Brain Training to Overcome Learning Dysfunctions

By: Martin G. Walker

[I:1:J]As a girl and young woman, Barbara Arrowsmith Young was painfully aware of the limitations in her thinking. Even simple connecting ideas eluded her - analysis and abstract thinking were extremely difficult. Only through repeated reading could she grasp the meaning of a book. Despite some strengths in her thinking, Ms. Young suffered not only in her schoolwork and everyday life, but also from the stigma of the diagnosis that she was learning disabled.
Child psychologists generally respond to the discovery of a learning issue by recommending that a child gets extra time on tests or supplemental learning aids. Unfortunately, these compensations put greater emphasis on what the child does well, while allowing their less strong brain functions to languish. Such has been the case for decades. Ms. Young's story on the other hand shows us a better way to address learning issues.
When Barbara Arrowsmith Young read about the work being done by Mark Rosenzweig at the University of Berkeley she became intrigued. Rosenzweig had found that rats raised in a living environment that they found engaging grew up to have bigger brains and more neural connections than those raised in a restricted, un-stimulating environment. Mental stimulation, it seemed, produced larger, healthier brains. Barbara drew an analogy with her own situation and wondered whether she could grow and change her own brain by exercising the very aspects of her thinking that were weaker.
Barbara set about creating exercises that would stimulate her brain. Since one of the tasks she found impossible was to tell the time from an analog clock, for instance, she made flash cards with clock hands on one side and the correct time on the other. With countless hours of arduous intensive training, Barbara eventually trained and strengthened her brain to perform more effectively, countering her deficits until they disappeared. Barbara later co-founded the Arrowsmith School in Toronto which helps children reverse their learning disabilities with appropriate brain training.
Researchers have since proven that Barbara's leap of faith reflects the science. The brain does continue to grow and change throughout our lives. If we work hard on a task for a period of time, the brain assigns new nerve cells to support the completion of that task.
In the field of learning dysfunctions, great focus has been given to working memory training. Studies show that working memory capacity foretells academic success from as young as 4 years-old (providing a better success indicator than IQ). Poor working memory makes it hard for children to remember instructions and finish tasks, causing them to fall behind in school. Furthermore, dysfunctions such as dyslexia, ADHD, and developmental coordination disorder, all have similar connections to working memory capacity.
[I:3:J]Parents of young children and young adults can take advantage of the tremendous power of brain training by investing in software that progressively strengthens working memory. Brain training for working memory must be intensive in order to stimulate plastic change in the brain. A challenging and focused exercise causes the brain to generate new nerve cells, and the brain puts these cells to use in strengthening the very structures that support our working memory. (Brain cell growth from working memory training has just been recorded using before and after brain scans by a team from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.)
Not all brain training software programs will provide the same kinds of results. The training protocol must be carefully designed, such as the "dual n-back" task created by scientists from the Universities of Michigan and Bern - their study last year showed increases in fluid intelligence of more than 40%. (This particular protocol has proven so effective that we employ the dual n-back method in Mind Sparke Brain Fitness Pro, and we've adapted for brain exercises targeted at six to twelve-year-olds in our Junior product.)
With new measuring tools and techniques, brain science has begun to flourish. Now that we know we can change our brains we need no longer feel restricted by a current deficit, knowing that if we work hard at it, we can reduce or eliminate that deficit.

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Oxford-trained scientist, author, and technologist, Martin G. Walker is a member of The British Neuroscience Association, Learning and The Brain, and MENSA. His company Mind Evolve Software publishes free information on the field of neuroscience and brain training as well as effective and affordable brain fitness software under the brand name Mind Sparke.

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