Decade of the Brain
President Bush proclaimed the 90's the "Decade of the Brain" in order to highlight the exciting work being done in the emerging field of neuroscience. Neuroscientists studying the brain captured the curiosity, imagination, and hope of parents, educators, and just about everybody with a clump of gray matter between their ears. Celebrities such as Rob Reiner became advocates of work previously thought to only concern lab rats and premed students. Flocks of Web sites appeared on the Internet concerned with the brain, the media reported major research studies nearly weekly, preschools began touting brain compatible curricula, Mozart compact disks hit record sales, and parents were advised to read to their babies in utero. Why all the interest?
First, as Babyboomers age, there is a growing awareness of degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's, cerebral aneurysms, stokes, long terms effects of substance abuse, epilepsy, and other diseases of the brain. Millions of people are affected by these neurological disorders every year. The motivation to cure diseases or fix brain damage has motivated continued study and sustained hope for a cure before aging catches up with the "Boomers." Already the cry of "use it or lose it" reminds those with fresh AARP cards to avoid sedentary and risky behavior, eat healthy, and to understand that learning is the best prevention of losing one's mental fitness and general intelligence. The research contests the adage that old dogs can't learn new tricks by demonstrating the brain's ability to grow new cells and maintain it's cognitive functioning.
These studies depend on research generated from the fields of molecular biology, psychoneuropharmacology, neurobiology, and neuroscience. The tools of exploration improve annually with advancements in computer technology and more precise methods of observing actual brain functioning as opposed to postmortem studies.
Scientists use electrodes and amplifiers to map the brain's electrical activity. These studies are illuminating the sophisticated communication system established between brain cells. Neurobiologists study the communication between brain chemicals and the rest of the body's nervous system. Neuroanatomists use electronic microscopes to trace the neural pathways from deep within the brain all the way down to the big toes.
Neuroscience is on the brink of helping brain-damaged adults to rewire their brains in order to restore thought and function. Researchers have identified peptide receptors which determine whether one will be a teetotaler, moderate drinker, or alcoholic. They hope to create artificial substances to control the brain's efforts to drink to excess. Meanwhile, they better understand the negative effects of substance abuse and smoking on the brain of a developing fetus.
These efforts and concurrent findings have the potential to alleviate suffering, reduce violence, control substance abuse, and improve cognitive functioning. There is also the potential for educators to learn how to teach the brain and increase children's ability to learn.
What do educators have to learn from neuroscience? First, learning changes the physical makeup of a child's brain; these changes in turn pave the way for a new brain to learn in new ways - provided a variety of rich, novel, and meaningful experiences are provided. The research also underscores the importance of creating stable, enriched learning environments that meet children's emotional needs. The research makes it clear that stress management, exercise, relaxation, health management, and meaningful experiences are the critical attributes of good teaching.
The second lesson of neuroscience is that brains develop in their own ways in their own good time. Children cannot be compared by their "born-on dates." While all children experience brain surges, periods of wild biological exuberance when billions of neuro pathways are blazed daily, these are not concrete windows of opportunity which if missed are lost forever. Children's brains experience these wanes and waxings of growth and pruning throughout their first decade of life. The brain is designed for many jobs, including survival of the organism, which in today's society calls for the vigilant processing of information.
The third lesson concerns the closing of the gap between mind and body. We can no longer separate thinking from feeling, thoughts from emotions. Neither the mind nor the heart are limited to single organs. The vast biological, chemical, electrical, and hormonal connections between every cell in the body contain the ability to communicate thoughts and feelings. Teaching a child is teaching a brain/body organism.
Neuroscience lends credibility to many principles of good instruction, but this field does not purport to prescribe specific ways to teach or a new and improved curriculum. Nor do neuroscientists claim to know more about parenting than the average parents. Much of the work on the brain is applied from laboratory studies using mice, kittens, primates, fruit flies, samples of fetal tissue, and others. Educators and parents must exercise caution and control the impulse to generalize these findings to baby's nursery or an approved early childhood curriculum. Yet, there is significant evidence to warrant encouraging those charged with rearing and educating young children to carefully tend to the brain's intrinsic need for meaningful experience, nurturance, and safety. The next steps in educational research will appear as giant strides to those who review the initial goals of the decade of the brain. The challenge is for educators, neuroscientists, and parents to blaze new pathways to advance the neurons, brain cells, children, schools, communities, and global village.
Jeri Levesque, Ed.D.
Webster University School of Education
St. Louis, January 2000