Way Beyond the Box
Some of our kids are good at thinking outside the box. Benjamin, on the other hand, has such a unique way of thinking that he doesn't even bother with the box. Box, what box? He's probably off building a tent somewhere.
This week Ben participated in a brain development study at IU's Psychology School. I'm a bit of a soft touch on these types of studies, since I'm fascinated with brain development in children and educational implications. Over the years many of my children have been in one type of study or another. When we received the letter about this one, Ben was intriguied withthe MRI pictures of brains and of the scanner itself. When he heard the reward was a $20 gift certificate to Barnes and Nobles, he was ready. "Mom, have they called yet?" he asked almost every day until the researcher called to set up an appointment.
The study was pretty interesting. First the researchers taught Ben five made-up verbs for actions performed with colorful wooden toys. (The toys were created for the experiment, so resembled nothing a child would have played with previously.) He learned one invented verb for each of the five toys he played with, and watched one of the researchers play with and use novel verbs for her five different toys. In other words, he was actively learning his verbs and passivly learning her verbs. Then Ben went into the function MRI machine. He was shown images of the toys – his, hers, and some he hadn't yet seen. After seeing the images, he heard audio clips of the verbs – again the ones he had actively learned, the ones he had passively learned, and some others for a control. All the while the scanner was taking pictures of his brain.
In the preliminary analysis of the first children in this study, the researchers are seeing something exciting. When the kids are flashed the objects for which they performed an action, their motor cortex responds even though the child is lying perfectly still at the time. The same thing happens when the child hears the verbs for which he had learned the action. This is not true for the control or passively learned verbs. So, if the data continues to hold up, it will give physical evidence for how children learn better when they are doing and not just hearing and seeing.
My other kids did wonder, though, if Ben's data would throw things off. Even during the experiment, the researchers got a peek at his way of thinking. After several rounds of playing with the wooden objects, Ben began to get a bit bored, and was probably thinking about the images of his brain that were to be taken. "My brain works really differently," he informed the researcher on the other side of the table. She was trying to get through the necessary rounds, so I don't think she said much. Not to be deterred, Ben continued, "Sometimes my brain goes to Florida for a while. And then it comes back." By this time the two researchers were laughing out loud, but still trying to keep on track as much as possible.
"I wish I could do that," said the lead researcher.
"Yeah," Ben continued, "and then it brings back treasures. Sometimes my brain brings gold from Florida." The poor researchers lost it about then, and later had a fun time relaying this to the MRI technician. So, if Ben's brain happened to be in Florida when it was supposed to be present for the fMRI's, it could give some pretty strange data. But otherwise, he was a great subject. They said they had never had a kid be able to follow directions so well and remain as still as he did. "No problem," Ben said. "I was just being a statue."