Smarter minds

OECD Observer

Understanding the Brain: Towards a New Learning Science 

It shouldn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out why some people can’t read. But teachers and policymakers now concede that it might help to consult one. Three years ago, OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovations (CERI) launched a project on “Learning Science and Brain Research” that brings the hardware of brain science to bear on the software of learning. Neuroscientists, policymakers and educators are now all looking hard at questions like the use of mental imagery in learning and the role of age-related deterioration of brain cells.

They have also shattered some myths in doing so. For instance, it is generally asserted by non-specialists that the left hemisphere of the brain is used for logic and coding for verbal information, while the right hemisphere is the creative one and codes for visual information. In fact, while certain tasks such as face recognition and speech production belong primarily to one hemisphere, most thinking requires both hemispheres to work in parallel.

Common knowledge asserts that our brain loses 100,000 neurons every day. That belief has also been re- examined, with one study showing that the number of total neurons in each area of the cerebral cortex is not dependent on age. Instead, with ageing the number of large neurons shrink and smaller neurons increase. This could cause some decrease in the number of synapses, but while this may effect the speed of thought, it doesn’t reduce intelligence.

In one Japanese study on adults 25 to 83 years old, no age-related differences were found in fluency, originality of thought, productivity and application of creative ability. Besides, emerging data show that physical fitness and learning can contribute to improvements in the management or control of mental processes. Learning actually modifies the brain physically by increasing the growth of new connections among neurons. This brain plasticity is an exciting find for cognitive scientists.

Educational policy could learn from this and improve too. If a reading anomaly has been detected in the brain, it may be treated in the classroom. In fact, many scientists predict that the study and treatment of dyslexia will be one of the major success stories of cognitive neuroscience in the near future. Who knows, maybe a visit to the neurologist will one day be as common as a dental check-up.

©OECD Observer No. 233, August 2002

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