Team McCallum

R&D for Lifetime of Life

Baby learning.

Do babies learn the same way adults do, or is there something else going on in there before they can speak?

Damage to two particular regions of the brain causes language impairment in adults, while in children it does not halt language development. Does this mean baby brains work language through different regions to adult brains, or is their brain so adaptable that they can call in other areas to make up for the damage?

Researchers from the University of California San Diego used two types of brain scans, both noninvasive, to check on the areas in the brain that were activating in babies aged 12 months to 18 months. The results appear in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

The tests were quite simple. First, say a common word or alternatively a fake word that sounds quite similar. Second, show a picture of a common object, like a ball or a dog, and say either the correct name or a wrong name for the picture.

From the scans, the team found that even before they can speak, babies process language in the same areas as adults, as the same areas become active. This means if these get damaged in young children, the brain is still flexible enough to call on other areas for language development, whereas in adults, the brain is too fixed to re-route.

The team also found that the babies already had a mental database of words they understood. When pictures were mismatched to names, adult brains become active in a particular region that handles errors in language, and the brain scans showed babies did this too.

So, even before your baby can talk, he or she is learning much the same way an adult does, and has already developed a vocabulary.


January 10, 2011 Posted by | Brain, Language, Learning, Success | Leave a comment

How smart is your dog?

John W Pilley and Alliston K Reid decided they would like to find out how much a dog can learn, given extensive training over a long period. The dog in question was a border collie called Chaser. Pilley and Reid couldn’t find Chaser’s limit after 3 years, when the dog could remember the names of over a thousand different objects and was still learning new ones.

The 1,022 objects were toys that Chaser used, each with a different name. However, Chaser also understood verbs, so the dog could combine the correct object with what was supposed to be done with that toy.

Further, Chaser understood a few groups. For example, there were objects that collectively could be referred to as balls, while others fell into the frisbee group.

Finally, Chaser could remember, at least for a short while, that a particular toy was excluded from the group to which it apparently belonged. For example, a particular ball was not to be counted as a ball. This remembering for a short time then forgetting is displayed by children when they learn.

As noted, Pilley and Reid did not find Chaser’s limit. They simply stopped trying to find it after the 3 years was up.

The other point of interest is that these things were toys to Chaser – fun, enjoyment, a real incentive to learn, and this be the main carry over message for humans.

But the next time you talk to your dog just be aware that the dog may understand more than you think.

January 9, 2011 Posted by | Activity, Brain, Exercise, Fun, Health, Language, Learning, Nature, Psychology, Success | Leave a comment

Accelerating learning?

Two Professors of Psychology at the University of Chicago,  Sian L Beilock and Susan Goldin-Meadow, appear to have come up with a way to accelerate learning that you can use yourself or to teach others, such as children, more effectively. But their experiments showed this would accelerate learning things wrong just as much as it accelerated learning things right, so you need to be careful that you’ve got things right before you apply this.

The Tower of Hanoi is a well-known puzzle in which you move the tower from the left-hand side to the right-hand side, one slice at a time, and stacked so that there is never a larger slice on top of a smaller slice.

The professors carried out 2 experiments.

First, people were asked to shift the tower, then they were asked to explain the way they did it to another person. People explaining typically used gestures to do this, as this is much easier. Those gestures were either one-handed or two-handed, and this made a major difference.

The professors changed the weight of the smallest slice so it could no longer be moved with one hand – it now required two. People who had demonstrated with two hands found no problem with this change. But for those using one-handed gestures, it took longer, and the more the gestures had been one-handed, the longer the puzzle took.

To confirm that gestures affect learning, the professors carried out the second experiment. This had the same start as the previous one, using a top slice that could be moved one-handed if the person so chose. This time, people were not asked to explain their solution, so there were no gestures. The tower puzzle was completed a second time, then the professors swapped in the top slice requiring two hands.

Whether people had previously moved the top slice one-handed or two-handed made no difference. Both groups did the puzzle in the same time.

So the process of gesturing cements learning, whether right or wrong.

The professors pointed out the potential of this. Gesturing yourself while learning, or building this into teaching when others are learning, is an easy way to accelerate learning, even for subjects such as mathematics. Just make sure you get the right gestures!

January 6, 2011 Posted by | Brain, Learning, Success | Leave a comment

Breastfeeding v boys’ brains?

Dr Wendy H Oddy. a specialist in infant nutrition, has found that breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life is associated at age 10 with higher scores in standardised tests for maths, reading, writing and spelling, but only for boys.

The research team followed over a thousand children from before birth to about age 10, when the tests were conducted. Boys whose mother had breastfed for 6 months or more did better on each of the 4 tests, with additional improvement for each extra month they were breastfed.

Girls did not show this linkage. The researchers speculated this might be due to neuro-protective effects of estradiols, which are naturally higher in girls. However, they could not rule out that breastfeeding might simply lead to a better mother-baby bond, with boys known to be more dependent on this.

Dr Oddy also found that lower maternal education and family income were significantly associated with decreased child academic achievement.

Further, reading and looking at books with the child between ages 3 and 5 were associated with improved scores for reading and writing, particularly when it came to girls.

December 20, 2010 Posted by | Brain, Diet, Learning, Success, Wendy H Oddy | Leave a comment

Jet-lagged hamsters?

What can we learn from jet-lagged hamsters? Quite a lot, according to a study by a team from the University of California Berkeley.

Syrian hamsters are used regularly in the study of circadian rhythms because they follow these very precisely.

The team jet-lagged the hamsters twice a week for four weeks by shifting their light-dark cycle by six hours. This is about the same as flying the North Atlantic, or what you might get on rotating shift patterns.

During this period, the team was not surprised to find that the hamsters had more difficulty when set learning tasks. However, the effects were found to persist for a month after the time switching was stopped. This suggests the human equivalent would last much longer.

The researchers dug deeper to identify the mechanism for this. Using a number of procedures they were able to rule out secondary effects produced by stress from elevated cortisol.

This left only one explanation. A part of the brain called the hippocampus is essential for memory and learning, and it works by neurogenesis – creating new neurons to ‘store’ the new memories. The time shift was cutting neurogenesis, so the hippocampus was not producing enough new neurons for efficient memory formation. This same problem occurs in humans suffering from cognitive decline.

Rotating shift work has been associated with learning and memory problems, decreased reaction times, higher incidences of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and cancer, and reduced fertility, and has been listed by the World Health Organization as a carcinogen.

November 27, 2010 Posted by | Brain, Cancer, Cognitive decline, CVD - cardiovascular disease, Health, High blood pressure, Learning, Memory, Success | Leave a comment

How to make your kids rich!

According to two separate studies published recently, making your kids rich is as easy as 1-2-3! Literally!

The first was a study carried out by James P Smith of RAND Corporation, John McArdle of the University of Southern California and Robert Willis of the University of Michigan. They looked at who makes the financial decisions in the family, and what affects the success of these decisions.

Typically in older families, the decision maker was usually male, although this may be changing in younger families.

The researchers looked at a series of cognitive capabilities, such as memory function, but found only one with a strong connection to financial success, and that was numerical capability. Where both partners could correctly answer 3 simple numerical questions, the average family wealth was $1.7 million, compared to an average of just $200,000 for families where neither partner could answer any of the 3 questions.

The numerical skills tested here were typical of maths taught at school.

The study, published in Economic Journal, also found that with each extra question answered, the family had more wealth invested in the stock market, suggesting this is where the knowledge of maths made a difference.

So the issue is now, how do you get your kids to cope with school level maths?

In a second study, Prof Susan Levine of the University of Chicago investigated why some kids do better on standardised maths tests at school than others. Her team went into homes where there were children aged 14 months to 30 months, videotaped interactions with their parents, and tested the children’s maths ability at just under 4 years old.

There was an enormous variation in the amount of number-related words spoken to a child, from as little as 28 words per week to 1,800 per week.

When the parents talked more about numbers and played number games with the baby, their child scored better on the maths test at age 4.

This links to better maths on entry to school, which in turn is linked to better maths later on in school.

Prof Levine’s research is published in Developmental Psychology.

So, if you want your kids to get a head start in maths at school and get rich in life, talk numbers to them and play simple number games with them. As simple as 1 block, 2 blocks, 3 blocks. As easy as 1-2-3!

November 10, 2010 Posted by | Finance, Learning, Relationships, Success | Leave a comment

Am I angry or happy, babe?

It is known that adults process the image of angry or happy faces through a part of the brain called the STS (superior temporal sulcus). A non-invasive technique called NIRS (near-infrared spectroscopy) has been used by a Japanese team to see if babies do the same.

NIRS involves placing electrodes on the baby’s head, but otherwise does not harm or constrain the child. It looks at a number of components of blood flow known to be associated with brain activation.

Other studies have suggested that babies develop the ability to distinguish happy and angry faces around the age of 6 to 7 months, so the Japanese team carried out their research on 7 month old babies.

They confirmed that babies also process happy and angry faces through the STS, like adults, with happy and angry faces activating different parts of the STS.

For happy faces, brain activity built up slowly and continued even after the happy face disappeared. For angry faces, the response was different, with a quicker build-up and a rapid decline when the angry face disappeared.

So, simply by looking at your face, your 6 month old baby can tell if you’re angry or happy.

November 7, 2010 Posted by | Brain, Learning, Relationships, Success | 1 Comment

Kids expectation predicts grades.

Professor Lisa J Crockett and Sarah J Beal followed over 300 US students from an average age of 15 until early adulthood to see what factors predicted their educational achievement. They found that what the students’ expected to get and their occupational desires, plus their non-work extracurricular activites were the keys.

Part-time work was not associated with educational achievement, possibly because it was viewed simply as a means of making some money.

Volunteering was not a predictor either.

Destructive behaviour including substance abuse and delinquency was tied to lower educational achievement.

The particular type of social extra-curricular activity was not important.  However, the authors suggest that the teenagers’ aspirations might influence their choice of activity, in turn feeding back in to their achievement.

So what the kids expect, and participate in, counts towards what they achieve.

The research was published in Developmental Psychology.

November 3, 2010 Posted by | Learning, Psychology, Success | Leave a comment

Parents v kids’ grades.

Prof Gianni de Fraja’s work on the role of parents, schools and kids’ academic success has received widespread coverage in the media, with different sources selecting vastly different spins to put on the research.

To understand it clearly, you need to know that the team tested a model of the parent-child-school interaction as something called a Nash equilibrium. Many important real-life situations are analysed this way.

Simplifying greatly, a Nash equilibrium assumes that each party knows the strategy of the others, and with this knowledge in mind puts in place a strategy to get the best for himself/herself. It does not guarantee the best for the players as a whole. It is more like “if you are going to do that, then I going to do this, because that’s best for me in this situation”.

The team compared the effort put in by each of the three parties and looked at the impact the had on the school exams they passed, at standard UK levels (GCE and A level).

They found that, if the difference made by a child exerting more effort alone (with no change from the other two) was counted as 1, then the school (acting alone) was more important at a score of 1.5. However, by far and away, it was the parents who put in effort that made the biggest difference, at a whopping 6 times more than the kids alone.

Part of this impact was directly on the child, through activities such as reading to the child and helping them with their homework. Part of this impact was on the school, by getting involved in things like parents evenings and influencing school policies to getter better teaching.

Middle class parents were much more likely to get involved in this manner than lower class parents. The media angles on this are pure speculation either on their own part or based on the comments of members of the research team, but it was made clear the research team does not have a solid explanation for this. For example, it may be that the lower class are less educated themselves and so less able to carry out those activities that make a difference.

Remember, the basic premise in a Nash equilibrium is that each party is trying to do what is best for them, given the way the others are doing things.

So while schools should be trying to make an effort, as it is more important than just encouraging the kid to try hard, the best route is for parents to get involved a lot, with both the child’s schoolwork and with the school. It’s the parents who have the most influence.

If you want your kid to get good grades, get involved!

October 29, 2010 Posted by | Learning, News, Relationships, Success, UK | Leave a comment

Kids & Tools of the Mind

Professors Claire Valloton and Catherine Ayoub have been studying kids aged 14 months to 3 years old to see how words fit into their ability to self-regulate.  This is important as lower self-regulation is linked to poorer results at school, with an impact that may be larger than IQ or socio-economic status.

They conducted detailed assessments at age 14 months, 2 years and 3 years. (Studies above this age already exist).

14 months is when the ability to self-regulate (to express feelings and emotions rather than acting them out, and to understand and act according to societal norms) starts to develop. Kids with low self-regulation have difficulty in focussing on a task, are more disruptive and are less likely to allow others to take turns.

A key finding was that boys and girls develop quite differently, with girls going steadily up from 14 months to 3 years, while boys actually dropped from 14 months to the 2 year mid-point.

While talkativeness had a minor connection to self-regulation, the major predictor was range of vocabulary – a larger number of different words in use, thus different ways of expressing the same thing.

The professors found that current vocabulary and past vocabulary taken together were predictors of self-regulation, so an early start is better.

They were also able to show that it is specifically this richer ability to express yourself that mattered, rather than general cognitive capability.

Finally, boys with a richer vocabulary would recover to reach the same level as high scoring girls.

A theory of the psychologist Lev Vygotsky is that an extended vocabulary gives more ability to use inner speech to control thoughts and behaviour. Tools of the Mind is based on this approach and attempts to accelerate kids’ success pre-school an in the earliest school days.

September 22, 2010 Posted by | Brain, Catherine Ayoub, Claire Valloton, Gender, Learning, Lev Vygotsky, Success, Tools of the Mind | Leave a comment