Music and Language: The Work of Nina Kraus

Nina_Kraus_Dialogue.jpgThis week, we posted a Q&A with auditory neuroscientist Nina Kraus, who received a Dana Foundation grant to further her study of aspects of music and cognition. She and her colleagues at Northwestern University have discovered, among other things, that synchronization ability, like tapping your foot along to a beat, matches the rapid brain activity linked to reading, language, and phonological skills. Understanding children’s rhythmic strengths and bottlenecks could help teachers help them improve language skills.

It’s an interesting connection—and may not seem so obvious at first. Reading involves your eyes, right? So why would learning to read have anything to do with processing sound?

But we learn to speak before we learn to read. We make sound-to-meaning connections there. As we read the letters on the page, we are connecting those images with the letter sounds. That provides the foundation for later literacy. If there are not good sound-to-meaning connections, if language is not strong, it will be more difficult for a child to learn to read. If we could find a way to strengthen the sound-to-meaning connections in the brain—because, as we know, the brain is very malleable—we might be able to help children learn to read more easily.

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Challenging the Perception of Early Achievers

Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard is a self-professed late bloomer. At 26 years old, he was a graduate of Stanford University (which he says he got into on a fluke) working as a security guard, with little direction in life. It wasn’t until soon after, when he was given an opportunity to be a technical writer, that he “felt a cognitive renaissance in that path.”

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Kevin Ochsner. Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

At last week’s Brainwave event at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, Karlgaard sat down with neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner, whose lab studies emotion and self-control at Columbia University, for a conversation about late bloomers. What started as an exchange about their personal experiences soon became a discussion over the pros and cons of early focus versus finding one’s path later in life.

Both guests criticized the pressure placed on children by schools and oftentimes parents to be high achievers at early ages when critical capabilities are still evolving. Kaarlgard cited research by Harvard’s Laura Germine and colleagues, who reported that different capabilities peak in different stages of our lives. For example, raw speed in processing information seemed to peak around age 18 or 19, while the ability to evaluate other people’s emotional states did not peak until the 40s or 50s.

Ochsner warned of defining achievement too narrowly, as standardized tests, such as the SAT and GRE, often do, without taking into account other forms of intelligence, especially emotional intelligence. Historically, passion and reason were treated as distinct, “as one rises, the other falls,” he said. But that model does not match the research. Gut feelings and insight are largely driven by systems associated with emotion, he said.

Ochsner told the audience that when interviewing Ph.D. candidates at Columbia, he won’t consider applicants who don’t show interests beyond academics. These students have proven they’re very good at being students, in a set structure, he said, but being a Ph.D. student is like being an entrepreneur of your own company. They need to be able to handle criticism and choose their areas of study, he explained. Demonstrated characteristics like maturity and resilience score high during his application evaluations.

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Rich Karlgaard. Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

Passion as a driving force to success was a theme revisited throughout the night’s discussion; early achievers often seem to know what they want to do from a young age and receive validation for it, while late bloomers may want to explore options before settling down in one area, Karlgaard posited. Being a late bloomer is “the perfect intersection of our deepest passions and talents,” he said.

Both speakers had ideas on how to nurture curiosity and exploration in a data-driven world. Karlgaard proposed a skilled trades track in school (what used to be called “shop”), gap years in between high school and college (but not just a long vacation), and mandatory service, whether military or community service.

Ochsner circled back to the importance of nurturing emotional or social intelligence so that you can “learn how to get out of your own way and access your own potential.” He pointed to the work being done at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, where they have designed curriculum for schools that supports the development of emotional intelligence.

Ochsner also called out what he saw as trends in education that have not proven to work. Assigning homework at early grade levels and over-planning kids’ afterschool activities have not been proven to help them succeed, he said. Taking away recess is a “huge mistake.”

With that food for thought, Tim McHenry, director of programs and engagement at the Rubin Museum, closed the night’s discussion by tying it back to the museum’s Himalayan roots, noting the increase in meditation in classrooms and the growing scientific validation for it, as a way to achieve a sense of balance.

Brainwave events are planned through September. To see the remaining events and to purchase tickets, visit the Rubin Museum website.

– Ann L. Whitman

Movies On the Brain

In 2018, more than 1.3 billion movie tickets were reportedly sold in the US and Canada, alone, so I think it’s safe to say, people like watching movies. Why not take advantage of their widespread popularity and plan a movie screening or film festival for Brain Awareness Week!

Already a proven and popular activity among Brain Awareness Week partners, screenings can work in a more formal setting for adults, but also as a classroom activity for kids. To make them truly informational, it’s great to follow the movie with a lecture or panel discussion featuring experts on the move topic, or with a classroom discussion between a teacher and students.

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Community Neuroscience: How to Build an Outreach Organization

The latest episode of Community Neuroscience is out and all about how to build an outreach organization from the ground up. Neuroscientist Bill Griesar, Ph.D., and artist Jeff Leake, M.F.A., are faculty members of Portland State University’s psychology department, and together they are the brains behind NW Noggin (Northwest Neuroscience Outreach Group: Growing in Networks).

Founded in 2012, the arts-influenced outreach group is a volunteer-based nonprofit organization with a mission to turn kids on to the wonders of neuroscience. Bill and Jeff have since traveled all across the country to schools, displaced youth shelters, correctional facilities, and even the White House to promote learning about the brain. You can learn more about them and their work in a past Dana Blog interview.

#BrainWeek 2019 Sticker Design Contest Winners

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We are pleased to announce the winners of our second annual Sticker Design Contest for Brain Awareness Week! The designs we received this year demonstrated creative talent and enthusiasm for the brain from people around the world. Out of five finalists, the first-, second-, and third-place winners have been chosen by the public through an online survey.

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First place winner Leonor Castro Caldas Braga

Leonor Castro Caldas Braga from Lisbon, Portugal, created the first-place design, which will be printed on thousands of stickers to be distributed for Brain Awareness Week, March 11-17, 2019. Braga is a 15-year-old student, whose mother, Margarida Castro Caldas Braga, has been a Brain Awareness Week partner at the Universidade NOVA de Lisboa for several years, and received the e-mail announcing the contest. Continue reading

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