuous rather than discrete. Gallistel et al. (to appear) arrive
at a conclusion that 'the non-verbal system for arithmetic reasoning
with mental magnitudes precedes the verbal system both
phylogenetically and ontogenetically...The special role of the natural
numbers in the cultural history of arithmetic is a consequence of the
discrete character of human language, which picks out of the system of
real numbers in the brain the discretely ordered subset generated by
the nonverbal counting process, and makes these the foundation of the
linguistically mediated conception of number.' 5) Cognitive
dissociations in autism may be caused by either limited growth or
excessive pruning of long-range connections early in development
(Brock et al. 2002). It is possible that excessive brain size in
autism is linked to the development of extra short-range connections
as a compensatory mechanism. 6) Certain ways of provoking
enthusiasm in learners can be close to manipulation, as in advertising
and politics (p.184). Establishing which context is healthy and which
is not should be one of the priorities in teaching. Importantly,
education exceeds school boundaries by far. While teaching science to
children is beneficial, the media's focus on promoting consumer goods
without any reference to the role of science and research involved in
their production is not. Education in any form should be enriching;
this goal is a challenge to all educators and the consumer-oriented
society itself. 7) How can we use our brain power more
effectively? (p. 187). Theoretical studies of the human mind such as
biolinguistics, a science that sees language as a part of a more
general system, cannot be underestimated. If Hauser et al. are right
and the only species-specific part of human language is recursion,
then finding out more about syntax - a unique type of recursive system
- might reveal the principled organization in the brain. This research
will lead to a better understanding of how our mind works and
eventually show ways to optimize learning and improve the development
of the brain. REFERENCES Brock, J., Brown, C. C., Boucher,
J., & Rippon, G. (2002). The temporal binding deficit hypothesis of
autism. Development and Psychopathology, 14, 209-224. Gallistel,
C.R. 1990. The organization of learning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gallistel, C.R., Gelman, R., and S. Cordes (to appear). The
cultural and evolutionary history of the real numbers. S. Levinson and
P. Jaisson (eds). Culture and evolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Hauser, Marc D., Chomsky, N., and W. T. Fitch. 2002. The Faculty of
Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve? Science 22
November 2002: Vol. 298. No. 5598, 1569 – 1579.

Dr. Alona Soschen is a scholar at the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT, a leading center for research on formal models of human language and the interrelations between linguistics, psychology, philosophy, and mathematics. Her interests include syntactic theories, comparative syntax (not limited to Slavic, Germanic, Romance, Semitic language groups), language acquisition, mathematical modeling of language, and modern studies of cognition. Her present work focuses on the Chomskyan Minimalist Program, while developing a biolinguistic approach to the core syntactic units and combining it with analyses implemented by means of formal logic. Her recent article "Natural Law: The dynamics of Syntactic Representations in MP" investigates the principles of argument structure and syntactic phase formation as a part of a more general model present in all biological systems of efficient growth, in an attempt to establish the criteria that single out these particular species-specific components of the Faculty of Language. The article can be found at

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