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Merzenich on Learning Difficulties, Autism and Brain Training

When Aristotle was much younger (younger even than Hercules is now), back before I made it my policy not to freely put up pictures and videos of the boys online, I posted a video of Aristotle arranging some stools in the old baby room of Isetan in KLCC shopping mall. Since he was very young, Aristotle has demonstrated a penchant for organising objects. He liked them to have a specific place and position and disliked it if we moved these objects out of position. Because of this habit of his, I labelled the video “OCD child”.

I never expected an audience, let alone comments on that video, but I received many – at least, much more than I ever did for any other video I had ever uploaded. A number of well-meaning individuals urged me to have my son checked for Autism because they were so convinced that he was displaying all the signs for it.

Aristotle doesn’t have Autism, but I have wondered about the rising incidence of Autism. It is just like the increasing incidence of individuals with food allergies, and diagnoses of children with ADHD. No one has yet been able to pin point the exact causes for these, but there are many theories floating around. One thing that is clear is that it has something to do with the changes in our lifestyles.

People blame vaccines and genetically modified foods, which may or may not be related to ADHD and food allergies, but Michael Merzenich discovered something in his research that might explain the increasing incidence of Austism – noise pollution. These days, our surrounding environment is getting noisier and noisier. There is almost always a constant din in the background from air-conditioners, fans, car engines, electronics. Studies have shown that children raised in noisy environments had lower intelligence. Merzenich suspected that too much noise pollution during the critical period could lead to developmental problems and he tested this hypothesis with a group of baby rats. He found that pulses of white noise occurring during their critical period affected the proper development of their neural cortices.

If the neural cortex fails to differentiate properly during the critical period, children can end up with learning disabilities and difficulty processing sounds (as Autistic children are). So although Autism is an inherited condition, it would seem that our changing environment is increasing the incidence by increasing the risk factors for “at risk” children.

It reminds me of a piece of advice I once read regarding TVs and background noise. Again, I forget the article but it was talking about why background TV was bad for very young children even if they were not watching what was on TV. During this sensitive period, children are not only learning about their environment, their senses are also developing. If their hearing sense develops in a noisy environment, it becomes harder for them to distinguish between different sounds. This is why some children have difficulties hearing instructions from parents and obeying them when the TV is on – they cannot distinguish the difference between their parents’ voices and the sound from the TV. We can because our hearing is already developed. But for a child, especially one who grows up with the constant background noise from the TV, it can be damaging.

In our increasingly noisy environment, it makes sense to introduce activities that involve “quiet time” like meditation and listening games, especially for young children to help train their hearing and listening skills.

If your child has Austism or learning difficulties, it is worthwhile looking into a program developed by Merzenich and his colleagues called FastForward. This program has helped many children with learning disabilities catch up in their learning ability. Even children with Autism benefitted from this program. There is a list of global distributors of this program on Wiki. In Southeast Asia, the program is run by Brain Fit Studio. In Malaysia, KidzGrow runs these programs:

KidzGrow @ Sri Hartamas
1st & 3rd, 5, Jalan Sri Hartamas 7,
Malaysia 50480
Tel: +603 6201 0358 Fax:+603 6201 4924

39-C, Chong Thuah Building, Weld Quay
Penang 10300
Tel: +604 263 3229 Fax: +604 263 1229

If training your brain is good for kids, it’s even better for adults. For regular individuals who want to give their brain a workout, Posit Science was created by Merzenich’s team. Test your brain and try the free games and teasers for a start. The software is a bit pricey, but with Christmas around the corner, they are offering 50% off their audio and visual training products.

Another great way to train your brain, according to Merzenich, is to learn “new physical activities that require concentration, solving challenging puzzles, or making a career change that requires that you master new skills and material” – basically anything that requires intense focus. For example, learning a new language is a great way to give your brain a boost. This becomes increasingly important the older we grow, especially if we want to stave off age related (or even disease related) neurological decline. Activities like reading, using the computer, and doing regular activities we have been doing for years won’t cut it.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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