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  • Writer's picturePK4L

A Story of braINSPIRATION?

Why the capabilities of children should cultivated...not marginalized.

The story of Jacob Barnett is an inspiring one...that could be much more common if parents realized they are truly the "Number 1 Expert" on their own children.

Jacob is a mathematician and child prodigy. But at the age of 2, he was diagnosed with moderate to severe Autism and later placed in a special education program at the school he attended. His teachers attempted to dissuade his mother Kristine from even hoping to teach Jacob anything beyond the most basic skills.

Although silent for much of his childhood, when Jacob did begin speaking he was able to communicate in four different languages. Kristine Barnett immediately realized her son would need something outside of the standard special education curriculum. So, she withdrew Jacob from school and homeschooled him instead.

His mom encouraged him to study the things he was passionate about. When Jacob was just 8-years-old, he began sneaking into college lectures at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) where his teachers and doctors were astonished to discover that he was able to teach calculus to college students.

In 2014, Jacob graduated from the prestigious Perimeter Institute for Advanced Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada where his research focused on Loop Quantum Gravity and Quantum Foundations.

Jacob Barnett's TEDxTeen talk can be seen here and his story was also profiled by Carol Kuruvilla in her article for the New York Daily News (10 May 2013).

Kristine Barnett recounts her son's amazing story in The Spark: A mother's story of nurturing genius (2014).

But Jacob Barnett's amazing story also raises some rather uncomfortable questions:

  • “How many other children like Jacob have slipped/are slipping through the ever-widening cracks of our educational system?”

  • “What might happen if we stopped requiring our children to simply regurgitate the "pre-thought" thoughts absorbed through K-12 schooling and cultivated their creativity instead?”

  • “What if we refused to accept the edutocracy's version of success and took the road less traveled instead?”

  • “What would it look like to help our children pursue their passions with relentless enthusiasm?”

  • “What could our children become if they were truly empowered to live a purpose-driven life?”

Perhaps at least some of the answers to these questions can be found in the science of neuroplasticity and the hope it offers to children with developmental delays.

Sharon Begley's inspiring article, "The Brain: How the Brain Rewires Itself", first appeared in the January 2007 issue of Time. Needless to say, it contains a lot of hope for anyone with any sort of developmental delay. [BTW, the research since 2007, continues to offer an ever-increasing number of encouraging discoveries].

For decades, the prevailing dogma in neuroscience was that the adult human brain is essentially immutable, hardwired, fixed in form and function, so that by the time we reach adulthood we are basically stuck with whatever we have.

Yes, it is true that the brain can create—and lose—synapses (i.e. the connections between neurons that encode memories and learning) and that it can suffer injury and degeneration.

However, this view held that if genes and development dictate that one cluster of neurons processes signals from the eye, and another cluster moves the fingers of the right hand, then those clusters will only perform those functions and nothing else until the day you die. Perhaps this view also explains why the lavishly illustrated brain books displaying the function, size, and location of its structures were written with permanent ink.

This "doctrine of the unchanging human brain" held profound consequences...and none of them good.

  • It lowered expectations concerning the benefits of rehabilitation for adults who had suffered brain damage from a stroke.

  • It discouraged the hope of repairing the pathological wiring underlying psychiatric diseases.

  • It implied that other brain-based fixities (e.g. the happiness set point that a person returns to after the deepest tragedy or the greatest joy) were virtually unalterable.

BUT, the discovery of neuroplasticity--which has been subsequently proven with scientific research--concluded that experience + mental/physical training could change the actual structure and function of the brain. As it turns out, the brain is capable of incredible "work arounds" that enable it to accomplish any number of unexpected things. It is for this reason, that neurological issues are no longer the equivalent of a mental prison sentence.

Though levels of improvement will vary by individual, at least improvement is now possible. As scientists continue to explore the limits of neuroplasticity, they are discovering that the brain can even change as a result of the thoughts we think.

Since thoughts have been demonstrated to affect the very structure of the brain and alter its neuronal connections...cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and academic improvement is now a reality. Consequently, there is more hope than ever before for those with developmental delays.

As long as parents remain patient with themselves (as they experiment with their options) and give themselves lots of grace (even the best-intentions don't always work out the way we hope), then the possibilities for improvement abound. If I learned anything from 14 years of teaching high school kids across every spectrum of ability, it was this...


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