TIME Science

This Is How Music Can Change Your Brain

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Actively learning to play an instrument can help a child's academic achievement

There’s little doubt that learning to play a musical instrument is great for developing brains.

Science has shown that when children learn to play music, their brains begin to hear and process sounds that they couldn’t otherwise hear. This helps them develop “neurophysiological distinction” between certain sounds that can aid in literacy, which can translate into improved academic results for kids.

Many parents probably read the above sentence and started mentally Google-ing child music classes in their local area. But if your kid doesn’t like learning an instrument or doesn’t actively engage in the class–opting to stare at the wall or doodle in a notebook instead of participating–he or she may not be getting all the benefits of those classes anyway.

A new study from Northwestern University revealed that in order to fully reap the cognitive benefits of a music class, kids can’t just sit there and let the sound of music wash over them. They have to be actively engaged in the music and participate in the class. “Even in a group of highly motivated students, small variations in music engagement — attendance and class participation — predicted the strength of neural processing after music training,” said Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, in an email to TIME. She co-authored the study with Jane Hornickel, Dana L. Strait, Jessica Slater and Elaine Thompson of Northwestern University.

Additionally, the study showed that students who played instruments in class had more improved neural processing than the children who attended the music appreciation group. “We like to say that ‘making music matters,'” said Kraus. “Because it is only through the active generation and manipulation of sound that music can rewire the brain.”

Kraus, whose research appeared today in Frontiers in Psychology, continued: “Our results support the importance of active experience and meaningful engagement with sound to stimulate changes in the brain.” Active participation and meaningful engagement translate into children being highly involved in their musical training–these are the kids who had good attendance, who paid close attention in class, “and were the most on-task during their lesson,” said Kraus.

To find these results, Kraus’s team went straight to the source, hooking up strategically placed electrode wires on the students’ heads to capture the brain’s responses.

Kraus’s team at Northwestern has teamed up with The Harmony Project, a community music program serving low-income children in Los Angeles, after Harmony’s founder approached Kraus to provide scientific evidence behind the program’s success with students.

According to The Harmony Project’s website, since 2008, 93 percent of Harmony Project seniors have gone on to college, despite a dropout rate of 50 percent or more in their neighborhoods. It’s a pretty impressive achievement and the Northwestern team designed a study to explore those striking numbers. That research, published in September in the Journal of Neuroscience, showed direct evidence that music training has a biological effect on children’s developing nervous systems.

As a follow up, the team decided to test whether the level of engagement in that music training actually matters. Turns out, it really does. Researchers found that after two years, children who not only regularly attended music classes, but also actively participated in the class, showed larger improvements in how the brain processes speech and reading scores than their less-involved peers.

“It turns out that playing a musical instrument is important,” Kraus said, differentiating her group’s findings from the now- debunked myth that just listening to certain types of music improves intelligence, the so-called “Mozart effect.” “We don’t see these kinds of biological changes in people who are just listening to music, who are not playing an instrument,” said Kraus. “I like to give the analogy that you’re not going to become physically fit just by watching sports.” It’s important to engage with the sound in order to reap the benefits and see changes in the central nervous system.

As to how to keep children interested in playing instruments, that’s up to the parents. “I think parents should follow their intuitions with respect to keeping their children engaged,” said Kraus. “Find the kind of music they love, good teachers, an instrument they’ll like. Making music should be something that children enjoy and will want to keep doing for many years!”

With that in mind, it’s not too late to trade in those Minecraft Legos, Frozen paraphernalia, XBox games, and GoldieBlox presents that you may have purchased, and swap them out for music lessons for the kids in your life.

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TIME Sports

Football Head Impacts Can Cause Brain Changes Even Without Concussion

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New study looks at high school athletes

As the world mourns the loss of Ohio State University football player Kosta Karageorge, who was found dead in an apparent suicide on Nov. 30, concerns about the long term effects of head injuries sustained by footballers continue to mount. A day after Karageorge’s death, a study has been released that suggests sports-related head impacts can cause changes in the brain even when there are no outward signs of a concussion.

In fact, researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., say some high school football players in the study exhibited measurable brain changes after a single season of play, even in the absence of concussion.

The Wake Forest team, lead by Dr. Christopher Whitlow, focused on youth players, a group that until now had been widely overlooked in the research into the effects of the repetitive head impacts associated with a typical season of football. “For every one NFL player, there are 2,000 youth players. That’s close to four million youth players and the vast majority of research on impact-related brain injuries has been on the college and professional level,” says Dr. Whitlow, noting that two-thirds of head impacts occur in practice sessions, not games.

Read More: High School Football Player Dies After Injury

In the first-of-its-kind study, the researchers hooked up 24 high school football players between the ages of 16 and 18 with helmet-mounted sensors to assess the frequency and severity of helmet impacts and then sent them out to play ball. As the players hit the field, the sensors allowed the researchers to monitor the severity of players’ head impacts. The team collected data from the helmets before and after every game and the high school students also underwent pre- and post-season diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) of the brain. “We looked at both structural and functional neuro-imaging and evaluated the players’ neuro-cognitive function,” he says.

“We found some changes in the brain that are concerning,” said Dr. Whitlow. “They are concerning because kids with more impacts had more changes and the kids with fewer impacts had fewer changes.”

While none of the football players were concussed during the season, the researchers found that there were microstructural changes in all of the players’ brains, especially in those players who were deemed “heavy hitters.” That direct correlation between game-related hits and changes in the brain is not exactly surprising, but may be unsettling for parents of youth football players.

Read More: The Tragic Risks of American Football

Not that Dr. Whitlow wants people to pull their kids from the peewee leagues or ban high school football just yet. “The high school athletes weren’t experiencing any of the classic symptoms of concussion—dizziness, nausea or double vision,” he says. “While the changes in the brains are concerning, because there were no symptoms of concussions, we don’t yet know how important these changes are.”

Dr. Whitlow sees the results of the study as only the first step in identifying a potential problem with allowing youth players to continue to play ball. He and his team want to determine whether these changes in the brain are permanent or transient and whether they are associated with subtle changes in neuro-cognitive functions. “Once we can identify risks, we can intervene to reduce those risks,” he says. Interventions could include improvements in technology and helmet safety, identifying maneuvers that could be particularly dangerous, making changes in the diagnoses of head injuries and identifying subtle changes that could be harmful.

So what’s a parent to do? Dr. Whitlow suggests they get involved in their kids’ practices. “You have to put these risks in the context of the health-related benefits of playing sports. The take home message is that parents need to use common sense. The best thing for parents to do is know what is going on on the field, know the symptoms of concussions, get to know the coaches, find out if there is a trainer on the field who can diagnose concussions.” He also directed parents to SaveInjuredKids.org for ideas on how to reduce head injuries and to learn to identify the signs of concussion.

“Football is the great American pastime,” said Dr. Whitlow. “I think it’s going to be around for another hundred years and what we’re trying to do is make it safer.”

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TIME neuroscience

Why We’re Falling Behind On Brain Innovation

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A series of reports explains the decline

Brain science is taking a hit, according to a recent series of papers published in a special issue of the Cell Press journal Neuron.

“While the disease burden and economic impacts are on the rise, progress in the development of new therapeutics and treatment approaches has appeared to have stalled,” reads an editorial introducing the issue. “Approval for new therapeutics (whether drugs, devices, or other treatment approaches) for nervous system disorders have been declining and most of the treatments we currently have are not disease modifying.”

Large pharmaceutical companies like GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Merck, Pfizer and Sanofi-Aventis have closed or downsized their brain research divisions, according to one paper, a move the study authors believe reflects a growing view that developing drugs for the brain is too difficult and time-consuming. In another report, researchers argue that there are not enough opportunities for various stakeholders to meet and collaborate on the latest research.

Still, researchers of a third paper focusing on Alzheimer’s disease argue that even though stopping neurodegeneration progression “seems daunting at the moment,” the brain and Alzheimer’s community should be encouraged by other fields that have successfully stopped disease onset with prevention efforts—like lowering cholesterol for cardiovascular disease.

The prognosis isn’t entirely dire, because the same researchers also offer their own solutions. To re-gain Big Pharma’s interest, perhaps the incentive model for brain research should change. “One way to do this that would not require upfront funding is to change the policies that regulate market returns for the most-needed breakthrough drugs,” the authors write. “The broader neuroscience community including clinicians and patients should convene to develop and advocate for such policy changes.” Others say they’ve had success in forming their own meetings of minds by pulling a variety of experts together.

There’s also the U.S. government’s BRAIN Initiative, a massive research project to map out the brain and gain a better understanding of disorders that can plague it. It’s unclear what the ambitious project, which is a little more than a year old, will end up contributing to the field. Some researchers have argued it might allocate funding away from labs not involved in the project.

Reisa Sperling, a Harvard neurologist and the lead study author of the new Alzheimer paper, tells TIME the project is a good thing for the disease, but with some caveats. “It is important to note that the BRAIN Initiative is really focused on studying basic mechanisms of how the brain works, rather than identifying disease-specific alterations that are more directly translatable into [Alzheimer’s disease] clinical research,” she says. “So I hope that there will be additional investment that will help us translate mechanistic research on normal brain function into understanding what goes wrong in the brain in early Alzheimer’s disease…to help us find an effective treatment more more quickly.”

The bottom line is that despite lack of funding for the field, the are still reasons to be optimistic. “The pace of research progress in neuroscience over recent years has been nothing short of amazing,” the journal authors write. As long as drug companies can be attracted again to the brain, the vast time spent on trying to unlock it will be well worth it.

TIME Science

Can Neuroscience Debunk Free Will?

David Disalvo is the author of Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain's Power to Adapt Can Change Your Life.

Some research shows that brain activity behind a decision occurs before a person consciously apprehends the decision

One of the lively debates spawned from the neuroscience revolution has to do with whether humans possess free will, or merely feel as if we do. If we truly possess free will, then we each consciously control our decisions and actions. If we feel as if we possess free will, then our sense of control is a useful illusion—one that neuroscience will increasingly dispel as it gets better at predicting how brain processes yield decisions.

For those in the free-will-as-illusion camp, the subjective experience of decision ownership is not unimportant, but it is predicated on neural dynamics that are scientifically knowable, traceable and—in time—predictable. One piece of evidence supporting this position has come from neuroscience research showing that brain activity underlying a given decision occurs before a person consciously apprehends the decision. In other words, thought patterns leading to conscious awareness of what we’re going to do are already in motion before we know we’ll do it. Without conscious knowledge of why we’re choosing as we’re choosing, the argument follows, we cannot claim to be exercising “free” will.

Those supporting a purer view of free will argue that whether or not neuroscience can trace brain activity underlying decisions, making the decision still resides within the domain of an individual’s mind. In this view, parsing unconscious and conscious awareness is less important than the ultimate outcome – a decision, and subsequent action, emerging from a single mind. If free will is drained of its power by scientific determinism, free-will supporters argue, then we’re moving down a dangerous path where people can’t be held accountable for their decisions, since those decisions are triggered by neural activity occurring outside of conscious awareness. Consider how this might play out in a courtroom in which neuroscience evidence is marshalled to defend a murderer on grounds that he couldn’t know why he acted as he did.

Some researchers have decided to approach this debate from a different angle by investigating whether our subjective experience of free will is threatened by the possibility of “neuroprediction” – the idea that tracking brain activity can predict decisions. The answer to this question is not, of course, an answer to the core question about the existence of free will itself. But it addresses something arguably just as important (maybe more so), because ultimately free will has little meaning apart from our belief that it exists.

In a recent study published in Cognition, researchers tested the question with hundreds of undergrads at Georgia State University in Atlanta. The students were first told about a high-tech cap that allows neuroscientists to predict decisions before people make them, based solely on brain activity. The students were then given an article to read about a woman named Jill who tested wearing the cap for a month, during which time neuroscientists were able to predict all of her decisions, including which candidates she’d vote for. The technology and Jill were made up for the study.

The students were asked whether they thought this technology was plausible and whether they felt that it undermines free will. Eighty percent responded that it is plausible, but most did not believe it threatened free will unless the technology went beyond prediction and veered into manipulation of decisions. Only if the neuroscientists had somehow changed Jill’s mind to make decisions she would not have otherwise made did most of the students think her free will was jeopardized.

A follow-up study used the same scenario but added language to the effect of “All human mental activity is just brain activity,” in an attempt to clinically underscore that neuroscientists could interpret and predict Jill’s decisions just by diagraming her brain activity. Again, the majority responded that free will was threatened only if decision prediction turned into decision manipulation.

From the free-will-as-illusion camp, we might expect a skeptical reply to this study along the lines of, “A majority of people thinking Bigfoot exists doesn’t make it so.” That’s an understandable response, but unlike belief in Bigfoot (or insert your favorite myth), the implications for belief in free will are significant. Our subjective understanding about how we process information to arrive at a decision isn’t just a theoretical exercise; what we think about it matters. And it will matter even more as science nears closer to touching uncomfortable possibilities we’ve only been able to imagine.

David Disalvo is the author of Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power to Adapt Can Change Your Life and the best-selling What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, which has been published in 10 languages. His work has appeared in Scientific American Mind, Forbes, Psychology Today, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Salon, Esquire, Mental Floss and other publications.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Addiction

Gamblers Get Less Of a Buzz From Pleasure, Study Finds

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New research presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress in Berlin sheds light on what happens in the brains of gamblers.

Pathological gambling is a difficult condition to classify. Though the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) formerly classified it as an impulse control disorder, the most recent version, the DSM-5, made the switch to defining it as an addictive disorder because of the growing research finding that “gambling disorder is similar to substance-related disorders in clinical expression, brain origin, comorbidity, physiology, and treatment,” the DSM website says.

But this new small study shows that it might be unique in some neurologic ways, too. Researchers performed Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans on 14 male pathological gamblers and 15 non-gambling volunteers to measure their levels of opioid receptors, the parts of the brain activated by pleasure-inducing endorphins. People with addictions like alcoholism or drug addiction have been found to have more opioid receptors. In problem gamblers, however, the researchers saw no difference from healthy volunteers, a finding that surprised them.

Then, participants took an amphetamine capsule, which unleashes endorphins with similar effects to the rush you get from exercise or alcohol, the study says. An additional PET scan revealed that pathological gamblers responded differently to the drug. They released fewer endorphins than those who didn’t gamble, and they also reported lower levels of euphoria on a questionnaire afterward. This might help explain the addictive part of pathological gambling: to get pleasure from the act, problem gamblers might need more of it or to work harder for it.

These findings suggest the involvement of the opioid system in pathological gambling and that it may differ from addiction to substances such as alcohol,” says lead researcher Dr. Inge Mick of the Imperial College London in a press release. “We hope that in the long run this can help us to develop new approaches to treat pathological gambling.”

TIME Health Care

Terminally Ill Woman Explains Her Decision to Die

"I don't want to die"

A 29-year-old terminally-ill woman in Oregon defended in a new interview Tuesday her decision to forgo aggressive cancer treatment in favor of physician-assisted suicide.

“I don’t want to die,” Brittany Maynard said on CBS.”If anyone wants to hand me, like, a magical cure and save my life so that I can have children with my husband, you know, I will take them up on it.”

In the interview, Maynard’s husband and mother explain how they came to terms with Brittany’s decision.

“The idea of wanting my wife at my side forever—that was the original plan, right?” said Dan Diaz, Maynard’s husband “But the reality that I guess that feeds into the argument of quality of life versus just quantity.”

Maynard said her goal is to make it to Nov. 1 before allowing herself to die. She moved to Oregon because it allows certain types of physician assisted-suicide.

[CBS]

TIME Research

Ann Romney Launches Center, Says Family ‘Done’ With Campaigning

“Not only Mitt and I are done, but the kids are done. Done. Done. Done”

As the political world speculates about a potential third Mitt Romney bid for president, Ann Romney has other things on her mind. On Tuesday, she launched a center at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston aimed at solving some of the world’s most devastating neurological diseases.

Ann Romney also laid to rest any rumors that her husband might run again, the Los Angeles Times reported. “Not only Mitt and I are done, but the kids are done. Done. Done. Done,” she said.

“By combining Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s unique assets with the world’s most advanced resources and minds, the center will accelerate life-giving breakthroughs,” the hospital’s president Betsy Nabel said in a press release.

Ann Romney said her personal experience with multiple sclerosis (MS) and the work of the doctors at Brigham and Women’s inspired the center.

“I know firsthand how terrifying and devastating these neurologic diseases can be, and I want to do everything in my power to help change outcomes for future generations,” she said in a press release. “The team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital gave me the gift of enduring hope and that is what this center is about.”

The center, planned to open in 2016, will focus on preventing and curing MS, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, brain tumors and Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Read next: The Pros and Cons of ‘President Grandma’

TIME neuroscience

This Alzheimer’s Breakthrough Could Be a Game Changer

Scientists recreated what goes on in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients in a 3D culture dish that could speed development of new drugs for the disease

Researchers have overcome a major barrier in the study of Alzheimer’s that could pave the way for breakthroughs in our understanding of the disease, a new report shows—and that new understanding could, in turn, pave the way for drugs that treat or interrupt the progression of the neurodegenerative condition.

For decades, animals have been the stand-ins for studying human disease, and for good reason. Their shorter lifespans mean they can model human conditions in weeks or months, and their cells can be useful for testing promising new drug treatments.

But they haven’t been so helpful in studying Alzheimer’s disease. Two factors contribute to the neurodegenerative condition — the buildup of sticky plaques of the protein amyloid, and the toxic web of another protein, tau, which strangles healthy nerve cells and leaves behind a tangled mess of dead and dying neurons. Despite attempts by scientists to engineer mice who exhibit both factors, they haven’t been able to generate the tau tangles that contribute to the disease.

Now, Dr. Rudolph Tanzi and Dr. Doo Kim at the Mass General Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, have devised a work-around that doesn’t involve animals. They have developed a way to watch the disease progress in a lab dish.

“In this new system that we call ‘Alzheimer’s-in-a-dish,’ we’ve been able to show for the first time that amyloid deposition is sufficient to lead to tangles and subsequent cell death,” said Tanzi in a statement.

MORE: Blood Test for Alzheimer’s

While autopsies showed evidence of both amyloid and tau in the brain, Alzheimer’s experts have been debating for years which came first — do amyloid plaques trigger the formation of tau tangles, or does the presence of tau cause amyloid to get stickier and bunch together in the brain? Tanzi and his colleagues showed definitively for the first time that amyloid is the first step in the Alzheimer’s process, followed by tau tangles. When he blocked the formation of amyloid in the culture with a known amyloid inhibitor, tau tangles never formed.

The disease-in-a-dish model is an emerging way of understanding conditions that either can’t be recapitulated accurately in animals, or diseases that make it difficult to study and test in human patients. In recent years, for example, scientists have successfully recreated the process behind amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, using stem cells from patients and allowing them to develop into the motor neurons that are affected by the disease. The technique led to a breakthrough in understanding that a certain population of nerve cells known as glial cells poison the motor neurons and impede their normal function. Now experts are focusing on finding ways to control the glial cell activity as possible treatment for ALS.

MORE: How Moodiness and Jealousy May Lead to Alzheimer’s

Tanzi and his team are hoping that something similar will come from their model of Alzheimer’s.

While the genes responsible for the inherited form of Alzheimer’s differ slightly from those involved in the more common form that affects people as they age, the end result — the build up of amyloid plaques and tau tangles — are the same. So now that they can see both the clumps of amyloid and the tau tangles, form, they can start to tease apart the processes that link the two processes together.

That will open the way toward finding drugs or other ways of interrupting the process more quickly than they could working with animals. It took six to eight weeks for the cells in the dish to form plaques and then tangles, compared to a year or so in mice. “We can now screen hundreds of thousands of drugs in this system that recapitulates both plaques and tangles…in a matter of months,” Tanzi said. “This was not possible in mouse models.” The system also makes it possible to test these drug compounds at one-tenth the cost of evaluating them in mice, he said. And that means that finding a way to prevent Alzheimer’s may come both faster and cheaper than scientists had expected.

TIME review

Steven Pinker’s Ultimate Writing Guide

Class is in session—and it's one you'll enjoy
Class is in session—and it's one you'll enjoy

You wouldn't ordinarily take literary advice from a neuroscientist—but Pinker's new book will make you think otherwise

Sometime during middle school, I showed my father something I’d written for a class assignment. About halfway through reading, he stopped, pointed and said “that’s grammatically incorrect. You wrote ‘I will now describe.’ The correct wording is ‘I shall describe.'” The word “will”, he told me, implies defiance and determination. But if your sentence starts with the pronouns he, she, we, you or they, the rule is reversed.

It sounded nutty, to say nothing of pointlessly precise, but that was evidently what he’d learned in grade school back in the 1930’s. As far as he was concerned, that made it an eternal truth. For decades now, I’ve just assumed that the rule had gone out of style—but on reading Steven Pinker’s charming and erudite new book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, I’ve learned that there never was such a rule, in the sense of something that was universally agreed on by language experts.

If anyone should know, it’s Pinker. Not only is he an extraordinarily stylish and prolific writer himself—he’s written on the history of violence, why words don’t mean what they mean, the mystery of consciousness, the role of genes in shaping character, how the mind works and more—but he’s also got the intellectual chops to back up what he says, what with his being a psycholinguist and neuroscientist at Harvard and all.

With that backing him up, it’s no surprise that while The Sense of Style is very much a practical guide to clear and compelling writing, it’s also far more. Pinker dives deep into the neuroscience of language to explain why some writing is clear, some murky and some sublime.

Style has all the fun stuff that makes usage guides so popular. For example, he lambastes the language scolds who wag their fingers over such evils as split infinitives—absurdly, Pinker says, because the rule against them is based on the fact that infinitives such as “to go” are single, unsplittable words in Latin and other languages that arose from it. Our two-word infinitives should not be governed by the old one-word rule—meaning that Captain Kirk was just fine, when he said “to boldly go.” Pinker pooh-poohs the idea that words must always stick to their original meaning: “decimate” means “to cut by ten percent” in Latin; now people use it to mean “more or less destroy,” and that’s fine with him.

Sometimes Pinker works a little too hard at this debunking campaign. He informs us that while “ain’t” is generally incorrect, it’s fine when used in expressions like as “it ain’t over till it’s over.” But since nobody has thought otherwise since the Herbert Hoover administration, it’s a point that hardly needs to be made.

Pinker then steps back from talking about excessively fussy rules to talk about something he calls “classic style”—a concept he attributes to the scholars Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas. The basic rule here is “write clearly,” and Pinker’s advice on how to do so is pretty standard, albeit written with great clarity.

Among his suggestions: read your prose out loud to yourself in order to pick up on awkwardnesses that might not be evident when you’re reading silently; avoid jargon; keep your sentences short; jettison superfluous and unnecessary words—like, say, using both “superfluous” and “unnecessary” when just one will do. In one of the many tables of good versus bad that appear in the book he shows how phrases such as “for the purpose of” or “in view of the fact that” can be replaced simply by “to” or “since” with no loss of meaning.

Finally, Pinker plunges into what really sets this book apart: the neuroscientific underpinnings of what makes some writing good and some bad, based on how our brains process language. Classic style or not, this bit takes a fair amount of work to get through. Pinker acknowledges that many very good writers get by purely on intuition, but, he says:

Just below the surface of these inchoate intuitions, I believe, is a tacit awareness that the writer’s goal is to encode a web of ideas into a string of words using a tree of phrases. Aspiring wordsmiths would do well to cultivate this awareness.”

Well, maybe. But the chapter that covers these ideas is filled with sentence diagrams and technical language that runs the risk of making aspiring wordsmiths run screaming from the room. Here’s a passage in which Pinker tries to move the awareness-cultivation process along, talking about a set of words he calls “determiners.”

A determiner answers the question “Which one?” or “How Many?” Here [i.e., in a passage about a play by Sophocles] the determiner role is filled by what is traditionally called a possessive noun (though it is really a noun marked for genitive case, as I will explain).

There’s lots more of this sort of thing, which Pinker thinks “can take the fear and boredom out of grammar.” I’m not entirely sure about that. For experienced writers, however, it’s pretty fascinating stuff—the unconscious mechanics that underlie the instincts they’ve developed through experience.

In the end, Pinker’s formula for good writing is pretty basic: write clearly, try to follow the rules most of the time—but only the when they make sense. It’s neither rocket science nor brain surgery. But the wit and insight and clarity he brings to that simple formula is what makes this book such a gem.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME neuroscience

How A Girl’s Brain Changes After a Traumatic Brain Injury

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Concussions may influence girls differently than boys

Girls who suffer traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) may be more susceptible to behavioral problems like psychological distress and smoking compared to boys, according to a new study.

Each year, TBIs cause 2.5 million emergency room visits, and so far research has consistently shown that they’re more common among boys than girls. Girls still get them, though, and often in sports like soccer, basketball and cheerleading. A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE that surveyed 9,288 Ontario students in grades 7 through 12 reports that girls who suffered brain injuries—in sports, most commonly—were more likely to report having contemplated suicide, experienced psychological distress, been the target of bullying and having smoked cigarettes.

Overall, the new study reports that one in five adolescents had sustained a TBI that resulted in their loss of consciousness for at least five minutes or hospitalization at some point in their lifetime. Boys experienced them 6% more than girls. These young people who had experienced a lifetime TBI also reported behaviors in the last year like daily smoking, binge drinking, using marijuana, cyberbullying and poor grades.

MORE: The Tragic Risks of American Football

Since the results were self-reported, the researchers could not determine causation, nor could they provide a definitive explanation for the gender differences. In the study, they speculate that it could have to do with a variety of factors that include hormonal differences, treatment differences, differences in cognitive abilities or some combination.

Dr. Geoffrey Manley, vice chairman of neurological surgery at the University of California, San Francisco, was not involved in the study but has another theory. According to his own research, women tend to be more forthcoming about their concussion symptoms than men. “Currently, we don’t have a clear idea of what exactly a concussion is,” he says. “We are really limited to self-reporting, and women are more honest about their symptoms than boys.”

Girls get TBIs most often playing soccer and basketball, but other sports—cheerleading, in particular—have very high risk for injuries. The American Academy of Pediatrics has called for more safety regulations for the cheerleading, even though it tends to not be included in national high school sports injury research.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about TBIs and concussions, including the best way to diagnose them. So far there is not a reliable imaging or biomarker test. But understanding who is at a risk, and for which reasons, helps bolster the collective knowledge of the issue. “No matter how you slice this, a subset of these folks are going to go on and have long-term disability,” says Manley. “We can try to predict who these people are going to be, and gender may be part of this.”

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