Accessing the Building Blocks for Positive Neural Plasticity
*Previously published on 2e News and Variations Magazine at https://www.2enews.com
“You are capable of more than you know.” — Glinda from The Wizard of Oz
To understand why twice-exceptional kids sometimes can struggle to master new skills, one might first examine how our brains work. The human mind is comprised of knowledge and energy flow. Our knowledge is our perception of the present, made tangible through our five senses and our memories. Energy flow is electrical pulses that fire across neural paths and transfer information. The way we perceive information is directly related to the attention and intention of how we choose to cultivate our neural pathways. Developing one’s neural pathways is similar to Dorothy Gale’s journey down the yellow brick road in the Wizard of Oz — unbound, uncharted, and full of possibility.
Unlike the classic film, life is not always rainbows, sunshine, and happy endings. But when we encounter unexpected showers, we can gain wisdom from walking in the rain. We learn to avoid puddles (unless we prefer to leapfrog from puddle to puddle) or to choose tree-lined paths to deflect the raindrops. Building mental flexibility, neural strength, and connections allow for innovation and new patterns for greater adaptation that lead to new moments of insight. Our growth is directly related to our openness to neuroadaptation.
Neuroindividuality is ubiquitous. Brains have their own unique lands of Oz, criss-crossed with distinct yellow brick roads. The minds of twice-exceptional (2e) children are alive with networks of pathways with unexpected detours, back country roads, and high-speed interchanges. Over time, brains develop according to factors like attention, inattention, and experience. As such, mental flexibility and neural plasticity go hand in hand, informing mindsets as they take shape and grow. As parents and educators, we have the power to directly impact the roadways in our children’s brains.
Neural plasticity allows for neural patterns to build and strengthen in the brain, a process that involves a person’s experiences, environment, and memory. This notion, drawn from the scientific work of Donald Hebb, can be put succinctly as, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words, a common firing pattern creates a circuit and memory that shapes and develops the brain. These pulses relay information about how we perceive our environment and can impact our mindset based on how we direct our attention, possibly forming additional neural pathways.
Can we build neural connections for new skills from scratch? Yes, but it takes more time to develop a completely new neural pathway. A recent study in Richard Anderson’s laboratory at Caltech shows that learning a new skill is easier for the brain if a common neural pattern already exists. The lead authors, Sofia Sakellaridi and Vassilios Christopoulos, used a brain machine interface paradigm (BMI), which is a tool that converts neuronal signals into instructions that command external hardware or software like that of a robotic hand. BMI devices are used frequently in people with sensory deficits and can track learning and individual neuron firing.
The authors found that learning is restricted by pre-existing neural patterns. In other words, a person trying to acquire a new skill may lack the neural framework that must be adapted in order to learn that new skill. Commonalities between existing skills and new skills increase a person’s capacity to develop new skills. A violinist, for instance, can learn to play the bass guitar more easily than the drums, because the neural pattern involved with playing a string instrument already exists. Having the pavement for the pathway helps when learning a new but similar skill. However, when learning a new skill that does not have as well-paved neural path, it takes time to build the road through repetition and practice, where attention and intention are paramount factors.
Often, 2e children have difficulties learning new skills. Their brains may have pathways that equip them with an excellent spatial memory, while their peers require months or perhaps even years to develop a similar abilities. On the other hand, they may not have the brain infrastructure required for self-regulation skills, such as raising their hand and waiting until they are called upon. Somehow, they always manage to speak out of turn and be labeled as distractions to the learning environment. In such cases, the student’s behavior may not accurately reflect their attentiveness or ability to develop a new skill. Having their attention drawn to their behavioral problems can make trying to learn a new skill highly frustrating. In extreme cases, failing time and time again to learn a new skill can be demoralizing to a child, lowering self-image and esteem if the skill not taught with compassion and patience.
This is where connections with family, teachers, and community are key. Harvard visiting scholar Dr. Pamela Cantor and her colleagues found that emotional connection is the greatest factor helping children to learn. Specifically, when a child is supported and has emotional equanimity at home, in the classroom, and in the community, the child thrives and knowledge is easily acquired. Children need to feel engaged with material that is meaningful to them, and the bridge can be an emotional connection. When a child has an emotional connection and a sense of meaning in the material to learn, the child can easily absorb it.
By contrast, Cantor reports that negative reinforcement and trauma hinder learning. This makes sense from a neurological perspective. When the mind is stressed, we lack openness to obtain the new skill or information. Instead, the mind and body are absorbed in the fight, flight, or freeze responses associated with anxiety. Often this experience leads to a voice of negative self-talk. The mind is offline, unable to connect with the present moment and the material. As Dorothy says to the Scarecrow, “How can you talk if you haven’t got a brain?”
Importantly, one’s environment can either support positive neural connections and strengthen neurodevelopment, or it can hinder development. The right environment promotes readiness for learning and positive neural circuits can drive and reinforce positive development. Positive reward for internal states that are related to meaning can allow for a change to positive neural circuits and positive behaviors.
In a striking example, Mariale Hardiman, vice dean of academic affairs at Johns Hopkins School of Education, and her team have found that arts instruction actually enhanced learning and integration of science content and concepts. Instructors in fifth-grade classrooms in Baltimore, Maryland, taught environmental science and astronomy along with singing and dancing. Their students retained the scientific information 10 weeks later with greater accuracy than students who had studied the same material without arts instruction. The students reported that the pop songs helped them remember the material over the long term. This demonstrates how learning works in three important ways: first, learning new information becomes meaningful and engaging when it activates our senses, such as through music and dance; second, our brains are wired for retention when there is an emotional connection; and third, when we have an emotional connection to material, we retain it better because it integrates our senses, emotions, and body. Learning that activates our mind, body, and true nature is everlasting.
Each of the characters in The Wizard of Oz searched for something outside of themselves, only to discover it was with them all along. We can build positive neural plasticity when our mind is open, awareness is present, and our intention is clear. Trust your neurodiverse yellow brick roads. Take yourself on an adventure, get lost, have fun, and walk joyfully along the glistening path. Each of these are gold bricks — the building blocks that enhance the neural plasticity of your mind.
“Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on earth the more experience you are sure to get.” — The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
References: •Hebb, D.O. (1949). The Organization of Behavior. New York: Wiley & Sons.
•Paulsen, O.; Sejnowski, T. J. (2000). “Natural patterns of activity and long-term synaptic plasticity.” Current Opinion in Neurobiology. 10 (2): 172–179.
•Tetreault, N. (2019). “Neuroscience of Asynchronous Development in Bright Minds.” Retrieved from https://www.2enews.com/child-development/neuroscience-of-asynchronous-development-in-bright-minds/.
•Hardiman, M. M., Johnbull, R. M., Carran, D. T., & Shelton, A. (2019). “The effects of arts-integrated instruction on memory for science content.” Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 14, 25–32. doi: 10.1016/j.tine.2019.02.002
•Sakellaridi, S., Christopoulos, V. N., Aflalo, T., Pejsa, K. W., Rosario, E. R., Ouellette, D., … Andersen, R. A. (2019). “Intrinsic Variable Learning for Brain-Machine Interface Control by Human Anterior Intraparietal Cortex.” Neuron, 102(3). doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2019.02.012