Offering a peek into our heads

The Education Beat

Brain: This "manual" gives information about how the mind works, including studies about reading disorders and language development.

September 10, 2000|By MIKE BOWLER | MIKE BOWLER,SUN STAFF

Is YOUR BRAIN suffering information Overload? Can't remember a darn thing?

Forget it, says Pierce J. Howard, an organizational Psychologist in Charlotte, N. C.

You're just tired. Take a short nap or a walk around the block, Your brain capacity is about 10 million books of a thousand pages each. "This outrageous capacity mandates humility," says Howard, who has written a book on brain research and its application to everyday life.

"The Owner's Manual for the Brain" (Bard Press, 831 pages, $34.95) ought to be on the shelves of every college of education. Its language is accessible but not simplistic -much in the manner of the late science writer Carl Sagan -- and it's filled with fascinating information about the mind, how it functions and how brain research can be put to good use.

Reading, of course, is a function of the brain. Yet education students typically get a fleeting overview of the brain's physical and cognitive properties (and what we don't know about it). The media don't help by tossing around such phrases as "brain-compatible learning," the title of a conference this week in Utah. "How does this differ from foot-compatible learning?" asked a reporter this summer in an Education Writers Association computer chat.

Still, new technology such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has allowed scientists to "take pictures" of brains while reading. Research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health shows that the brains of good readers function differently from the brains of poor readers.

We know more than that, says G. Reid Lyon, who heads reading research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda. "We now know that the brains of young children are fairly plastic and can respond to intervention. And we know that the learning environment - that is, teaching- can have a positive influence on reading behavior."

In a section of his book, "Structural Disorders: Bats in the Belfry," Howard discusses the nature and symptoms of reading disorders such as dyslexia. The latest research, he says, focuses on the possibility that there's imbalance between two neural systems in the brains of dyslexics.

Researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine are using brain scans to identify poor readers, then treating them with gene replacement therapy, Howard reports.

In "Building Babel," a chapter on the acquisition and development of language, Howard notes that children as young as 18 months learn a new word every two hours of their time awake. By age 6 they have a vocabulary of about 13,000 words.

"Don't rest on your laurels when your child learns a new word," the author advises. "You've got about nine more to go for that day."

And why are phonemes - sounds - so important to beginning reading? Because phonemes are applied by one of three interactive networks in the brain that help humans apply sound to meaning. "This helps to explain how, when we are unable to ( think of) a word, we can run through the alphabet and often the right word will pop up. ... Don't worry when you can't form a word; just be amused at the silent competition being waged in your left hemisphere."

Howard takes a middle-of-the-road position in the reading wars. "Current research slightly favors the whole-language approach," he writes, "yet an enlightened approach would appear to use a cormbination of word-attack skills (phonics) and word~recognition (whole language) skills."

Nor is it urgent that all children be able to read while they're still in potty-training. A child's emotional and social skills are important, too, Howard says in an interview. "Is it more important that child No. 123 be reading at the earliest age possible or that he have a talent ... and get recognition from his peers? I think the latter."?

There's a lot more in "The Owner's Manual." The book covers brain damage, illnesses like Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig'S disease, brain injuries, creativity, mood, falling in love, sleep and musical ability. (Howard says there's no research supporting the proposition that learners remember more when taught to the accompaniment of music.)

Howard says we owe it to ourselves to unlock all the mysteries of the brain, to gain complete understanding.

'However, to the degree that we can humbly marvel in wonderment at the vast unexplained mystery of mind, brain and behavior, we are more likely to live in peace with ourselves and our neighbors."

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