Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Brain Glitches

Your brain is an enormously complex computer with 100 billion nerve cells of several different kinds, each cell with potentially hundreds or thousands of connections. The whole is organized--to borrow some concepts from the world of computers--into systems, routines, subroutines, and applications. This all starts out, shortly after conception, as a few cells with elaborate DNA plans. Then, over the next few years, these cells multiply and build, boot up, program, and then train and retrain the various parts of this fantastic computer.

Considering the enormous complexity of building, wiring, and programming the brain, it is no surprise that things can go wrong. In fact, almost always something or other does go wrong--usually lots of little things develop differently from the ways that our DNA has planned them. But one of the wonders of the brain and its engineering is that there is often redundancy--the brain has more than one section that can accomplish the same function; the brain has lots of checks and balances to correct or counter minor structural mistakes.

If the mistakes cannot be corrected and they are big ones, important to the functioning and survival of the organism, then the fetus dies in utero or the baby dies during the first few years of life.

That leaves the rest of us. Yes, each of us grows to adulthood with some of the many thousands of our brain functions not working as well as they should. Take, for example, the very elementary process of telling which way is left and which way is right. For most people learning this is quick and easy; they hardly notice that they have learned to tell this difference--they just always, instantly know. But for some people, this tiny, almost insignificant brain function never works--in fact, left-right confusion is actually quite common, affecting--in some degree of severity--about 10% of the general population. But most of these people learn "work-arounds," ways to help themselves know left from right by substituting other brain functions that do work. One man, when he needed to know which way was left and which was right, would take a quick pause from the conversation he was involved in--perhaps a quarter or half a second, not long enough to be noticed--and say to himself, "I write with my right"; then he would imagine writing and, sure enough, that was his right hand (or side or direction) and the other was his left. Another person with this problem, a woman, would quickly spin her wedding ring with her thumb, and that would alert her to which was her left hand, her left side.

A problem very similar to this can affect some children learning to read--these are children who cannot tell a "d" from a "b" or a "p" from a "q." You can see that this would be very debilitating in second- or third-grade reading classes. And this particular problem--of the thousands that can affect a developing brain and, of these, the dozens that can interfere with learning to read--is actually quite common. Moreover, it represents a very important initial chapter in the history of "dyslexia," that is, of the study of reading disorders and their treatment by "special education techniques," because it was discovered that if children with this problem are given special practice books in which all the "p's" are one color, say red, and all the "q's" are a different color, say blue, the children can then readily tell the "p's" from the "q's," but--most importantly--after a couple of weeks of practice, their ability to tell the difference between these two letters transfers to reading books in which all the letters are black.

Let me repeat for clarity and emphasis: a certain child cannot tell a "p" from a "q," but can tell a red letter from a blue letter, so they practice reading with red "p's" and blue "q's" for a while, and pretty soon they have learned to tell the "p's" from the "q's" even if they are the same color.

So here are the important ideas to remember about brain glitches:

First, we all have them--lots of them.

Second, sometimes they happen to be important in activities that society values--in reading, in talking, in spelling, in adding numbers, in finding our way around, in remembering names and faces, or in a thousand other ways.

Third, often the brain cleverly compensates (finds "work-arounds") so that these disabilities disappear into the fabric of our lives.

Fourth, however, sometimes a teacher with special training is needed to help a child (or an adult) analyze a specific deficit and find ways to overcome it.