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John Eggers: Old advice is good advice: Use your brain

Isn't it interesting that if you wish to find out more about the brain, you have to use your brain to do it? If a person has a given amount of intelligence, is there a point where you can't learn any more about the brain?

It's questions like these that my graduate students ask me in a class that I have been teaching since the early 1990s. The class is called "Brain Based Teaching." Here is a sampling of the questions they ask and my attempt at giving them a reasonable answer.

Question: Why do some kids like to read and others don't? I know of kids who were around books all of their life, parents read to them and still they were not attracted to reading. Why?

Answer: Kids are more likely to enjoy reading and be good at it when they are around reading throughout their life but it is no guarantee. Since all of our brains are wired differently, some of us just don't cotton to reading. It doesn't mean that we can't or aren't any good at it, we just would rather do something else. This is true more for boys than girls. The thing to remember is that our chances of being good readers are better if we are introduced to it at an early age, find success at it and enjoy it.

Q: Why do so many people get Alzheimer's today?

A: Years ago, Alzheimer's was not so prevalent because many people died much earlier. Like our legs and heart, our brain gets old, dries up and just wears out, which is probably the simplest answer as to why we get Alzheimer's. The older we get the more likely we will succumb to some form of dementia like Alzheimer's.

Q: After taking a foreign language for three or four years in school, why can't we speak it?

A: Learning to speak a language even after taking it for four years is difficult when you can't practice it outside the classroom. The best way to learn a language is to go to the country where it is spoken and spend several months living there.

Wouldn't it be nice if we would teach all young students another language? There are an increasing number of language immersion schools that offer all elementary students the opportunity to learn another language. This makes sense because unless a child learns to speak another language by age eight or so, chances are they will never be able to speak it like a native. The brain cells of young people are relatively fresh and ready to learn. The older we get, the more difficult it is for the brain to switch from one language to another. So, yes, it would be nice if we all knew at least one more language. With the growing number of Hispanics in the U.S., it may happen sooner than we think.

Q: Why are schools just getting around to integrating brain research into the classroom?

A: Actually, educators have been connecting brain research to teaching at least since the 1970s on a limited basis. Too often, however, brain researchers have not broken down the research into useable bits of info for teachers. Still, the research is very clear about how we should teach according to how the brain learns. Teacher training could also do more to show how teachers can use the findings of brain research to improve teaching.

Q: How does visualization apply to math and science?

A: Coaches and athletes often use visualization. Coaches ask athletes to picture themselves doing a backflip or a certain kind of dive or winning a 400-meter race. If athletes can picture something in their mind, they are more likely to actually do it.

Using visualization to teach math and science could happen this way. First, let's practice what visualization really is. Second, let's start out with an easy problem. Can you visualize it in your mind? Can you see the problem and the solution? Third, now let's try it with a more difficult problem. Can you see it, picture it and imagine it? Let's do five problems together where you first picture it in your mind, do it in your mind and then write it down on paper. Visualization depends on how well the teacher introduces the concept of visualization to the students and gives them time to practice it. Naturally, the teacher has to believe in it as well.

Q: Why do we lose neurons?

A: As kids grow, neurons in the brain branch out and make new connections. You could even say that the life of a neuron is all about connections. If neurons don't form connections with each other, they'll eventually die. Luckily, we're born with far more neurons than we need and some neuron loss is a normal part of brain development.

Around age 20, we begin to lose neurons through the process of aging. By 75, nearly one-tenth of the neurons you were born with have died. That may sound frightening, but it doesn't mean you lose ten percent of your intelligence.

Here's what you need to know. Our brains need stimulation. Parents, teachers, other kids, traveling, conversation, and books, among other things, stimulate brain growth. It's important that kids receive this stimulation otherwise no growth will occur. We can say, the more stimulation, the more intelligent kids will be. This is why all kids need to stay in school, which is a source of major brain activity.

Q: What about the brain and drinking?

A: Obviously, a casual drinker doesn't need to worry about neuron loss. If that were the case, countries like Italy and France would be filled with dummies because wine is drunk like we drink milk. It's the excessive drinker, the alcoholic, who needs to worry about neuron loss. Alcoholics die 20 years sooner on average than the general population.

Q: How does the brain stay healthy?

A: Think of the brain as a muscle. It needs exercise, a good diet and rest like muscles. If it doesn't get it, the brain will atrophy. We have seen this in cases where children have been intentionally locked up for years. We all need to exercise our brain and then get plenty of sleep so it has time to store the information it has learned. This is a good time to stop so you can take a nap and give your brain time to store what you have learned.