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Brainomics: How Improving Brain Health Impacts the Economy

02/17/2015 03:50 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015
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A new study by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth finds that closing the education gap would increase economic growth and reduce economic inequality.

It sounds great, but is it really that simple? I think so -- I believe the brain is the most significant path to raise the standard of living, not just nationally, but globally.

When it comes to math and science scores, the United States currently lags behind most of the other 33 advanced industrialized countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. According to Washington Center researchers, however, increasing U.S. educational achievement so that the average American score matched the O.E.C.D. average would add 1.7 percent to the nation's gross domestic product and tax revenues would increase by a $902 billion over the next 35 years.

The study suggests several public policy strategies to close socio-economic gaps that affect academic performance, including greater investment in early childhood care and education, criminal justice reform and family-friendly workplaces.

However, there is another area crucial to educational achievement and life success: cognitive development and brain health. This area of science is concerned with the health and development of a child's brain and how that is impacted by his or her external environment.

The exciting news is we are learning that the cognitive effects of poverty can be mitigated through targeted intervention. In fact, targeted interventions focused on higher level cognitive skills show promise in enhancing the cognitive power and improving the academic potential of children from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

The key is to teach students how to learn, not just what to learn.

Today's education system often overemphasizes the importance of memorizing facts and dates, and pays less attention to fostering critical thinking skills. But weakness in advanced reasoning skills hurts student achievement and compounds the problem of low academic performance among disadvantaged students.

The Washington Center study -- correctly -- notes the importance of early childhood education in closing achievement gaps. However, new scientific evidence shows there is another window of opportunity for gains: in middle school. Rapid frontal lobe development and pruning during adolescence makes middle school the perfect time to positively impact cognitive brain health.

At the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas, we have developed a research-based intervention for middle-schoolers called Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART) that enhances brain processes such as mental flexibility, innovation, problem-solving, reasoning and strategic thinking.

SMART focuses on the important -- but too often neglected -- fourth "R" of education: reasoning. Reasoning involves a top-down approach to learning that helps students develop context and construct concisely stated big ideas from the massive amount of information they take in every day. The goal is to encourage students to innovatively generate multiple possibilities of global ideas first, not to seek "the correct answer" to a specific question. SMART trains students to think beyond literal facts to extract the essence from large chunks of information. The students are then taught how to anchor and link these with details and facts. Research shows our brains are more inspired to learn when we actively engage students to create their own meanings and interpretations by connecting pieces of information with their experiences and knowledge. Unfortunately, the opposite, bottom-up direction of answering specific narrow questions is targeted in most schools. Fact regurgitation dulls the mind at a time when it is primed to engaged in innovative thinking.

SMART training is yielding promising results in children from all socioeconomic backgrounds. In a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, our researchers found students living in poverty showed as much as a 25 percent increase in gist reasoning, or the ability to derive abstracted meaning from information presented, after SMART training. This is comparable to the gains made by their peers living above the poverty line. Additionally, the SMART-trained group, regardless of socioeconomic status, showed significant generalized gains and as much as an 18 percent improvement in increased memory for facts, even though this skill was not specifically targeted during training.

Our next step will be to determine whether cognitive training can close the academic achievement gap by conducting longitudinal research and comparing standardized test scores. The goal is to determine ways to insure that gains in middle school are lasting and that students are prepared to tackle the complexities of a future world that will not be solved by simply knowing the facts of today.

We believe a focus on innovative thinking and critical-reasoning skills through programs like SMART will improve the ability of all students, including the disadvantaged, to succeed at school and in life. These gains will ultimately translate into increased economic growth and reduced economic inequality.