Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Disabling Learning Disabilities: The Brain Is Its Own Prosthesis (or, The End of the Turtles Reading Group!)

Raising Cognitive Capacity
By Leanne Miller
Professionally Speaking, September, 2008, pp. 33-39

Review and Response by John Picone

Recently, a good friend of mine was required to have his leg amputated below the knee. For a time, he had to compensate for this disability: confined to a wheelchair. With time, however, a great deal of hard work, and the knowledgeable assistance of rehabilitation experts, he has overcome his disability. He now walks and drives his car as he did before the operation. He is, in fact, no longer disabled with respect to his ability to participate fully in living day to day.
Are learning disabilities any different? Just as a part of my friend’s body – his leg – became no longer functional, the child with a learning disability has a part of the brain that does not function properly. This impairs their ability in such areas as memory, reading comprehension, and understanding cause and effect relationships. My friend overcame his disability with a prosthesis. But what does the brain do?
Barbara Arrowsmith Young has found some answers! She has developed some solid methods for improving success among students with learning disabilities.
When she was in grade 1, Young’s parents were told by her teacher that she had a ‘mental block’ and would never be able to learn like other kids, that she would always be behind. “I was put in the turtles reading group.” Young notes that today she would have been diagnosed as having dyslexia and auditory processing difficulties. She couldn’t understand, let alone remember, concepts or what she read in books. She couldn’t read clocks (analog) and she couldn’t keep up with class discussions. So, she learned to compensate.
Although demoralized, facing low self-esteem and frustration, Young persisted in her education making it through high school and Guelph University where she pursued child studies. “I wanted to understand my own learning problems,” she explains. “That’s where my motivation came from.”
The article describes an all-too-familiar scene:
Traditionally, children with learning disabilities are taught to compensate for them, not to overcome them. Those with poor fine-motor skills, for example, use computers to get around poor handwriting or are given classmates’ notes. Students who have difficulty doing mathematical calculations may use a calculator instead of struggling (and usually failing) to memorize their times tables. A child with ADD may learn organizational and time-management strategies.
The Arrowsmith program, developed by Young, builds on the theory of neuroplasticity.
“We know that the brain is pliable and elastic, not fixed as we used to believe,” Young explains. “It can physically change in response to stimulus and develop new neuronal branches and synaptic connections. This means that the brains of children with certain learning disabilities can be strengthened to the point of average or even above-average functionality.”
In completing her graduate work in psychology at OISE, Young came to understand her own learning difficulties through reading the work of psychologist Mark Rosenzweig and neuropsychologist Alexander Luria. Experimenting with rats exposed to three different levels of stimulation –none, normal and enriched – and studying their brains afterwards, Rosenzweig found neurophysiological changes in the brains of the rats exposed to an environment enriched with stimulation, including more neurotransmitters. He concluded that a rat’s brain is malleable and capable of improving its learning capacity as a result of stimulation. “This was radical thinking in the early 1960’s.” Young took up the challenge to see whether Rosenzweig’s findings were applicable to humans.
“I created my clocks exercise to test Rosenzweig’s hypothesis on myself,” she explains. Young could not tell time with an analog clock and she always struggles with cause-and-effect relationships and mathematical concepts. She created hundreds of flash cards with clock faces and drilled herself to read time, first with two hands, then three and finally four. “After a great many hours of practice, things began to shift,” she explains. “For the first time, I began to make connections in what I was reading. I began to understand cause-and-effect concepts. I pre-tested myself on certain mathematical concepts and after countless hours of clock work, I found that my mathematical abilities had increased significantly.”
Young developed brain-strengthening exercises. She tested her exercises on children with learning disabilities. First she identified their weak cognitive areas, then she removed their Special Education supports and finally she put her targeted exercises to work. She saw consistent improvement in the children’s academic abilities.
The most common outcomes of the program include:
Strengthened cognitive processes necessary for more efficient learning
Improved visual and auditory memory, as well as attention and concentration
Improved capacity for concept formation for both visual-spatial and language-based materials
Improved fine-motor skills necessary for writing and note taking
Strengthened working memory, processing speed and cognitive efficiency
Improved verbal and non-verbal thinking, reasoning and problem solving
An example of one of Young’s brain exercises is reading multi-syllabic nonsense words aloud, practicing moving the emphasis to each syllable and switching them backwards and forwards:
Lic’ pro’ fun; Lic pro’ fun; Lic pro fun’; Fun’ lic pro
In another, students study Norman Rockwell pictures to figure out what is happening. They discuss the pictures with their teacher, who presses them to look at the clues, the details, to put together a story. Yet another involves tracing symbols over and over with a patch on one eye; 30 minutes with the patch, 5 minutes without. As one student involved in this exercise observes, “Covering my left eye forces my brain’s left side to work harder – that’s where it’s weaker.”
Most students are in Young’s program from Grade 7 to 7 and, ideally, are reintegrated into regular classrooms in Grade 8.
The data shows that students’ rate of learning on specific academic tasks such as work recognition, arithmetic, reading comprehension and reading speed increased by on-and-a-half to three times the rate they were learning at prior to the program.
In reflecting on her own time in elementary school, Young says, “I was 28 when I started developing this program and it took me another 10 years to stop thinking I was stupid. Let’s not do that to any more children.”

My first response is to nominate Barbara Arrowsmith Young as Education Minister! She reminds me of the parents in the movie, “Lorenzo’s Oil” who were determined to find a better way, not content with the status quo of medicine. Heroes!
While the incidence of learning disabilities may be on the rise due to toxins in our air and water, or steroids in our food, the fact is that children with impaired brain functions have always and will always be in our schools. Foremost, it seems, in education’s mind is to label these children: LD, ADD, ADHD, Aspergers and so forth. My experience suggests that such labels are not only limiting, but they become an excuse for behaviour and performance. And, as Young points out, education’s response is to “teach” these children to compensate for their disability, not try to overcome it.
My personal frustrations in the classroom after three decades of working with labeled students is simply that often I don’t know how to compensate, usually by way of differentiating the program or its delivery in some way, and find it almost impossible to do so when tools are suggested to me because either I don’t know how to use the tools or I’m faced with the fact that there are 25 other “normal” students in the class that also need attention. This is particularly true in music when so much of classroom time is devoted necessarily to the band as a whole.
Another frustration informed by my experience, particularly as an English teacher, was the inattention given to current research. So many educators seem unwilling and/or unmotivated to stay “on the edge” of pedagogical research. And the macro-relationships in education – the influence of administration on classroom practice – are clearly ineffective in nurturing and supporting such attitudes. For whatever reasons, too many educators are prisoners of their own paradigms. To me, this is nothing less than being irresponsible. Is this the attitude of doctors and dentists and presidential security teams?
And so I heartily applaud Young’s impatience with current practice. Drawing upon her own experiences as well as recent neuroscience’s view of the brain as pliable and plastic, she has persevered to find ways to help learning disabled children overcome – not compensate for – their learning disabilities.
There was no mention of any activities designed by Young that involve music. There is clear evidence that listening to and making music has a significant impact on the cognitive functioning of the brain. And so I wonder what possible role music might have in addressing certain impairments of brain function these children have. I also wonder if, by its very demands of focus, memory, discipline, patience and organization, the experience of playing a musical instrument in a band might have an impact on the cognitive functioning of such children.
Reading about Young’s accomplishments with children with learning disabilities brought to mind two things a mentor told me in my early days of teaching: “Always have a healthy sense of impatience with what you’re doing and why.” And, “Blessed are they who do not leave well enough alone; to them we all the progress of humankind!”

Monday, November 3, 2008

Brain Music Therapy

Dr. Orli Peter Explains and Demonstrates Brain Music Therapy

Brain music therapy as explained by Dr .Orli Peter (who runs the Center for Accelerated Psychology- is a technique that can help people with anxiety, depression, ADD, etc... This therapy, in the Doctors words can “recalibrate you brain”. The methodology used is to first record ones brain waves via EEG, then extract the relaxing brain waves and activating brain waves. These are then converted into an auditory frequency and put into music called BRAIN MUSIC (I admit this part is a bit convoluted). These recordings are then played back to the “brain wave donor” and they supposedly respond more positively to this recording then to other kinds of music. This promotes relaxation and has known side effects.

This video show the process in greater detail

Originally developed at the Moscow Medical Academy as a nonpharmacological method for treating insomnia in the early '90s, Brain Music Therapy has received a boost from some scientific evidence of its effectiveness, including randomized double-blind studies in small-scale groups. It is now used on an experimental basis throughout the world to treat a variety of neurological scenarios including post traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and withdrawal symptoms from drug or alcohol dependence. The Russian-born Dr. Galina Mindlin received the exclusive rights to provide this treatment in the United States in 2004 and has now treated hundreds of patients through her private practice in New York.(


I found this fascinating at first and the more I searched the more I found. However the information on every web site seems to be the same. I thought could this really work? The women in the second video say that it worked for her as did others I found on the net. The question is what would have happen had she listened to any relaxation type of music for 2 weeks, would she have fallen asleep? Is it that the music simply allows her mind to focus on one thing rather that everything form her day in the same way that a meditation can work. At $500.00 -$1100.00 a shot I would have at least listened to Beethoven 6th a few times or sat in the lotus position for a while. The real problem with providing this information on the net without the data to back it up, is that it gives all music brain research that info-mercial quality.
Dr. Jan Mohlman, a psychology professor at Rutgers University, wants to see more data on the long-term effectiveness of brain music. Mohlman, who specializes in treating depression, anxiety and stress, thinks it needs to be tested against other types of cognitive behavioral therapy — and even other types of music, for that matter — to assess its merit. (

So although promising and meeting with some success I think before they start charging the big buck they need to provide the data to their patience and the public.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

More Mozart Effect

Fact or Fiction?: Babies Exposed to Classical Music End Up Smarter By Nikhil Swaminathan Scientific American (2007, September 13)
Retrieved 2 November 2008

This article essentially debunks the "Mozart effect" unwittingly spawned by psychologist Frances Rauscher's study (and following paper) involving thirty-six college students who listened to either "ten minutes of a Mozart sonata in D-major, a relaxation track or silence before performing several spatial reasoning tasks". Students who had listened to Mozart showed improvement in one of the tests.

Rauscher herself remains puzzled as to how her research was taken so out of context as to be used to promote not only commercial products aimed at creating smarter babies through listening to classical music but to prompt a Georgia governor to mandate that mothers of newborns in the state be given classical music CDs.

There have been, of course, further studies indicating that there is little to no evidence that children who listen to classical music will see an improvement in cognitive abilities.

The interesting part of this article is that Rauscher "advocates putting an instrument into the hands of a youngster to raise intelligence", citing a 1997 University of California study that found that students who had been involved in musical pursuit tested higher on SATs and reading proficiency exams than those who had not.

We covered Rauscher's study and de-bunking studies in class but I wanted to review this article simply for the reaction from Rauscher herself who articulates the problem with extrapolating results from a paper-folding task for college students and applying them to general intelligence in children.

Also, the deliberate mis-interpretation and questionable marketing of Rauscher's study raises a few other questions:
Are we as parents so desperate to ensure the success of our children that we are willing to believe anything to be true if its couched in scientific terms, even when it's presented to us in a so obviously over-marketed form?
Does the huge success of such products as Baby Einstein reflect a disturbing trend of parents guiltless-ly excusing themselves from active involvement in the play and education of their children by turning on an 'educational DVD'?

by Shannon Coates