Brain Change and Potential for Growth
February 10, 2017 by Michelle Reynard
Can the Brain Change?
At Gemm Learning we often refer to brain plasticity when speaking to families. It is the reason our software has been so effective as well as the inspiration for its creation. Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity is defined by Miriam-Webster as the brain’s ability to adapt and change throughout life. This means that the capacity to learn is not static and that new pathways can be formed to adjust for challenges like injury, disease, and changes in the environment (Medicine.net). In short, the potential to learn, improve, and overcome difficulties is lifelong.
One of the most common frustrations our parents share is that a school or teacher seems to have low expectations for their child. They share concerns about the assignments their child is being given and feelings of a lack of support. Their parental instincts tell them that there is something else going on, and that, if addressed, the results would be very different. But the messages they’ve received from individuals outside the home have been contradictory to these beliefs. In some cases, referrals by educators, friends or therapists have led these parents to additional resources that can improve their child’s needs. However, many are left to research alternatives and potential causes on their own. The abundance of information out there can be overwhelming.
Similarly, many adults come to us concerned that it may be too late to address a learning issue. They’ve used coping skills to navigate challenges for years. Moreover, they are concerned those mechanisms have become less effective at work and home over time. The common misconception, that waiting until adulthood to diagnose or address a learning issue means it cannot be helped, often delays the search for solutions even further. Fortunately, the facts show that the brain can change itself at any age, and there is ample reason for hope.
Dr. Michael Merzenich
Dr. Michael Merzenich, one of the founding scientists behind Fast ForWord, was among the first to explore brain plasticity. It is impossible to have a discussion on brain plasticity without acknowledging his extensive research in this area. His work on the subject and its relationship to the software development is described in Chapter 3 of The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, M.D. The ultimate goal of Merzenich and his colleagues was to use “neuroplastic research to help people rewire their brains”. With this in mind, they developed a training program to exercise “every basic brain function involved in language”. The result was Fast ForWord.
Acknowledgement of a learning disorder or challenge, such as brain injury, language difficulty, ADD, or environmental factors should be the beginning, not the end of the conversation. Targeting the underlying processes associated with essential skills can have a profound impact on an individual’s abilities as the brain reorganizes itself and forms new connections. Dr. Merzenich’s program, Fast ForWord, specifically targets memory, attention, processing, and sequencing. These are the MAPS: skills related to all language, including listening, reading, and oral communication.
Potential for Growth
While the causes and severity of learning challenges vary greatly, the potential for growth and change is ever present. Knowledge of brain plasticity has grown substantially over the last decade. More and more studies continue to be completed. While there are a number of brain training programs out there, no single program is designed to help every learning struggle. Research will help you to make an informed decision about what is best for your child. It’s important to remember that not all programs are created equal and that the individual’s specific needs, experiences, participation, and effort will always impact the degree of growth. Like most worthwhile endeavors, it is not an overnight fix. Change requires a commitment to engaging in repetitive activities that adapt to the individual. In other words, there are no shortcuts.
Recently, a parent of a struggling student shared with us, “After reading The Brain That Changes Itself, I have hope for the first time in years.” Brain plasticity has allowed families to see what’s possible. In doing so, It has provided a means to meet the potential we all possess.