Learning disabilities

I thought I should add a little information about learning disabilities. This information is not meant to be the definitive word on learning disabilities but rather it is meant to serve as a short introduction to the topic.

Learning disabilities are usually due to brain development delays or abnormalities or brain injury. The nature of the brain dysfunction is not always known, however.

A learning disability is defined as a disorder in which there is a deficit in at least one psychological process involved in the comprehension or expression of written or oral language. These deficits could be related to listening, reading, speaking, writing, spelling, or even doing mathematical computations. However, a learning disability is not the result of emotional distress or disturbance, sensory (e.g., sight or hearing) or motor deficits, or general intellectual impairment. A learning disability is also not the result of environmental or socioeconomic factors. I learning disability is diagnosed when there is a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability (generally measured by an IQ score) and achievement (usually academic).

Learning disabilities can be detrimental to a child’s education and should be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible. Treatment usually entails environmental accommodation (such as longer time allowances for tests or in-class note taking assistants, just to mention two of many accommodations). The underlying nature of the disability (e.g., is it a visuospatial or more of an auditory deficit?) is also important to understand as that drives the accommodations that should be made for the child. While it is unlikely that learning disabilities are ever “cured” they can be greatly helped by treatment and their effects minimized. As difficult as they may be, learning disabilities do not rule out academic, economic, or social success.

The study of brain-injured individuals

The brain is an interesting organ. Its complexity is far beyond any other part of the body, which is what makes studying it so difficult. Individual differences affect how the brain functions – to an extent – and how it reacts to stressors, damage, or decay. When the brain is injured or dysfunctions, we can learn about its normal functioning. There have been some widely publicized cases of brain damage and the effect that damage has on cognition and life. One such case was the Terry Schiavo case that caught widespread national attention two years ago. The lessons we learned from Terry were mostly political, legal, and moral ones. What about cases where there is more than minimal higher-order brain functioning as in Terry’s case?

A number of years ago some researchers reported the case of a man who had damage to his thalamus, a structure in the middle of the brain that is viewed as a “relay center” for the brain, among other functions. In this man’s case he had an anomia (i.e., lack of ability to name) for medical instruments and terms. He was not a doctor or other health care professional, he just had great difficulty naming medically-related terms. There have been other similar cases where people have had random category naming difficulties following brain injury. It is cases like this that make the study of the brain so interesting.

Over the years there have been a number of famous brain injury patients. Gage was a railroad foreman in the 1800s whose personality and emotionality changed after a tamping rod was blasted through his frontal lobes in a horrific accident. H.M. is a man whose medial temporal lobes were removed in surgery. Following the surgery he had severe anterograde amnesia (that roughly means he doesn’t remember anything that happened after his surgery) and mild retrograde amnesia (he doesn’t remember the few days prior to his surgery either). From HM researchers learned a lot about the memory system and how the medial temporal lobes are involved in memory processes (although the theories are still under development and some ideas about how information is processed into long-term memory are controversial). Then there have been cases of people with temporal lobe damage who have lost the ability to recognize objects or people. The study of brain dysfunction is fascinating and informative. Sometimes one doesn’t know what to expect.

The interplay of nature and nurture

I’ve posted some PDF slides that briefly cover the topic of the interaction between nature (biology/genes) and nurture (environment). Researchers used to fight over whether human behavior was attributable to nature or nurture. Now we just accept that it is a mixture of both, but researchers still discuss whether nature or nurture is more influential on a particular behavior.

Nature and nurture slides

Overview of brain structure and function

I’ve posted links to slide providing a basic overview of brain anatomy and function. There are a number of copyrighted images in the slides so please do not use for non-personal information without permission. The information is in slide format so if anything is unclear please contact me for more information. Each PDF is about 1 MB so it could take a while to download with a slow connection.

Slides, part 1

Slides, part 2

Great neuroanatomy site

I came across this great site with “over 12 million megapixels of scanned images of serial sections of both primate and non-primate brains and that is integrated with a high-speed database for querying and retrieving data about brain structure and function over the internet.” They have some great high-quality images of brains – great for learning neuroanatomy.


A brief history of psychology

Modern experimental psychology started in the 1800s with the research of Wilhelm Wundt. Psychology in the United States is generally traced back to the work of William James. There have been many different theoretical approaches to psychology since then. Probably the most famous psychologist is Sigmund Freud, whose work spawned the psychodynamic theories of human behavior. Somewhat in reaction to Freud’s work are the behavioral approaches to behavior (with Ivan Pavlov, John Watson, B. F. Skinner, and Edward Thorndike as some of the major theorists behind behaviorism). The cognitive theories came next. All in all, there are many different theoretical approaches to the psychology of behavior and most psychologists today are influenced by each approach. For a slightly more in-depth outline of the history of psychology, please view the pdf slides below.

History of Psychology Slides

Note: I’ve included links to Wikipedia for all of the above researchers because I believe the information on Wikipedia is mostly accurate and fair. The site also allows the information to be easily modified if any of it is inaccurate.

An introduction to paranoid schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a common (1% prevalence worldwide) and commonly misunderstood psychological disorder. Below is a link to a slide presentation I made about paranoid schizophrenia that I used in one of my classes. It is by no means comprehensive but should provide a decent introduction and overview of current beliefs concerning schizophrenia. Feel free to view it (Acrobat Reader is needed) for personal information but the material is copyrighted and is not intended for non-personal use. Please contact me if you would like to use some of the information for non-personal use.

Paranoid Schizophrenia slides

Also, here is a link to a pretty good video explaining schizophrenia: Video link