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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

TV and Education Re-visited

When television first became popular around 1950, it was dominated by such shows as the Milton Berle comedy hour, “I Love Lucy,” and professional wrestling. Those who missed out on the halcyon days of early television might enjoy reading about its history.
The potential for a damaging impact on education was recognized at the outset. In 1950 Boston University's President Dr. Daniel L. Marsh warned that “if the [television] craze continues with the present level of programs, we are destined to have a nation of morons.” Well here we are. Just look at how voters re-elect incompetents, panderers, and demagogues.
Quick to jump into the breach anticipated by the brain-eating monster of TV, a new movement of “educational TV” sprang up. National Educational Television was born on May 16, 1954 and was a non-profit effort to bring educational programs to the masses. The network was not sustainable as such and was transformed into the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in October, 1970, which continues to the present. Many of the stations are university affiliates that have in modern times made some attempts at education, but the programming now  is devoted largely to music and news. In the early days, if you got up at five AM you might learn a foreign language or something else educationally useful. I remember around 1965 seeing my 5-year-old son looking at test patterns and then a college physics course, while waiting for the cartoons to come on. I’m sure he didn’t learn much physics. Today, educational efforts can still be found on television, but most such programming is distributed over the Internet.
I, among numerous others, am most concerned about how television affects childhood brain development and capability for learning. It steals time away from doing things, such as interacting with others and playing with objects. Language and communication abilities are stunted because TV communication is unidirectional. Kids don’t generate communication, they just receive it. The Raise Smart Kid website cites scholarly reports showing that TV viewing takes away time from reading and improving reading skills through practice.  Kids watching cartoons and entertainment television during pre-school years have poorer pre-reading skills at age 5.
The corrosive nature of television’s effect on childhood intellect has only grown in recent years. The Online College Course’s website has a telling info-graphic titled “This is your child’s brain on television.” Can you believe it―by the age of three, 1/3 of children have a TV in their room. The average child watches 1500 hours of TV a year, but only goes to school 900 hours a year. Only a few of the shows that young children watch have much educational value. There are a few exceptions: Sesame Street and Mr. Robert’s Neighborhood got 5-apple ratings for educational usefulness. But a lot of the other stuff is just plain junk. Moreover, a lot of what kids see is not age appropriate, commonly with sex and violence.
The website points out some of the deleterious effects on attitudes and behavior when young children spend too much time watching television. I want to focus on two issues related to learning to learn. One area of concern is learning to read. Reading, for those who do it well, is the most efficient way to learn. But kids these days tend not to read well. Many don’t want to read, and they were probably conditioned that way by watching too much television. TV is the easy way to get information: you don’t have to do anything―just sit there like a lump and watch.
A study reviewed in the Huffington Post revealed that American high-school students, when they do read, read books that are at the fifth grade level. Of the top 40 books teens in grades 9-12 are reading in school, the average reading level of that list is grade 5.3. Another study established that 67% of U.S. students are reading below grade level. I know these are real problems. I interact with dozens of teachers at professional development workshops, and every teacher I have asked say their students are two or more years behind grade level.
The other problem that nobody seems to talk much about is the learning passivity imposed by television. Young people are being conditioned, much like Pavlov’s dogs, to be passive learners. Learning how to learn well requires active engagement. Good learners must train themselves to generate and sustain interest, to pay attention, to grapple with ideas, and integrate knowledge into ever-evolving learning styles and thinking schema. Reading does that. Good learners do things with their learning: they grow the depth of understanding, they hone creativity skills. “Hands-on” learning activities can help young people develop such skills, although “minds-on” activities are much better. In any case, promoting such skills is something that TV, even educational TV, does rather poorly.
So the next time you get up in arms about our failing schools, remember that a childhood filled with TV is probably a big part of the problem.

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Friday, July 06, 2012

Brave New World of Gene Change in Brain

In recent years scientists have discovered mobile pieces of genetic material that move around inside cells. These pieces are called retrotransposons. They can copy themselves and insert near and into DNA and thus induce mutations. Australian research recently reported in the journal Nature reveals that retrotransposons can alter the genome of human brain cells. In fact, retrotransposons more effectively penetrate neuron genes than those in blood cells that were used for comparison. Thousands of retrotransposon mutations were seen in two of the five areas examined from brains of human post-mortem donors.

Though these pieces of DNA are not genes, they interact with genes that hop around to different sites within a chromosome (perhaps you heard about Barbara McClintok’s 1983 Nobel Prize winning discovery of “jumping genes”). All cells have enzymes that cut transposons out of a string of DNA, which then insert back in at other locations in the DNA. Sometimes the cut includes an adjacent gene along with the transposon, and thus when reinsertion occurs the gene hitchhikes along to the new location. The jumping around is not random; it occurs preferentially into active protein-coding regions, even sometimes in a different chromosome. The potential for changing function is enormous, yet we don’t know just what functional consequences occur. We do know that the process is most common in humans and higher primates.

We have known for some time that all cells are influenced by epigenetic effects; that is, events in the environment can alter the genome. The mechanism may well involve retrotransposons. Gene manipulation may be especially robust for altering learning and memory. It may be no accident that retrotransposon mutations were seen in human hippocampus, the brain region most directly involved in forming memories and the one part of the brain where new cells are continuously born in adults. Memory of learned events results from more or less lasting changes in the junctions (synapses) among cells in the circuits that processed the learning. These lasting changes are enabled by new protein production in those synapses. That protein is under genetic control (thus a memory can be sustained because the genes can replace any protein that degrades over time). 

Aldous Huxley, 1894-1963

The implications of this discovery for learning and memory―and brain function in general―are inestimable. More importantly, and here is where the “Brave New World” comes in, there should be the potential for manipulating gene functions in predictable and lasting ways by using synthetic transposons (which should be easy to manufacture).  Transport of synthetic retrotransposons into neurons might be accomplished by packaging them with a harmless virus; the basics of “transfection” technology are already well established. The hard part will be in discovering what transposons produce desired changes in brain function. But it seems reasonable to test various retrotransposons in the hope that some can be found that will help to cement or magnify memories and perhaps others that erase unwanted memories, as occur in post-traumatic stress syndrome. There is a potential down-side, however. Some retrotransposons may be a cause of cancer.


Baillie, J. K., et al. (2011) Somatic retrotransposition alters the genetic  landscape of the human brain. Nature. 479: 534-537.

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