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Parenting Brainstorm
Palm Coast Saturday, Jul. 30, 2011 8 years ago

Never underestimate what your child can learn

by: Dr. Tom Morley

This week’s blog will focus on what neuroscience teaches us about IQ, or the efficiency and speed at which we learn our school subjects.

Unfortunately, most school children get pegged early on with regard to their learning aptitude. By 8 years old, a classroom of students might include abilities in the pre-kindergarten range to as high as eighth- or ninth-grade work.

Then there are children who seem to be born with either a math “gene” or an English “gene,” but rarely both. Take this notion a step further: Why is it that most students seem to do better in either algebra or geometry? Are these differences caused simply by the luck of the gene pool?

I’m convinced the answer is no. Other factors are at play and this blog will focus on just one of these factors.

Consider this: Have you ever met someone who barely scraped by in school, but could go on and on about how cars work, or recite the names of every player in the NFL, complete with his lifetime statistics?

Or how about the teenage girl who can memorize the lyrics of scores of hit recordings or can endlessly quote movie lines, but can’t seem to memorize her times tables or the rules of grammar?

Neuroscience suggests that “smartness” has more to do with interest and curiosity than inherited intelligence or what is often referred to as IQ. We seem to learn quickly and efficiently those things that interest us.

Now think about this: What makes us interested in one thing over another? Let me use myself as an example. Prior to moving to Florida, I knew nothing about lacrosse and had zero interest in studying this game. I would have made a lousy lacrosse student.

Then I attended a high school match, watched a crushing defeat of my home team, and wanted to know why the opposing players always seemed to be in scoring position. Soon, I was pestering the fans around me with questions about the rules and strategies of lacrosse. As I became more intrigued with the game, my mind began to soak in everything being offered. If you think about it, I suddenly grew my ability to learn.

In my last blog I discussed how dopamine and other neurotransmitters are released in our midbrain (VTA) when things that are novel or unexpected or promising are presented to our minds.

Why is this important to smartness? Dopamine revs up our brains. We become more awake, motivated and hopeful that some reward awaits us if we only pay attention to what is being offered. If you follow this thinking, one can make a case that IQ (or the ability to learn) rises and falls throughout the day according to one’s interest in the material to be learned.

Now think about this: I suspect that our brightest performers at home or in school have a natural curiosity about the world around them. So what do we do for those content with spending their days watching mindless TV, texting friends, playing video games or shooting baskets?

Teaching, whether at home or in the schools, is all about turning on the dopamine valves in the brain and creating a classroom of curious and interested learners.

We’ve always valued those who can motivate others; now we understand the biology behind it. In future blogs, I’ll share how neuroscience can guide our ability to motivate. I’ll also be covering some of the other factors that will enable your kids to be really, really smart!

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