Saturday, November 3, 2012

When Learning, Mattering Matters

LearningRx , a brain-training center
in Upper Montclair, N.J.,
thought provoking story about brain training ran in the Times on October 31. Author Dan Hurley looks at both software approaches and storefront brain-training centers. It's remarkable how little has changed in the field in the three-plus years since I wrote a story about it for San Francisco Magazine in 2009. LearningRX seems to have an economic model for brain training centers that's working; that's one difference. The San Francisco-based vibrantBrain's, which I wrote about, didn't pull that off and has been homeless for over a year now. Still, the studies suggesting that this kind of training works better than other real-life activities that engage your mind (and thus your brain) are still sketchy. Truth is, as UCSF neuroscientist Alison Doupe's research suggests, brains become plastic again when they are exposed to things that matter to them:

To quote myself from the March 2009 San Francisco Magazine story, Brains of Steel:

[UCSF MD PhD neuroscientist Alison] Doupe describes what happens to the brains of finches that are first taught to sing by tape recorders. "Their songs are OK, and their development seems pretty normal on the surface," says Doupe. "But when you take one of those recorder-trained birds and stick another bird in there singing a live song, the trained bird is highly stimulated and attentive, and his critical period can actually reopen." In other words, when the bird's attention is grabbed by something that matters--in this case another living bird--he's suddenly able to learn new things.
Put another way, if students care about what they are being taught, and/or whom they are learning it from, they will be much more likely to get it. And keep it.

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