Saturday, December 22, 2012

Neural Trapping: A Brief Remedial Technique for Students with Memory and Attention-related Learning Disorders

 By: rdepaolo

Neural Trapping

A Brief Remedial Technique for Students with Memory

and Attention-related Learning Disorders.

By Robert DePaolo


This article discusses a remedial method applicable primarily to students with Attention Deficit, but also to students with learning disabilities, autism and other disorders that feature attention and memory deficiencies. It focuses on a fundamental neurological process referred to here as neural trapping.

In describing this process it might help to discuss what happens in the brain when a learner attempts to memorize a cluster of information.

When presented with a task or stimulus, the brain tends to be globally activated (Toshikazu, Aichihisa et al 1995). Mass mobilization - often referred to as the principle of mass action - enables the brain to consider inputs from central sources and also from the periphery. In effect, its default position is not to focus, but to scan the environment broadly. This is a highly adaptive brain strategy that prepares the individual for “what if” contingencies (Pulvermuller, Birnbaumer 1997).

That suggests concentration is not reflexive or “natural“, but must be summoned (Hedlin (2002). In order for it to emerge requires a recruitment process. That process consists of several steps.

The first step is for the brain to decide on the importance of a particular stimulus to “justify” excluding all but the relevant stimulus.

The second step involves and requires an emotional pre-decision, a sense of urgency, registered within the brain, signifying that the relevant stimulus could have a potential impact on the learner.

The third step involves praxis - or coordination. Once urgency and relevance are registered, the brain must alternate and apportion excitatory and inhibitory neuronal activity fluidly and with precise timing so that irrelevant inputs can be blocked while relevant inputs can pass through and in sync with one another to avoid neural spillover, or spiking. That requires a degree of pre-knowledge as well as neural timing.

The final step involves stamina, that is, a capacity to sustain focus for the entirety of the task.

In that context disorders along the “attention spectrum” could be described in a way slightly different from the traditional ADHD subcategories of Inattention, Hyperactivity and Impulsivity to augment rather than replace those categories. The diagnostic revisions would include:

Recruitment - mass action

Relevance/Recognition - narrowing of circuits based on a perception of task relevance

Urgency registration - an emotional determination of potential impact

Praxis… or neural timing - to coordinate the above narrowing/selection process and preclude spiking.

Stamina - which involves continued maintenance of the above functions for the duration of the task

The fact that the human brain appears to operate in a manner consistent with the above model, has implications for diagnosis and remediation.

On the other hand this neural process doesn’t necessarily coincide with the milieu of the typical classroom, which tends to be passive rather than urgent, and deliberate rather than rapid.

This is not a critique of either educators or of the education system. It would be difficult to insert emotion and urgency into each and every classroom (though not impossible). I’ve seen some very creative (dare I say wonderfully theatrical) instructors do this occasion. Yet it does present an awkward mis-match between brain function and traditional teaching methods and raises the question of how slight modifications in teaching practices can bridge that gap.

Mind and Memory

In constructing the bridge, we can begin by asking… what process enables learners to attend, and …what prevents learners from attending to and memorizing information?

The answer is fairly clear. Learning and memory are registered in the brain when neural fibers extend outward and attach to other neurons. In other words, learning is a result of neural growth and post-synaptic innervations (Horridge, 1968). The facilitator of that growth and innervation is feedback, or reinforcement, signifying that a behavior has been successful.

In that context, studies by Sluvidis, Koten et. Al (2008) have shown that when a behavior is followed by feedback ( which could be negative - indicating a lack of error, which is a good thing) or positive (indicating the attainment of a specific goal, also a good thing) neural fibers extenuate and connect to other networks In that way, short term memories are established.

Long term memories develop when these fundamental connections reverberate throughout the brain so that the memory trace is multiply registered in various sites. This provides redundancy, which any good information system must have (Dukas 1999).

As to the question of what prevents ADHD, autistic and learning disabled students from learning efficaciously in the classroom, one possible answer is something called “interference,” and it can pertain to lapsed time between stimulus, response, feedback and memorization

As discussed earlier, the brain operates in part according to a mass action principle and as a result harbors competing impulses. The fact that the brain reacts globally, leads to systemic noise, which allows interfering stimuli to intrude on the associative memory process. Noise in the brain equates with arousal and irresolution - which in turn create discomfort for the learner. It also creates interference patterns arising from pre-existing memories and percepts that compete with the initial perception. That too can block the forming of associative connections.

There are two types of interference; external and internal. Both are more likely to arise with longer intervals between cues, responses and feedback and less likely to arise when the intervals are compressed.

Resolution and de-arousal typically result in a pleasurable feeling. (Vitouch (2004), thus has implications for the urgency-emotion factor. More specifically, narrowing down the global brain activation into greater specificity reduces noise in the brain, which leads to a positive affective state. That, in concert with the structure and rapidity of the teacher’s presentation fulfills the urgency requirement for soliciting attention and memory.

The unpleasant aspect of mass action is nonetheless necessary. One of its benefits pertains to the fact that global activation allows for greater potential response access, which increases options in decision making. Another benefit is that mass action forces a higher level of brain arousal, which provides the energy for recruitment, attention and memory.

On the other hand, a noisy brain with a penchant for mass action increases the potential for interference. As a studies by Barrouilet and Camas (2009) and Winocur (1988) have shown, memories fade and/or are prohibited when intruding thoughts, experiences and inputs interrupt the trace input that would otherwise be the main focus. Thus whenever classroom teachers try to impart facts to their students (especially with time gaps between presentation and memorization) they must be aware of this implicit and natural drift toward noise, confusion and interference.

Since mental activity is ongoing, and other than in extraordinarily isolated circumstances. perceptions impinge continually on the brain, interference is a function of time. Therefore, the more time elapses between the stimulus, the behavior and the feedback the more likely it is that an interference pattern arising from an internal or external intervening stimulus event will interrupt the process, and that neural-growth extensions, reinforcement and memory will be blocked.

This can happen for a variety of reasons. For example a student with an auditory processing problem might not interpret a teacher’s instructions accurately, leading the student to seek out more comprehensible, competing stimuli in the classroom. Or the student might have an attention problem characterized primarily by an “urgency-deficit,” so that absent a sense of personal impact, he might seek out more intense stimuli in class - or create that intensity through his own behavior. In addition, a student might be so self conscious that “escapist” mental activities like rumination and day dreaming can interfere with memory consolidation.

That‘s where the concept of neural trapping comes into play. It is a method that can be used in either remedial or regular classroom settings. It features a rapid sequence of cues, student responses and positive feedback. Its rapid delivery creates a sense of urgency and interference-proof resolution by providing immediacy and reducing the timing…or praxis requirements in the brain. It can therefore maximize the student’s attending and memorizing capabilities.


With regard to teaching method style is obviously important. Firing rapid cues at a student, and asking him to respond as quickly as possible can be intimidating. Yet with the provision of immediate positive feedback and a soft and encouraging tone, an interference-free method can be implemented effectively. With respect to brain function, such rapid presentations would tend to create a neural trap, and override noise and interference, while establishing clear, uncontaminated short term memories, which can then be disseminated in the brain for long term consolidation. It is a method supported by the research of Kogan, Frankland et. Al (2003) who demonstrated that shorter intervals between stimuli, responses and feedback do enhance learning and memory.

In terms of application, the method would remain essentially the same for all students. albeit with some modifications, depending on the nature and severity of the learning disorder. In each instance the instructor’s and student’s sequence of cues, responses and reinforcers would be separated by short intervals.

Since the greater the impairment in terms of attentive focus, memory and integrative capacities, the greater the potential for interference, the intervals for significantly impaired students might have to be shorter. For instance, with severely impaired autistic students the intervals might have to be narrowed considerably. That is because autistic students often exhibit a “one track-mindedness” (also referred to as a vertical learning style), and if they are not initially locked on to the task, their integrative deficits will make recruitment and shifting over to the correct task focus more difficult.

In such cases, not only is it important to shorten the intervals, but also to swamp the brain with multi-sensory cues, so as to preclude interference from other sensory inputs. This would feature a rapid presentation of tactile, language and visual cues, followed by the student’s response, followed in turn by tactile, language and visual feedback.

Methodological Limitations

One potential drawback of this approach is that it might be difficult to apply to conceptual tasks, which by definition, draw on multiple memories to facilitate a convergent response. Yet it is not impossible. For example a student can learn anagrams and cue phrases such as i after e except after c or in math…right column first, left column next. In other words rote-rule learning can be created through the neural trapping process, enabling the student to summon conceptual and operational responses to enhance academic growth. In some ways this is obvious. For example Piaget determined that teaching involves first establishing schemes, then presenting inputs that by virtue of their divergence from those schemes force thought, deliberation and intellectual growth. (1978).

Another potential limitation on this method is that it might be more useful in one-to-one or small group settings than in a larger classroom. However, drilling exercises - still used by many teachers for spelling and foreign language declension lessons - are an example of how this principle can be applied in the classroom - with one important difference.

The key to the method lies in the word behavior. There is no evidence to suggest that neural growth and extension (thus memorization) occur through mere drill recitation or by listening to instruction. The student must respond in a way that leads to reinforcement. Thus the drill method used in classrooms for spelling and other subjects might be a less than optimal way to establish memories. To reiterate, neural growth, thus learning and memory depend on a behavior-feedback sequence. With regard to details, an illustration of the neural tracking method is as follows.

(Teacher): “Let’s run through this quickly. Two times three is“….

(Student): “Six”

(Teacher): “Excellent”

(Teacher): Three time three is…”

(Student): ”Nine”

(Teacher): ”Fantastic”

(Teacher): “Four times three is…”

(Student): “Twelve”

(Teacher): “Superb”

The Learning Curve

The above illustration obviously applies to instances in which the student knows but has not thoroughly committed to memory the facts or rules inherent in the lesson. With regard to a student’s first exposure to a lesson the dynamic would deviate a bit from that format but the key elements of short time intervals, interference-prevention and neural connectivity through a behavior-reinforcement sequence would still prevail. For example, once students are informed generally about the subject matter, use of the neural trapping method could occur immediately - in fact that might be an ideal scenario.

Another important question has to do with the interval between the teacher’s cues/questions etc. and the students’ responses. In the best of circumstances, (eg. a low interference, optimal learning/memory paradigm) the intervals would be short. Yet one could ask justifiably, whether that might preclude the student from thinking his way to a solution, and detract from the development of problem solving skills.

The answer to that question is twofold. First, this article does not argue for neural trapping as a prime or exclusive teaching approach. It is geared more toward specific students who, despite having adequate cognitive abilities, or some predetermined capacity to learn a given task, just can’t demonstrate consistently, their knowledge, recall and competence with regard to that task.

The second answer is more to the point. With a longer interval between teacher’s cue and students’ response, there is an increased likelihood of interference. However perhaps more important is the interval between the students’ response and the reinforcer. That is what produces the neural growth and connectivity.

A reasonable way around the problem of longer cue-to- response intervals would be for the teacher to provide intermittent of “filler” cues to prevent interference and keep the relevant stimulus trace in play for the student. Without filler-cues and intermittent comments, the stimulus vacuum that would prevail between cue and response would open the door to interference and possibly hinder memorization.

In some ways this runs contrary, not just to simple drill exercises, which have been used by educators for decades, but also to more modern teaching approaches, which emphasize deliberation, comparisons, and concepts over rote memorization of facts and rules - arguably in some instances before the student is mature enough to employ conceptual thinking. Some research indicates that the concept method works with select students, for example Okaya, Musa et al (2006). Other studies, for instance, Hansen (1985) suggest it does not work for all.

The fact that conceptual learning as an early foundation in elementary grades might be somewhat brain-unfriendly could explain why students diagnosed with learning, memory and attention-related disabilities not only don’t progress adequately, but also seem unable to consolidate what they have learned from one day to the next. An example of this is the so-called “multiple ceiling/multiple basal” phenomenon that keeps educators from determining the actual skill levels of learning disabled students and gauging their progress over time. It is possible that a neural trapping approach could ameliorate that problem, help solidify learning and improve the consistency in student performance.


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