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Q&A with Ryan Meyer: The inner ear’s connection to academic performance

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Ryan Meyer

In 2007, Ryan Meyer left his job consulting for Dai Nippon Printing and moved home to Indiana to help his mother turn a personal project into a business. Candace Meyer was a career educator who ran a Title 1 program for a county in Indiana that provided extra help to low-performing students. She had a great interest in the connection between how children develop physically and how well they perform academically. Over the course of a decade of research and a few years of using her program as a lab, she sought connections between the two.

What came out of that work is now a company called Minds-in-Motion, which its founders describe as a “unique blend of gymnastics, balance exercises and applied technology, all focused on strengthening the brain’s ability to process and organize information efficiently. We accomplish this in part by correcting deficiencies and increasing performance of the child’s vestibular system, or inner ear.” Why the inner ear? The Hechinger Report sat down with Ryan Meyer recently to find out, and also to learn how his work with his mother has the potential to improve teaching and learning.

Q: How does Minds-in-Motion work? And why is targeting the inner ear so important?

A: We collect about 120 different data points on the human physiology of a child that comes through our doors. The most interesting of those data points are gathered on a machine that was developed for NASA back in the 80s to study the effects of weightlessness on the inner-ear system. So the inner ear has three fluid-filled canals and those have tiny hairs that are sensors, and they basically act as your X, Y and Z graph for life—where you are in time and space—and it processes a lot of information that then goes into the lower brain to the cerebellum, and that supports motor outputs and sensory inputs and the higher cognitive functions.

So we’ve been using this technology to track development of kids who went through our program. Our most recent study looked at 300 kids, and we looked at them over 2009-2011, and what we’re seeing is that all of these groupings of data are moving in the direction we were expecting them to. And we’re causing development in a very short window, four-week or 10-week window. That gave us the inner validation we needed to go and make a technology from it … So just three weeks ago, I split the brick-and-mortar company off into a technology venture, and I’m partnering with a San Francisco group in Santa Monica and building out a sensor that you’ll put on your child, and it connects with your mobile device and will allow a parent or teacher (most likely a private-school teacher) to gather data on the child. So that will take the NASA technology we’re using and miniaturize it.

Why private schools?

Because of the price point. As we’re building the technology, there are two ways to gather the data points that we find relevant for the physiology of a child. One way is putting a sensor on them. That doesn’t really work in a public-school environment because it costs about $200 each and you can’t outfit a whole school with those. The other way is visually on the Microsoft Kinect platform. It’s just a lot easier for public schools to have one Kinect that all the students can use.

The vision is to build a consumer product first and get the consumer market validation, and then apply that to the broader-based, public-school market. I’ve already convinced the state of Indiana to let us beta-test the software or any technology that we build.

What problem(s) do you see Minds-in-Motion helping to solve? How does it help with teaching and learning?

Children are not getting the same amount of physiological stimulation that they did 20 or 30 years ago. Because of the increase in technology that makes life a lot easier, children are more likely to be sedentary. There’s a sociological price to pay for the technological advancement of the past 30 years. We’re by no means Luddite, but we think that you have to counterbalance that influx of technology into life, especially at earlier and earlier ages. Then it gets labeled as ADHD or autism-spectrum, and I feel like a lot of really smart people are spending too much time trying to define the problem rather than looking for solutions.

Last year there were 10.4 million children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). That’s up 66 percent since 2000. There are things that affect that—maybe it’s over-prescription. But the fact is that 87 percent of those kids are prescribed Ritalin or Adderall, so you’ve got a hugely medicated set of kids that we believe can be developed in natural ways. Minds-in-Motion works really well in that population. The reason it works so well with ADHD is that it basically allows a child to be more focused. One thing is you’re burning off excess energy. And it bolsters visual and auditory processing, two things that are very necessary for the educational process, not only to focus but to parse out the data that you’re focusing on, be it on a blackboard or listening to what the teacher is saying.

And then we have an education system that increasingly looks at cognitive testing at a younger and younger age, and we’re not applying any kind of science to spurring development or identifying outliers in the student populations regarding physiological development. So what we look for are motor outputs, sensory inputs, visual skills like the ability of your eye to track something or converge or team up and perceive depth.

The reason this is important for the educational process is that I’ve met with a number of neuroscientists, specifically from Stanford, and what we’re doing is increasing the electrical signal from the vestibular apparatus into the cerebellum. And what that does is strengthen the way neural networks work and, as they strengthen, they become more organized and more rationalized and that’s allowing the brain to not have to figure out balance issues on the higher-order cognitive functions.

Can you break that down? I’m a kid doing a math problem. How does my inner-ear system play a role in my ability to figure out the problem?

If your vestibular system is out of whack, it is drawing resources away from the brain that are used to calculate, reason and learn. There have been a number of really smart neuroscientists that tie the vestibular system and balance into higher cognitive functioning. The most famous of them is Dr. Norman Doidge, who wrote The Brain That Changes Itself. It’s now understood that the brain has the ability to change neural pathways and is constantly forming and reforming [them]. Think of the brain as an ecosystem—it’s hard to look at it in a linear fashion. And up until 15 years ago, people thought there was a very linear approach to brain development. Like a forest, it’s constantly growing and areas are expanding and contracting.

Minds-in-Motion is a response to the acceleration of technology over the past 30 years and how it has negatively impacted progress in certain developmental areas, yet it is responding with more technology. Can you explain that?

Exactly. It’s like leveraging technology to focus on an issue created by technology. That’s how technology should work … I want to create a whole new way of looking at the child so you can capture the data, and I think that helps. There’s a huge focus nowadays on data and education and creating quantifiable outcomes, so I just want to apply that to a different aspect of the human physiology.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Nick Pandolfo writes for The Hechinger Report. A native of New York City, he majored in education at Eugene Lang College and later taught ESL… See Archive

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