Recent research on improving cognitive abilities of autistic children has shed new light on development of “normal” children’s brains and has profound implications for improving education at all grade levels for all types of students.

A sweeping statement, I know, but one that is warranted by the exciting results.

I‘ll summarize the results of the new research, outline the implications, explain the neuroscience underlying the cognitive improvements, then conclude with specific recommendations for getting better results in the classroom.

Multi-sensory and motor enrichment in autistic children

Here’s what Cynthia Woo and colleagues of the Neurobiology and Behavior Department at UC Irvine found last year and why it’s so important.

Building on a wealth of animal research showing that enriched sensorimotor experiences early in life significantly improve brain development and cognitive abilities, Woo’s team compared IQ scores of autistic children ages 3-6 who either had standard care or 6 months of enriched sensorimotor experience.

Sensorimotor enrichment included activities such as

  • Scented bath and massage with oil
  • Walking on foam pad or pillow
  • Smelling different pairs of scents among a selection of lemon, lavender, vanilla, anise, orange, apple, and hyacinth
  • Drawing shapes, tracking moving colored objects
  • Viewing paired images and sounds

In all, children in the enriched group received 37 different sensorimotor stimuli over 6 months, including extensive movement and multi-sensory associations of touch, temperature, smell, sight, sound, proprioceptive feedback, vestibular stimulating activities and social interaction.

The result? On average, kids in the enriched group raised their IQ scores 7 points relative to those in a standard care control group. More importantly, 20% of children in the enriched protocol improved enough to move out of the “autistic” classification, while none of the standard care group changed classification.

Broader implications of sensorimotor stimulation

The dramatic improvement resulting from sensorimotor enrichment is significant on many levels.

First, improvements in IQ occurred even though nothing was explicitly taught to the children.

This finding adds to a fast growing body of data showing that activities that generally strengthen the brain as a whole, rather than developing a specific part of the brain (e.g. localized brain regions for music, spoken language, written language or motor coordination), are beneficial to a broad range of specific skills such as reading, quantitative skills and spatial skills measured on IQ tests.

Simply put, when it comes to brain function, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Second, although Woo’s research focused on autistic children, it’s highly relevant to “normal” children because:

  • The chief mechanism by which sensorimotor enrichment enhanced brain function in autistic children-- formation of novel synaptic connections (e.g. with pairing of novel combinations of smells, sights, sounds and movement)—has also been shown to enhance performance and memory in “normal” brains, including those of mature adults. These novel connections are created based on the well-established principle of brain plasticity that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Thus, when a developing brain is presented with novel combinations of smell, sight, touch and sight, a new network is formed of neural pathways carrying signals in each of those sensory pathways. The greater the number of sensory channels stimulated, the more complex and rich the new neural network.

  • Woo’s research reinforces recent research showing that multi-modal (simultaneous activation of multiple sensory and motor pathways) is an effective way to strengthen and literally “grow” the brain (e.g. children who experience coordinated sights, sounds and motor stimulation of playing a musical instrument have larger than normal regions of temporal cortex, the brain region that process music, and larger than normal representation of the fingers that play the instrument in their somatosensory cortex, the brain region that processes tactile information).

Finally—and perhaps most important for education-- the amazing power of sensorimotor stimulation has also been recently shown to improve the teaching of math and spelling skills in “normal” children.

Writing the Journal Pediatrics this year, Marijke J. Mullender-Wijnsma and colleagues of Groningen University in the Netherlands directed  2nd and 3rd grade students to physically act-out arithmetic and spelling lessons. 

The specific exercises were performed when the children solved an academic task. For example, the word ‘dog’ must be spelled by jumping in place for every mentioned letter or the children had to jump 6 times to solve the multiplication ‘2x3’.”

After two years, of such “embodied learning” exercises, students advanced their spelling and arithmetic skills by 4 full months over a matched control group.

And embodied learning works for much older students as well.  University of Chicago researchers showed that college students studying physics who physically  experienced the concept of angular momentum by holding spinning vs. stationary bicycle wheels, scored significantly higher on later quiz’s about the subject than students who learned about angular momentum through conventional “passive” techniques.

Here’s an everyday example of embodied learning that you can relate to.  Notice that when you are a passenger being driven by someone else to a new location, it’s much harder to remember the new route than when you are the driver.

The neuroscience of cognition and learning

The image below is a model of human cerebral cortex showing a dense network pyramidal nerve cells and their dendrites (the neuronal fibers that receive inputs from other neurons). Pyramidal cells in the cortex –which do a lot of the “heavy lifting” of sensing, thinking and behaving, have elaborate dendritic “trees” (colored fibers) that receive inputs from sensory relays such as the Thalamus buried deep in the brain and from other parts of the cerebral cortex.

Hermann Cuntz/PLOS Computational Biology.
Source: Hermann Cuntz/PLOS Computational Biology.

Through these diverse inputs, individual neurons can be turned on (or off) by multiple sensory channels, such as vision, touch and acoustic signals, as well as by inputs from nerve cells in motor cortex that command our muscles to move. In this image, nerve cells receiving inputs from different sensory and motor channels are depicted in different colors (turquoise for vision, blue for audition, green for both vision and audition, etc.), underscoring the multi-sensory nature of this section of cerebral cortex.

Taken together, cortical neurons and synapses (connections) between neurons form a vast neural network that perceives, decides, judges, imagines, learns and acts. The bigger and more richly interconnected the network, the more capable the network is.

For example, recent research has shown that people with above average intelligence have a thicker than normal cerebral cortex like that shown below, containing bigger neurons with larger numbers of interconnections.  Especially significant are generalized thickenings in so-called “association” areas of the brain where multiple senses and motor channels come together.

Eric Haseltine/Hermann Cuntz
Source: Eric Haseltine/Hermann Cuntz

Fortunately, it turns out that the size and richness of such neural networks can be increased through mental exercise and learning. Such enhancement of cortical neural networks is exactly what happened with Woo’s autistic children, and with the embodied learning students in the Netherlands: the simultaneous use of multiple senses along with motor involvement improved both general cognitive skills and learning of arithmetic and spelling.

The graphic below depicts a simple way of thinking about sensorimotor enrichment in the classroom.

Eric Haseltine/Kopfproportionen
Source: Eric Haseltine/Kopfproportionen

Think of the neural networks inside a student’s brain as a web. Every student has a basic matrix of neural connectivity, shown as the “spokes” of the web. As novel connections are formed among different sensory and motor pathways, a new “ring”  is added and the web thickens and becomes denser.

When new information is presented to a child’s brain through a single sensory channel, such as reading, a simple neural network of synaptic connections  is enhanced, shown on the far left. Synchronizing visual and auditory information, as occurs with multimedia presentations, adds another “ring” to the web. Finally, incorporating motor behavior and other senses, including touch, smell, taste and proprioceptive (feedback on limb and head and eye position), the neural net “web” grows very dense.

Now imagine that when you teach a student, you are attempting to “throw” new ideas, concepts and information at a web in their brain. The denser the web, the greater likelihood that the lesson you are teaching will be “caught “ and will “stick” in the student’s brain.

One caveat: multi-sensory presentations and motor involvement during learning must be carefully coordinated, synchronized and integrated with the task at hand. For instance, having a student perform random physical exercise while learning, might actually distract the child by increasing what human factors specialists call “task loading.”

And motor behavior needs to “fit” the lesson, as when students jump up and down to demonstrate the addition of two numbers.

Similarly, it is important to avoid sensory overload when presenting information through multiple sensory channels: sights, sounds and tactile sensations must synch up in a natural way and “belong together,” as when a child holds pet that presents natural sights, sounds, odors and feels furry to the child.

Recommendations for teachers

The concepts of coordinated, synchronized sensorimotor stimulation and embodied learning suggest that:

  • Whenever possible—and within the constraints of keeping classes “under control”—students should physically act out lessons. An added benefit of such physical activity is increased blood flow to the brain, which, by itself, improves learning and general cognitive abilities. In other words, radically redefine “physical education” moving physical activity from the playground into the classroom
  • Add tactile stimulation, smells and tastes to lesson plans. If possible, keep adding new sights, sounds, tastes and smells, because novel stimuli form novel, denser connections. The brain craves novelty!!
  • Have students take new seats every week: sitting in novel locations, with different classmates to interact with, will help students’ brains grow new synapses

All of this added multi-sensory and motor components of instruction will not only improve learning and retention of specific lessons, but will also likely elevate general cognitive abilities in the same way that Woo’s sensorimotor helped autistic children.

And changing things around all of the time in the classroom, experiencing new smells, tastes, sights and sounds and physically demonstrating what students should do, will grow healthy neural nets in teachers’ brains as well as those of their students. Research has shown that such strengthening of “neurological reserves” delays or even prevent cognitive decline with age.

Remember, when it comes to brain function, a rising tide lifts all boats!

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