Thursday, March 31, 2005

Put It Out of Your Mind

Putting thoughts out of your mind and completely clearing your mind appear to be distinct processes, and they both require active work. Being able to ignore is closely related to directing attention, so poor performance at putting information out of mind results in easy distractibility and inattention.

Studies looking at the ease or difficulty of 'ignore' seem to suggest that although general tendency may be inherited, it can be strengthened by practice. In behavior tests of school age children, training in being able to resist distraction also generalized to more delayed self-gratification behaviors. The abstract of the article which discusses this in more detail is linked below.

The authors also note that when teaching children skills to reduce distraction, the challenges should be introduced gradually:

"The level of difficulty of the tasks by which the child is challenged should be adjusted so that the child can develop an expectancy that success is possible. Once that momentum has been achieved, the difficulty of the situation can gradually be ratcheted up."

The take-home message: "Like a muscle, it appears to be fatigued in the short run and strengthened in the long run by exercise."

Suppressing vs Clearing Thoughts
Self-Control: Theory and Research.

Success of Online Learning - GLEF Report

Online Learning is exploding 25% of K-12 public schools offer some form of virtual instruction and 300,000 high schoolers attended online classes in 2002-3. There are a lot more now. The early statistics back from online AP classes is also promising - higher rates of students passing AP tests from online courses compared to school-based.

Online Learning

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Learning from Our Mistakes

When children are failing in school, we often need to take more time to find out the patterns of errors and mistakes the kids are making. Many times students have gotten themselves into a vicious cycle of repetitive errors, but don't know how to stop it.

From research, we can know see that detection is not a simple function that one either has or doesn't have. Learning from mistakes requires smooth coordination of several different brain regions, probably accounting for why it helps to practice.

In the figure excerpted below, see the various regions activated when subjects learn from their mistakes. The paradigm involved subjects making a guess at which visual features of Mr. Potato head were associated with 'vanilla' or 'chocolate'.

As it turns out, learning about mistakes creates a bigger brain impression than learning about correct guesses.

Learning from Mistakes fMRI
Powerpoint Error Research
University Learning Center Study Skills Handouts
Regents Prep Math Study Strategies
Study Tips
Study Tips for Introductory Physics Students
Analyzing Test Errors

More Sensory Integration: The Color of Smells

Kids or adults with sensory processing difficulties overload easily with sight, sound, touch, and smells. In this very basic research paper, researchers show that smells are identified with visual cues. If you take visual cues away, it much more difficult to distinguish different odors.

It's because the senses are so closely linked to each other that it's easy to upset other sensory when one type of 'sensory' input goes awry. It means that a child with auditory processing problems might develop visual overload problems (e.g. highly distractible) or a child with proprioceptive sensory problems might be overly sensitive to smells, etc.

Blogger is having a lot of technical difficulties these days, so hopefully we'll get our daily posts out.

More Sensory Integration: The Color of Smells

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Daydreaming Brain

Researchers say that we are daydreaming 10-20% of the time. In any given classroom across the United States, maybe that number might rise. What goes on the brain with daydreaming and is it good for the brain?

There have been some interesting details about what the brain looks like while daydreaming, and there are interesting bits and pieces of information so far: daydreaming appears to change in frequency and in pattern of brain activation throughout the life cycle, and daydreaming when the mind is at rest activates areas that are different from conventional 'hard' calculating tasks or super verbal memory challenges. Interestingly, daydreaming shows a powerful activation of the medial temporal lobes, areas important for long-term and autobiographical memory. Other areas activated included strong visual and imagery areas where many sensory inputs mingle.

Look at all the areas that activate when the brain is free to daydream (Gabrieli's group, Stanford):

Maybe this is why many who are involved in creative disciplines need to forget about their problems (daydream, go out and play) in order to really solve them. When you daydream, you may be more likely to dredge up little tidbits of interest from your past that may be helpful for answering a question. If you can't find a solution quickly by conscious means, maybe it's important to let the subconscious have a try. Said Einstein: "I do my best thinking after playing the violin for a half hour."

Daydreaming and fMRI
Daydreaming Research
Brain's 'resting' network
Daydreaming in Youth, Old Age, and Alzheimers

Lemelson Center's Invention at Play: Does Play Matter?

Here are some interesting quotes about the importance of 'play' (HT: Play Journal).

Lemelson Centers Invention at Play: Does Play Matter?

Monday, March 28, 2005

Neurolearning Epiphany

Several years ago, we experienced an epiphany while meeting with an obviously intelligent blind woman with a thirty-year history of diabetes. "There's probably nothing you can do," she started off saying, "but I still need to ask you if there's anything I can do about my memory. It's gotten so bad now that I'll forget what my daughter's telling me even before she's finished talking." Uh-oh, we thought, sounds bad. We had seen her brain scan before, and it had clearly shown diffuse damage from poorly controlled diabetes. Maybe there was nothing we could do.

We asked her to try to remember a list of numbers, and found to our dismay that she struggled to remember even 2 in a row. When asked to reverse them, she couldn't even keep the second number in mind. It looked pretty hopeless. Words of reassurance seemed empty.

But then we thought of something. We had recently seen an fMRI study which had shown that 'visual imagination' (visually imagining reversing a checkerboard) had a very diffuse distribution in the brain - and thought maybe enough of it could be preserved in this woman so that visual imagery could be used bypass her memory impairments. To our surprise and to hers, when prompted to visually imagine the numbers we read to her, she could now remember 7 digits (the normal limit)! - a feat doubly impressive because she was completely blind and had no light perception in either eye. For this woman, she merely needed to be made aware that she should translate 'heard' information into visual images - to go from being totally incapacitated memory-wise to 'normal'.

How often could this happen? More often than you think. Education and neuropsychology are not oriented to problem-solving learning difficulties in a way that tells a person's how to make the most of their unique biology, memory and problem-solving style, and capacity for imagery. All of those things may have profound consequences for school or career success, and personal fulfillment. The brain has vast resources, but we should realize we're barely scratching the surface.

We'll talk more in the future about optimizing learning and memory, and the role of imagery and symbolization in idea manipulation and creative synthesis.

Visual Imagination and fMRI

Teaching Teachers How To Teach At-Risk Readers

We can link only to the abstract below, though hopefully the entire paper will be published online soon. There's a surprising scarcity of freely available information comparing the relative efficacies of specific teaching strategies.

This study was able to show that providing novice teachers with instruction about word structure teaching resulted in significant improvement in the efficacy of their teaching (reading achievement increased a great deal). Say the authors: "It is difficult to imagine how teachers can provide effective word decoding or spelling instruction, espeically to struggling readers, without knowledge of the phonemic structure of words, typical grapheme-phoneme mappings, common orthgraphic syllable patterns, and irregularities in words." We would add that the reading difficulties of some children can be difficult to figure out 'intuitively' because basic perceptual processing of sounds or text may be very different from the teacher's. What seems obvious to one is not obvious at all to the other.

Here are the essentials of what these researchers observed helped teaching:

1. Teaching Sound Segmentation - for instance hearing the 2 different sound segments of 'th' and 'igh' in 'thigh'
2. Teaching in Syllable Type (for instance, nonsense words): trube (magic e), sply (open), knoof (vowel team), fisp (closed), sare (vowel-r-magic e), blarn (vowel-r-closed)
3. Distinguishing Phonetically Regular (e.g. saw, box, food) from Irregular (pretty, eye, of) Words

With this added teacher instruction, tutored students were found to have: better knowledge of letter sounds, better decoding and spelling of phonetically regular words, and reading and spelling of irregular words.

Teaching Teachers to Help At-Risk Readers Abstract

Blogging Clicks With Colleges (

Blogging Clicks With Colleges (

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Bach: Language for the Whole Brain

On this beautiful holiday weekend, here's a little Bach for your brain. Listening to Bach's music activates areas previously thought to be language-only specific. In these non-musicians changes in brain activation occur with slight changes in the played. Not a surprise to anyone who loves Bach, even the untrained brain can tell when the music is altered.

Interestingly, Bach himself was a very multimodal composer. He composed much of his work with specific images and word phrases, and compositions were referred to as 'word paintings'.

The second link below gives you five free live music recordings a day in return for free registration. Have a great weekend. See you Monday.

Whole Brain Bach
Free Bach Music(registration required)>

Flashes from the Past: "At times stubborn and irritable..."

At times stubborn and irritable, he called a colleague a "Kippelfagottist" or "nanny-goat bassoonist" and almost got killed in a duel. As a 20 year old, he was also so excited about hearing a new organist that he left his job for a month and walked 200 miles to hear the music. Apparently it was worth it because after he arrived, he wrote his employer to tell him he needed to stay an extra month just to listen.

Yes this was Johann Sebastian Bach. We have fewer details of his boyhood, but from the few stories passed down to us we can see traits of stubborness and determination. As a child, he broke into a cabinet to steal music that he was forbidden to play because it was 'too hard'. Apparently at night, he gradually copied the entire manuscript by hand and learned the music in secret.

Said Beethoven later of Bach: "His name ought not to be Bach ("Bach" means "brook" in German), but ocean, because of his infinite and inexhaustible wealth of combinations and harmonies."

Spiritual Lives of Great Composers
Johann Sebastian Bach

Friday, March 25, 2005

Attention! Attention! It's Not All the Frontal Lobes

One of the most popular misconceptions about attention is that it's all the frontal lobes. In its most crude application, it has parents, teachers, and even many clinicians thinking that inattentive = 'hypofrontal', and so in need of medication like stimulants that activate frontal-striatal pathways. Not so.

In fact, the other lobe of interest is the parietal lobe- that wonderful meeting place for shifting attention, spatial representation, and imagery, where primary sensory and motor areas converge to convey a sense of space and location based on cues of sight, sound, touch, position, and balance.

Hmmm. Now does this sound familiar? Getting in trouble for leaning on other kids, a poor sense of 'space', visual or auditory distractibility, inattentiveness, or hyperactivity? Some people will lump it with the attention deficit disorders, while for others, this is sensory integration or sensory processing dysfunction. But by profile, this is more the parietal pattern than frontal (sustained attention) - so sensory processing disorder is a better descriptive term.

Because of the complex intersection of diverse sensory areas, vestibular, and motor pathways in the parietal lobes, this area is ripe for multisensory training and rehabilitation. Because as we've mentioned before, the neurons that fire together wire together (Dr. Carla Shatz's slogan), the way to fine tune is to have integrative practice with sight, sound, touch, motor activity, and movement, rather than hoping for 'a pill' to hold the answer.

Also because the parietal lobes are so important for imagery and imagining, potential training benefits are also likely to extend beyond mundane but still important activities like hand-eye coordination and balance...into visualization and creative productivity.

Crossmodal Control of Attention
Parietal Lobe and Visual Attention
4 T-fMRI Study of Nonspatial Shifting of Selective Attention
ERPs, Distractibility Parietal Adolescents - Abstract
Sensory Integration: Current Concepts and Practical Implications Sensory Processing Disorders in a Learning Disorders Clinic

How Much Can Your Mind Keep Track Of?

Here is an interesting study. In a survey of academics (really graduate students and academic staff), it appeared that maximum number of different pieces of information (variables) people could keep in mind was: four. That's not much. It seems that when we have to juggle lots of data (for instance researching on different sites on the Internet, different opinions etc.) we are successfully 'chunking' information into smaller bits. They say: "It is a major function of expertise to recognize higher-order variables that relate chunked representations of lower-order variables".

Maybe part of the drive of many great thinkers toward simplicity? They may be reviewing much, but still shifting data into a few cohesive bits of information that fit into a unified whole.

How Much Can Your Mind Keep Track Of?- Press release
How Much Can Your Mind Keep Track Of? Article

Classic Number Puzzle (Ramanujan) Solved by Grad Student

New Scientist Classic maths puzzle cracked at last

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Remembrances of Things Past: Autobiographical Memory

Autobiographical memory is a personal memory of events and places personally experienced. The medial temporal lobe appears to be an important area for these memories, and these sorts of memories appear to be multimodal (sight, sound, smell, touch, emotions) and often lifelong.

In our experience, autobiographical memory is often poorly tapped as a resource or as a conscious part of learning. Maybe it's because the sort of memory that teachers, doctors, or neuropsychologists assess is often of a different sort (impersonal, semantic, etc.).

In some people though, autobiographical memory may appear so strong, that it is a dominating style of their learning. In order to remember, they may have to experience or wrestle with the information personally. Sometimes when we assess a child who has had significant neurological difficulty that impairs both auditory and visual memory, we have used autobiographical memory techniques to see whether it helps them retain the information better. Often it works like a charm - this may meaning weaving the information to be learned into a story that is dramatized (sensory-motor memory too) so that they experience it and then recognize it later. The pictures below show one strategy for studying autobiographical memory. Subjects travel in a taxicab in a virtual reality environment while in a scanner, and then time in taxicab is correlated with brain activity - the area that lights up is the medial temporal lobe. Autobiographical memory is also being tapped in the 'spatial technique' used by Superior Memory champions (originally devised by an ancient Greek) whereby list information is projected on a familiar (autobiographical) scene.

AutobiographicalMemory Taxi
Autobiographical Memory Review
Neurolearning Blog: Superior Memory (scroll down page)

Existential Depression and Suicide in Gifted Individuals

Our community recently suffered a tragic loss when a brilliant young man took his life. Existential Depression is very common among gifted individuals. In a survey of 5,000 high achieving teens listed in Who's Who Among High School Students, 31% had contemplated suicide and 4% had attempted suicide. The most common reasons given for wanting to end their lives were: 86% feelings of personal worthlessness, 81% feelings of isolation and loneliness, 81% pressure to achieve, and 61% fear of failure. The most common time for teens to commit suicide in is the 'after-school' period and many teens mask their feelings.

If there's a child you're worried about, please check out the resources below. Often children may feel more comfortable talking to a professional with special expertise in dealing with gifted social and emotional issues. SENG has an article library and many other links are provided below.

SENG: Articles & Resources - Existential depression in Gifted
Letter and Resources from Betty Meckstroth
More Resources
NASP Resources
Hoagies'Gifted: Depression and Suicide

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Who is Smart?

"Everybody's special, Dash"....
"Which is just another way of saying nobody is..." - The Incredibles

The question of Who is Smart' or 'Who is Special' is an insidious one, because whether we want to our not, we all have some sort of expectations of ourselves. Kevin McGrew, co-author of the Woodcock-Johnson III, is a new member of the blogosphere and he has added an interesting post IQ Scores, NCLB & Forrest Gump on his new blog at: Some highlights:

"Correlations of this magnitude tell us that IQ tests, on their best days, predict 40-50% of school achievement (Applied Psychometrics 101 – square the correlations and multiply by 100 to get the percent of variance explained). This is very good. Yet…50-60% of a person’s school achievement is still related to factors “beyond IQ!”

"In the context of NCLB (No Child Left Behind), there is a real fear that IQ test scores may seduce educators and other education-related professionals into the “soft bigotry of low expectations”

In fact, when high IQ or prodigy subjects are wheeled into the fMRI scanners, not suprisingly, there are very different patterns of brain activation depending on what task and what kind of prodigy. There are certain areas that appear to be more common than others (frontal, temporal) and these may reflect task-related requirements such as working memory or insight. The parietal lobes also appear to important for many high level events -probably because the importance of imagery in problem solving and idea manipulation. These people are different from others - and what's more we can learn from them.

Today, IQ testing is one of the most common tools in the school system for assessing cognitive ability, classroom placement, need for accommodations and cognitive expectations. But good gracious, 50-60% achievement is beyond IQ! Rather than using IQ to tell us about our limitations, we should look for strengths that tell us what to build on.

We have to remember too that a few years ago, nobody would have dreamed that we would have seen brain reorganization with software programs in dyslexia or increased brain gray matter from juggling lessons.

We are filling in parts of the puzzle - understanding what sorts of cognitive strengths are important for high level problem solving, and what sorts of environmental or educational interventions can change brain wiring and its efficiency. The next phase of research will have something for everyone - we will learn how to teach and learn better, and really build on whatever we've got.

Insights on Intelligence Theories & Tests
Fluid Intelligence
Fluid Analogies
Math Prodigy
Exact Vs. Approximate Problem Solving

Flashes from the Past: 'Helicopter Parents'?

Helicopter parents? Helicopter parents are the nickname that some school folks have coined for parents who 'hover' and swoop down to rescue their children so - the idea goes- they don't learn good traits of perseverance or how to grapple with problems themselves. How do these Parents from the Past measure up?

This protective dad flew into his daughter's classroom one day and scolded the teacher for giving his daughter a homework assignment. Because she was already in school for six hours a day, he reasoned, she shouldn't have to do any additional work at home. When this young lady told her mother that a teacher was 'emotionally ugly', her mother came to her rescue, and told her she didn't have to attend that class.

Later on this gal became interested in ice skating, so her parents bought her the best skates and skating outfit they could afford...and every day there was good weather, they said she could ice skate instead of go to school.

Who did this woman become? This was Barbara McClintock, very hard-working and internally-driven Nobel Prize winner in genetics (1983, for 'Jumping Genes') who worked at lab bench science until the age of 89 (James Watson once told one of us that she was always prowling around Cold Spring Harbor at night working in her lab). As it turned out, McClintock didn't really get jazzed about schoolwork until high school, when she discovered she really liked scientific problem solving.

Barbara McClintock
No escape from 'helicopter parents'

New Software Tool for Auditory Processing and Phonology

"Phonomena" is now commercially available in the US and Europe. This had a solid research background, appeared more challenging than Earobics, and a lot cheaper than Fast Forword. This software may help people with auditory processing disorders from CAPD or dyslexia. There is a free flash demo at the site.

Phonomena News article

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Science of Risk-Taking

What do we think of when we think of risks - being daring, entrepreneurial, innovative, or more like ADHD, self-destructive, and impulsive? This paper looks at cognitive processes involved while college students (remember - they're still supposed to be a little 'hypofrontal') decide to take risks.

The interesting points here are that decision-making is different depending on whether options are presented negatively or positively. If both options appear positive- then most choose quickly and pick low-risk. In fact, much more brain work is needed to choose a high risk choice when both things look good. Not much difference is seen when when low- and high-risk choices are given (maybe fatalistic?)
-kind of a "Who cares?" because they're both bad.

So maybe when looking at rosy options, we may be more likely to 'play it safe' and go for a simple good. When things look bad anyway, we may be more likely to 'go for broke.' This study also suggests that somewhat paradoxically, sometimes 'risky choices' can occur as the result of 'more thought' rather than less.

fMRI and Risky Decision Making

UCLA Study: Struggles for Family Balance

This report from UCLA hit home. For a time, our family struggled with family balance, and it's only in the last few years, we found the right answers for our situation. The changing sociology of dual career families does affect learning- and in profound ways.

The takehome points for this study is that children these days have much less time for face-to-face interactions and conversations with family members, and less opportunity for idleness and daydreaming. This is not good. All of these activities affect the development of character, social interaction, encouragement, and creative vision. In the histories of famous people, families often figure prominently as sources of inspiration and encouragement. We need to figure out how to allow more thoughtful and intelligent parents flexible working hours and working options, so they can spend more time with their families.

Seattle Times: American families' plight

Monday, March 21, 2005

Strategic Thinking: Into the Minds of Gamers

Bhatt and Camerer of Cal Tech cover big topics in this paper - sucessful strategic thinking, self-referential thinking, social thinking, and neuroeconomics by carefully examining patterns of brain activation while college students played games and reflected on their experiences. Different experiments looked at the differences in patterns when individuals made choices, expressed their beliefs, and expressed what they thought others would do.

It turns out successful strategic thinking negatively correlated with insular activation. Insular activation, they suggest, was an indicator of too much self-preoccupation and emotional feeling. The insular is preferentially activated in situations like when a person is made to feel socially excluded (virtual game of 'catch', then the other subjects don't share the ball with you anymore -we'll talk about that one later). It looks like this study is a chapter from an upcoming book entitled "Games and Economic Behavior."

Here's a look at how not to look when you're playing to win.

The Mind in Games

Taking Learning Styles to the Next Level

If you have a few seconds, please vote in our free poll we put in the sidebar. If you find it difficult to answer, reply to this post about why (add a comment). When it comes to "Learning Styles", the most common route to figure this out is supposed to be a 'poll'-type inventory - but there are many problems inherent in this.

We would think that people who read blogs might be more strongly oriented toward words - but even this is murky area. There may be differences in the ways you prefer to take information in, different ways you prefer to generate possibilities, and different ways you ultimately decide on answers. Some people get such strong imagery from reading (words), they can't stand to watch movies after reading books because it doesn't match with the images they have already seen. What is that? Words and Imagery. But think of the implications- these people may be overloaded by lots of graphics or visual material when they're learning. They may prefer anything visually bland or text, even though they are high-visual imagery learners. A little paradoxical.

The learning styles arena were benefit from an infusion of ideas from people of very different backgrounds who share an interest in thinking \ about how they really think. There are insights from brain studies as well.

Sometimes we see people who seem to fit the 'visual thinker' profile very strongly (by checklist), but then find they have terrible visual memory. If we look more closely, we find they may be powerful visualizers (imagery) or outstanding with visual problem solving, but not remember exact details of what they see.

There are also some situations where all modes seem mixed. One of us (Fernette) played classical piano since she was 3, and as a result, she can't listen to music without having some proprioceptive and visual imagery associated with it. The visual imagery - is also a bit subconscious, so that only really reflecting on it afterwards can she think about specific images called to mind.

The educational process needs to take into account learning differences to take learning onto the next level. But we also need a firm foundation. To get handle on the wide range of different styles of learning, we need to ask more questions, rather than handing out pre-determined surveys. Maybe the blogosphere is ideal for this.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

No Pain: Feeling Less Pain with Virtual Reality

Here UW researchers use Virtual Reality to reduce the perception of pain in burn patients. Entering the immersive 'Snow World' of virtual reality, the burn victims felt less pain and lower activation levels of pain pathways were seen by fMRI. It will interesting seeing just how many different ways virtual reality and immersive video games can affect other brain mechanisms of perception, attention, and emotion. As the information becomes more detailed, perhaps it will provide software engineers and game designers with more ideas re: affecting brain biology and experience.

fMRI and Virtual Reality Analgesia

The Creative Process: Learning from Audio Commentaries

In the last few years, great resources have become available for students to understand the various steps to creative production in the real world: audio commentaries on DVD.

This past week, our kids got the DVDs for "The Incredibles" - what a thrill to see the brainstorming process (sketches, personal vignettes), the different levels of interaction within a group, contribution of unique personalities and technologies, and some of the tough intellectual and emotional decisions that going into making a final product. There's a lot of other information to be gained through these film clips and documentaries too - story and character design, the logic of color, gesture, and imagery, sequence and cohesion.

Wouldn't it be nice if more disciplines did this? In science, some videos capture the creative process (Race for the Double Helix, documentary about the solution of Fermat's Theorem), but these behind-the-scenes views are much more unscripted and therefore seem more realistic. Some DVDs (like Wallace and Gromitt) also include some of artists' work as children - and this can be energizing for some of the kids.

There is also something a little like blogging in these audio commentaries - people doing what they're interested in, sharing with the world real time what the experience is like, and how they they are thinking.

Wired : Welcome to Planet Pixar

Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Bilingual Brain

Students who speak English as a second language are the largest growing student population in the U.S., and Hispanics comprise 11% of the U.S. population. So what are the consequences of bilingualism for language learning and learning differences? They are significant, though the number of practical recommendations from educational groups to parents or teachers are surprisingly few.

From the brain research perspective, it looks like different languages are stored in roughly overlapping areas, although more territory is needed to mobilize the second learned language, and an area of the frontal lobe (executive function) is needed to supervise switching between languages. As a result, signals can be jammed in bilingual learners (in the phonological loop) and attention and brain resources can be divided. The result can be reduced accuracy and fluency in both languages. The red arrow below points to the extra region of brain that has to be used for language selection.

Maybe this is why gifted bilingual children are less likely to be recognized by teachers and standard assessment tools as gifted. We've listed some links for resources about bilingual learning and giftedness, but in some references when bilingual students are mentioned as being generally better as visual or hands-on learners, we wonder whether this is inherently true, or just the result of their having to otherwise take in lessons through their second acquired language.

There are other kettles of fish with bilingualism as well - including the difficulty identifying dyslexia in ESL students and the occurence of monolingual dyslexia (dyslexia in only 1 of 2 known languages).

Language Switching
Strategies for Teaching Hispanic Students
Identifying Hispanic Gifted Children
Second Language Interferes with Word Production in Fluent Bilinguals
Gifted and Talented Minority Language Students
IngentaConnect Phonology in the Bilingual Stroop effect
Second Language Interferes with Word Production in Fluent Bilinguals

Why Stevie Can't Spell (

Here's a wonderful article (with reader comments) about spelling from a dyslexic Washington Post Staff writer.

Why Stevie Can't Spell (
Post Magazine: Why Stevie Can't Spell

Friday, March 18, 2005

The Biology of 'Choking' Under Stress

What makes us 'choke' under stress? Well, that depends. For athletes it seems choking involves being too 'self-aware' of performance. It's not really that worries are taking too much away from thinking. When you're in athletic flow, at least the idea goes, you shouldn't be thinking. Choking is conquered in athletics by learning to forget that you're being watched. Golfers that choke don't do so because of being overloaded in working memory. They manage perfectly well if given additional concentration tasks to perform while they put.

Performing complicated calculations is another story though. In this sad figure, see how the mightiest subjects with working memory were also the most likely to choke. Choking during activities like this is is caused by competition for attention and working memory. Maybe the highest working memory folks are already working to near capacity. Unlike golfers, you can make these guys choke on their math problems by having them do another concentration task at the same time.

Choking Under Pressure
Stress Affects Memory
Golf Brain and Choking Under Pressure
More Choking Under Pressure

Flashes from the Past: "He was in constant motion, jumping up and down..."

"When not lost in thought, he was in constant motion, jumping up and down, leaping from chair to chair, rushing about, and falling and hurting himself. He seemed to have no sense of personal safety. His love of martial poetry was obsessive. He had a speech defect and one miserable cold after another..." From his mother we hear that he was a "troublesome boy" and "a most difficult boy to manage." From his principal: "Constantly late for school, losing his books, and papers and various other things into which I need not enter- he is so regular in his irregularity that I don't know what to do."

Who was this fellow with "ADHD"? This was Winston Churchill, the master statesman who according to Time Magazine: "stood alone against fascism and renewed the world's faith in the superiority of democracy." To read more about Churchill, who was also thought to have dyslexia, check out the link in "Geniuses At a Loss for Words".

Churchill himself would say later: "Where my reason, imagination, or interest were not engaged, I would not or I could not learn...My teachers saw me at once backward and precocious, reading books beyond my years and yet at the bottom of the Form. They were offended. They had large resources of compulsion at thei disposal, but I was stubborn."

Geniuses at a Loss for Words

We just ran across this wonderful paper from the past about famous spatial thinkers who were at a loss for words.

Geniuses at a Loss for Words

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Experts 'See' More with 'Less'

Along the lines of 'Easy' Problem Solving - abstraction of essential details can look like less brain work for an expert. In this insightful Oxford study, the artist used very little visual cortex (bottom of the brain with this fMRI view) to 'see' and plan a visual sketch of a subject. He 'thought' more than 'seeing' in his visual study, using the frontal analytical parts of his brain (top right).

fMRI Artist

NCLB: Is Teaching History, 'History'?

In this latest Edweek report, teachers are reporting that teaching conventional History and Government is getting edged out by the emphasis on Reading and Math and No Child Left Behind legislation. Some of this may be because many high schools are so far behind. Presumably reading goals can't be achieved within the context of social studies coursework. This is tragic because history teaches children about their place in time, our democracy, and our political process in context. It also offers opportunities for examination of primary sources, critical thinking and point-of-view.

History Becoming History

Visual Crowding in Faces and Words - Implications for Dyslexia and Autism

The authors emphasize a different point in their title, but this article provides a good example of 'visual crowding' which affects people with dyslexia as well as those with brain-based visual pathway injury and those with autism spectrum disorders. We've excerpted the sample below, but if you don't like putting your nose up to the computer screen, check out the figure in the full paper below.

Come in close the screen and stare at the black square. What you may see is that it is easier to see the R on the right than the R which is crowded in between A & E on the left. The face also causes a crowding effect so that it is easier to see the mouth on the right than when it is surround by other facial features. The point to note is that visual crowding is a normal perceptual phenomenon for everybody in their peripheral field - but in other situations like those mentioned above, crowding effects take place in the center of your vision.

Some kids we see with dyslexia (and some parents with dyslexia) can't see all the letters in long words at once because of visual crowding. If they cover part of it, then they can see all the letters bit-by-bit. This same phenomena happens with faces - and this accounts for why some people with 'face blindness' can eventually 'put together the pieces' of who someone is, but don't automatically take in the whole face at once.

Visual Crowding

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

How Your Brain Laughs

This recent study sorted out the difference between recognizing that something's funny and emotionally responding to it. It turns out the 'getting' the joke is processed more on the analytical L brain, whereas emotionally responding to it is on the right.

Humor is a 'secret weapon' of great teachers and leaders because it diffuses anxiety and, when used expertly, can focus attention. I have to say that I still vividly recall some lectures from my college days at Harvard (over 20 years ago!) because professors had many joke slides and pulled stunts (like my Organic Chem professor dressing up as a Canadian Mountie). Some links to humor and teaching are posted below.

Problems with humor are often noted in children suspected of having high functioning autism or Aspergers syndrome - but you might expect, the reasons for not getting jokes are diverse as differences in brain function. Problems that occur on the L side of the brain, the R side of the brain, or both, can affect your recognition or appreciation of humor.

Auditory processing delays will affect timing (every comedian knows how important timing is), visual processing problems can interfere with 'reading' visual body or facial expressions, and problems with empathy, emotion responsiveness, or theory of mind will cause other problems. Because humor is so important for social communication and interpersonal relationships, it is worth teaching children if there are problems. Some social skills programs for children with autism spectrum disorders (like Michelle Winner's below) strongly incorporate humor and its teaching.

Humor fMRI
Using Humor in the Classroom
Humor and Multiple Intelligences
Humor In College Teaching In "Dread Courses"
Humor in High Functioning Autism and Aspergers Abstract
Humor n in Autism and Aspergers Abstract
Michelle Winner - Social Thinking

Daniel Pink and SAT-ocracy

Thanks Kristine and Corante for this comment on the SAT-ocracy. Where are we going with education and gate-keeping tests, and what can we do to change this direction? Is the SAT and the surge in more standardized testing choosing 'Form' over 'Function'? - Changing world is leaving the SAT behind

Brain Break: Virtual Rubik's Cube

How's your spatial IQ? Check out this virtual rubik's cube.

Aim for the brain

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Easy and Hard Problem Solving

Educating for better problem solving is important for K-12, college and graduate education, business, health, science, the arts, and every discipline. But before getting in to the nitty gritty of 'how', it's also worthwhile to think about two very different types of problem solving - the brain 'easy' and brain 'hard' divisions that have very different timing and characteristics, and should have different preferred educational characteristics.

The brain 'hard' version - is what you might expect from heavy critical thinking: like this picture from the mathematical calculating prodigy: It requires huge areas of cortex, both sides of the brain, and conscious manipulation of lots of facts, relationship and data. It looks like you might expect for a heavy bit of number crunching.

But this is not the only way problems are solved. There is the brain 'easy' way too. With insight-related problem solving, only small areas of brain are activated, and these areas only switch on right before a solution is recognized. The area that lights up is that dreamy area of the right temporal lobe that might access more personal knowledge and experience - or 'autobiographical' memory. It might be that right analogy or metaphor is struck, the pattern is recognized and... Aha! The problem is solved.

The differences in these approaches are important to consider whether we are thinking about fostering the problem solving ability K-12's, software engineers, or corporate executives. Some creativity training approaches are unevenly weighted toward one approach (perhaps reflecting the inventor of the method?), but being facile in both approaches leads to more powerful problem solving.

When People Solve Verbal Problems with Insight
Mental Calculation in a Math Prodigy

Neurodecision-making about Money

This is an interesting article in Fortune magazine. It connects fMRI study of reward with 'Why It's So Hard to Save for Retirement'. An excerpt: "When researchers set up a table of 30 different jams in front of a gourmet market in California, 3% of the shoppers who stopped at the table bought a jar. When they displayed only six jams, 30% bought. In jam selection, as with 401(ks)s, too much choice can cause brainlock."

If you want to check out one of Cohen's papers, we've linked one below that looks at factors influencing reward-based decision-making.

Why It's So Hard to Save For Retirement - FORTUNE
Brain Reward Mechanisms Makes Decisions Within Context

Video Games to Motivate Writing and Expression

For reluctant writers, video games, fantasy, and science fiction can be better writing prompts than the standard fare. Using the computer, students can picture events first, then add in words.

In our work, we have also seen some children with fairly hefty language disabilites really excel on challenging computer games. Sometimes computers are the best way for them to express their ideas or analytical ability without being limited by words. Sometimes even parents are surprised by their skills. It seems that lack of verbal ability is often mistaken for lack of intelligence.

Myst to Motivate Writing

Monday, March 14, 2005

Your Brain with Time- What About Teen Brain?

Ok, this is your brain with time. At least from age 5 to 20. It takes a while to 'blue' in as neurons develop their mature coating with white matter and establish connections. Check out the original paper at the link below.

Floating around in the lay press was the idea that 'frontal' delay was what could be contributing to teen impulsive behavior, drinking, other substance abuse etc. The ADHD literature also echoed this in its discussion of the 'hypofrontality' of normal adolescents as well as subjects with ADHD.

The soundbyte of hypofrontal teens may be irresistible to talk about, but all children are hypofrontal by that standard compared to adults. Also, there are a lot of differences at every age - and in other papers we've linked below, teens were found to be better at learning algebraic information in their parietal lobes (spatial, other sensory, imagery) than adults. So which is it- the Hypofrontal Teen or Super-Spatial? Or may be both?

Rather than make the big leap to teen problems, the studies raise some interesting issues for us in education. The reality is that parents' and teachers' brains are different from the brains of teens' and other children's they teach. The most obvious ways for us to learn may not be the obvious ways for them to learn.

In other links below, read about findings show teens having stronger emotional responses to positive and negative pictures (in their amygdala) than young adults or seniors. If you put this result together with the super parietal lobe above (imagery)it might explain the strong teen attraction to graphic media.

BTW, the emotional response paper below also made the interesting observation that emotional responsiveness continues to change into maturity. Seniors, it seemed, retained their responsiveness to positive emotional images, but they didn't respond as strongly to negative stuff. That might tell us something interesting too.

Brain with Time
Algebra in Adolescents Commentary
Adolescent Algebra
Age Effects on Emotional Responses
Hypofrontality in ADHD

Deep Brain Structures (Striatum) Quickest to Learn?

This is a press release based on a recent article in Nature. It made the interesting observation that the part of the striatum (caudate) appeared to learn the rules of a reward-associated eye movement task earlier than the prefrontal cortex. It raised the possibility that this brain region could be directing the cortex in its first learning responses, rather than the other way around.

Striatal biology is interesting in a number of health conditions including, but not limited to ADHD, Tourettes, Parkinson's disease, and Huntington's disease. If this is right, then the early learning could have a role in primitive learning that may be unconscious, but affecting behavioral changes or reflexive movements.

Primitive Brain Is 'Smarter' Than We Think, MIT

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Mental Training

Mental training is not "flaky" any more now that technology can visualize the results by spectral EEG or fMRI. Gamma synchrony appears during interesting cognitive activities (attention, working memory, gestalt perception) and it is abnormal in conditions like autism, genetic disorders, or schizophrenia. Here is a picture of Buddhist monks activating gamma with meditative techniques (see link to full PNAS article below):

These studies are laying the groundwork for more non-pharmacological interventions in disorders of attention, working memory, and gestalt perception.

Mental Training in Monks
Memory and Gamma Responses

Learning Social Skills Via Computer

It's a bit counterintuitive, learning social skills by computer, but because a whole slew of social difficulties result from visual or auditory processing problems, incremental perceptual training may produce greater gains than group or one-on-one treatment. For training the emotional reading of faces, there is Mind Reading software from Baron-Cohen. McGill University has also posted their interesting Self-esteem Games you can try out to see where their research is headed. And now the latest breakthrough in the neurotechnology of social interaction is a dual fMRI scanner (Two Brains at Once) that allows fMRI impressions to be recorded in both conversation partners simultaneously. Now what were you really thinking of what I said?

Video Modeling and Autism Abstract

Dyslexic Engineers

"He would be the smartest lad in the school if the instruction were entirely oral..." (first case of dyslexia, Pringle Morgan- 1896)

The first link below is a scholarly resource reviewing and trying to solve the academic dilemmas of gifted dyslexic engineers. The cases show many common but extremely frustrating conditions - reversals, omissions of words, inversions of fractions - all present in the face of high level analytical and problem solving ability. In some cases, seemingly trivial interventions like performing calculations on custom-sized graph paper solved 'careless' errors. Extra time was also a great help.

We also include a dyslexic architect's reflection on her educational strengths and challenges. You can see that paradoxes abound. She had difficulty with conventional 2-D geometry (mirror reflections), but she excelled in 3D work.

Dyslexic Engineers
Free Online Graph Paper / Grid Paper PDFs
Dyslexic Architect

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Sleep on It...Sleep Helps To Solve By Insight

In this simple by clever study, sleep clearly helped subjects use insight to solve a problem more quickly. This echoes many accounts of scientific discovery (Nobel Prize winning dreams) that occurred upon waking from sleep.

Sleep Inspires Insight
Sleep Commentary

Training About False Belief in Autistic Children

This was a small study, but encouraging for parents and teachers educating autistic children. In this paper, autistic children were to correct their 'theory of mind' (seeing from another person's point-of-view) when shown their error. In order to control for language problems, autistic children were compared to children with mental retardation. Although initially autistic children performed worse than the MR group, with teaching they surpassed them and performed as well as control children.
Autistic Children Learn to Correct False Belief

Teaching Strategies for African-American Students / SENG Conference

This looked like a nice reference for teaching strategies. Also it looks like the SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) Conference this summer has a special session on Multicultural Issues.

Seng Gifted Conference Program July 2005 pdf

Friday, March 11, 2005

Mental Imagery and the Perfect Golf Swing

As most professional atheletes know, mental imagery combined with practice yields success. The information still takes time to trickle down to stroke rehab patients and children with coordination problems. Here's a figure from a study (Ross and colleagues at Cleveland Clinics) that found that brain imagery could predict a golfer's handicap. Golfers with various handicaps were told to imagine their golf swing while in the scanner. The better golfers had a much more precise and localized pattern of activation. Sloppy imagery, sloppy swing.

Now that mental imagery can be visualized, look for more sophisticated analyses of its applications and optimization. Among school children, imagery can be used as a tool to improve memory and recall, attention, and sensory-motor coordination.

Mental Imagery and Golf Handicap (Powerpoint)
Imagery Training and Stroke

Enriched Environment and Diet Delays Alzheimer's Disease (in Mice!)

Using a well known familial Alzheimers mouse model, Sam Sisodia and his colleagues found that environmental enrichment (larger cages, colored tunnels, running wheels, toys, etc.) resulted in lower levels of amyloid deposition in the hippocampus and cortex. Very interesting. This actually fits with informal observations by clinicians. Many practitioners have noted anecdotally that the progression of disease seems slower in those with very active intellectual lives.

Using microarrays, Lazarov et al. also found that environmental enrichment triggered the upregulation of a number of immediate early genes. That might also lead to more interesting work. At least for the present, the journal Cell is graciously providing free access to this paper.

Environmental Enrichment Reduces Amyloid Deposition
Health - Exercise, Learning May Fight Off Alzheimer's

Imagery Difficulties in Children with Developmental Coordination Disorder

The first reference below reports the presence of motor imagery impairments in kids diagnosed with 'clumsy child' or developmental coordination disorder. The second study discovered the important contribution of somtatosensory (body sensation) to motor imagery.

Whenever we think of motor function, we should really think 'sensorimotor' function. All movement is so tightly coupled to body sensation, it's as if they are woven together. Perhaps because sensation has been harder to observe and quantitate, our knowledge in this area lags motor function.

Mental Rotation and DCD

Sensory Processing and Motor Imagery

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Critical Thinking - Inductive and Deductive Reasoning

Inductive and deductive learning are like two sides of a coin. Reasoning by deduction involves rule-based learning, where a rule directs the logic of different conclusions. Reasoning by induction, on the other hand, involves recognizing different patterns from different facts, and then synthesizing a plausible rule. Deduction is very important when you have all the rules in hand, but inductive reasoning may be a stronger tool when the rules are incomplete, a completely different approach is desired, or existing information is misleading or contradictory. Not surprisingly, inductive reasoning is important for virtually all types of creative work, including engineering, science, and the humanities.

Ideally, we would like to train both forms of reasoning in students, but by their nature, deductive thinking is much easier to demonstrate, at least in a lecture format. In the latest paper comparing the views of deductive and inductive reasoning, it looks like inductive approaches require more brain power - maybe because one has to consider several patterns or rules in mind before reaching a conclusion. There are areas of overlap between deduction and induction, but areas of difference as well.

In this study, look at the various parts of the brain that become activated when 2 different patterns are considered at once. The areas that are activated are not at the very front or the very back (frontal or visual brain areas) - rather they are at the borderzones between these regions- presumably so information can mingle.

Now, we would think that computer-based programs could be a powerful route for teaching or training inductive learning. Unlike the lecture format, interactive computer-based programs could have a number of advantages over traditional lecturing or open 'learning lab'.

Computer-based educational programs could:

- strike a balance between copying from the board and discovery-based learning (after all, true discovery is really slow)
- show different outcomes of alternate lines of reasoning
- hint a lot without telling
- challenge students individually to recognize patterns and make predictions(less hiding in a group or clapping for credit)

Inductive and Deductive fMRI Study
Ravens fMRI
Inductive Reasoning Lessons
Inductive Language Arts
Inductive Math

Flashes from the Past: "He was a jokester in the lab..."

He was a jokester in the lab, doodling paintings with different molds on filter paper. He was also known for his love of all sorts of games and sports, with his peculiar changes in rules like playing a round of golf with only one club or using his club like a pool cue. He teased a colleague for being excessively tidy, and confessed he played with microbes. Who was this? This was Sir Alexander Fleming, the Nobel Prize winner who discovered penicillin. To read more about this colorful side of Alexander Fleming, check out Sparks of Genius by the Root-Bernsteins.

Fleming and Germ Pictures
Sir Alexander Fleming

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Designing Schools for the Present Age: Thoughts on a Recent Editorial by Bill Gates

In a recent editorial (speech), Microsoft founder Bill Gates demonstrated compellingly that our schools are failing both our children and our nation. These schools are "obsolete", because "they were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age" in which "you could train an adequate work force by sending only a small fraction of students to college...." By contrast, "Today, most jobs that pay enough to support a family require some post-secondary education." As a result, "We have to do away with the outdated idea that only some students need to be ready for college...." However, our schools, as currently designed, are not capable of rising to this challenge, because "even when they work exactly as designed [they] cannot teach our kids what they need to know."

We could not agree more. We commend Mr. Gates' for his efforts on behalf of our nation's students, and for his willingness to think "outside the box" in addressing their needs. We also believe that to achieve the kinds of educational results Mr. Gates desires, our society must collectively think outside several boxes in addition to the one he has so ably described. Based on our experience as physicians specializing in helping children with learning problems, we would like to offer several observations on what children in the present age "need to know", and what current brain science suggests about the best ways to help them acquire this knowledge.

Schools Must Prepare Very Different Children For Very Different Lives

We agree with Mr. Gates that our schools should prepare most children to attend college, so they can obtain the advanced skills they need to compete in the modern workplace. However, this does not imply that all students must be prepared for precisely the same thing. When students reach college, they will not all pursue the same course of studies, nor will they all train for the same careers. Despite out-of-major requirements, each student will eventually focus on a single discipline such as engineering, mathematics, physics, art, literature, accounting, management, music, education, history, law, biology, chemistry, sociology, medicine, etc. These courses differ markedly because they are preparing students for remarkably different careers. Even within a given major, different students often have considerable freedom to choose advanced classes in areas of special expertise and interest, with particular class formats and professors that appeal to them. How do they decide which classes and courses of study to pursue? Largely on the basis of personal interests and an assessment of their individual strengths.

The broad diversity of collegiate education provides a fitting preparation for the diversity of the workplace. Mr. Gates own company, Microsoft, is a fitting example of the contemporary workplace in that it employs individuals with enormously varied skills and talents: software engineers who write code for word processing and email programs, visual artists who make designs for Xbox, specialists in sales, marketing, publicity, customer services, management, personnel, human relations, building design and maintenance, corporate governance, and on and on. Obviously, building a company with top-notch workers in each of these positions is not simply a matter of hiring generically well-educated persons then plugging them into randomly selected positions. Individuals are carefully chosen for each position based on their training and aptitude, in accordance with what each position requires. Some persons who are remarkably well suited for one position would flounder in others. Yet these differences between workers didn't just into existence when they showed up to fill out job applications, or even when they began to pursue differentiated curricula in college. The aptitudes and abilities that made them well-suited for their present adult work were present to a remarkable extent early in life, and were caused by variations in individual learning styles and favored routes of information processing and uptake.

Despite the crucial nature of these individual differences to success in college and in the workforce--and an overwhelming abundance of evidence that children differ dramatically in the ways they are best able to learn and express information--our present K-12 educational system fails almost entirely to take such differences into account. Our present system is overwhelmingly built around auditory-verbal (lecture-based) instruction and handwritten verbal communication. Yet this approach is optimal for only a minority of students. For most it is sub-optimal, and for those with primarily visual, spatial, or hand-on learning styles, and oral or visual communication preferences, it can be a disaster. In many instances, children that are actually quite brilliant can suffer chronic academic underachievement and even failure because they learn and think in ways that are not well served by their educational environment. Often these thinking and learning styles are not "impairments" or "abnormalities" in an absolute sense, but inherited learning differences that for some tasks can have tremendous benefit. Our own clinical experience is illustrative.

Because our clinic is located in Seattle we see many of the children of Mr. Gates' employees. Often the supposed "learning problems" that make them poorly suited for the overwhelmingly verbal learning environments in their schools are manifestations of precisely the same visual and spatial reasoning styles that have made their parents so successful and creative in their professional lives. Such problems are entirely unnecessary.

The Schools We Need: Teaching Each Child The Way That Child Learns Best

If our primary and secondary schools are to prepare children so they can excel in college and in the workforce, they must be restructured to reflect the same diversity of thinking and learning styles that are reflected both in the diversity of the workplace and in the college curriculum. While it is important to maintain minimum standards for communication, critical thinking, and problem solving, we must also recognize that students can perform these functions in very different ways. Our educational system must be flexible enough so that each student can pursue excellence in communication, critical thinking, and problem solving in ways that take advantage of individual strengths. More is at stake in this than simply workplace need: social justice is at issue as well. Research has consistently shown that there are variations in thinking and learning styles among different races and cultural populations, and that consistent failure to match learning preferences with appropriate teaching styles leads to predictable losses in learning achievement.

We are not advocating a system of tracking where students are shunted into strictly diverging educational pathways. Such programs close as many options as they open. Instead, we are advocating a more flexible approach to K-12 education that would allow students to pursue the core curriculum through a variety of routes that better fit and nurture their individual learning approaches. Such a curriculum would provide flexibility in both pace and approach, and would allow children to pursue their education through curricula that emphasize and expand their strengths, while helping them improve in areas of weakness. Rather than creating tracks that prevent some children from achieving basic competency in math, language, critical thinking, or problem solving, such a program would allow different students to achieve competency in these areas using learning approaches that are best suited to their individual styles of thinking and learning.

Some students, for example, are much better at processing verbal information through reading than through listening. For others the opposite is true. Some children find that they can listen better when they take notes. Others find it impossible to take notes and listen at the same time. Some students prefer visual or hands-on presentations of information to purely language-based instruction. Other students benefit little from visual or spatial sources of information. Similar differences are seen with math, where some students solve math problems using primarily verbal approaches, others with visual approaches, and others using spatial approaches. While all students need to achieve basic competency in these subjects, there is no reason to believe that all children will find their needs optimally or even adequately met using a single educational approach. This is true not only at the middle and high school levels, where differentiated curricula are used to some extent, but from the earliest days of school.

Many common educational practices and assumptions need to be reexamined if our schools are to better prepare students for college and an increasingly competitive workforce. Three seem especially ripe for reevaluation:

· The notion that all students should master a core body of information at the same rates and in the same ways, using identical educational materials and informational pathways. Basic skills can be acquired in many ways, and each child's instruction should be tailored to his or her optimal learning style.

· The notion that students are best educated in age-based cohorts. The rates at which children develop vary as greatly as their learning styles, and clustering by age makes no more sense than clustering by height or weight. The whole notion of grade-levels is equally questionable. There is no reason to assume that each year every child should make identical progress in all subject areas, nor is there any justification to prevent a child from making progress in one subject (e.g., math) because he is having difficulty in another (e.g., reading). Flexible, modular instruction could eliminate this problem.

· The notion that lecture-based classroom instruction should be the primary--even a major--route of learning for all students is unsupported by data on children's learning styles. For enormous numbers of children lecture time is not only a waste but a strong provoker of misbehavior and dissatisfaction of school.

K-12 education must be updated to take into account the variations in thinking and learning styles that are reflected in the diversity of the workplace and the post-secondary educational environment. It must incorporate the kind of flexibility of emphasis and approach that is found in college, so that students can pursue knowledge in ways that are best suited to their individual thinking and learning styles. To make these changes, we must leave behind the arrangements of an earlier era that employ antiquated technologies and ideas to meet obsolete goals. As Mr. Gates has clearly demonstrated, the needs of our students and the requirements of the workforce have changed greatly. It is now time to use our modern technological resources and more precise knowledge of the ways children think and learn to create a flexible, individualized, and rigorous education that will meet the needs of our students and our society both now and in the years to come.

Memory Training with Imagery and Context

Very interesting. Look to see more interest from scientific groups re: studying learning strategies and cognitive therapy. For a variety of reasons (e.g. scientific research groups get funding for basic science and drug study, not education, students are in school to be educated, not tested on experimental curricula etc.), there are surprisingly few scientific studies into the relative benefits of educational strategies.

Dyslexia is paving the way for some of this, but found this recent interesting result from Multiple Sclerosis researchers.

In this paper (sorry, we can link only to abstract at present), investigators used fairly simple training in imagery and context to see if the general practice could result in better word list memory. Voila! It does.

The training was pretty simple - 2 sessions a week for 4 weeks (45 min each). The first sessions were use to train imagery (read high-image stories, use images to recall story). Second part dealt with contextual recall- recall story details with contextual cues (words preceding relevant word in story) and category hints about words. The third part involved therapist hints about connections between words to encourage visualization of scenes. Finally, patients were given a list of words and encouraged to link them together to visualize a scene. When patients with this strategy were tested 5 weeks later, they continued to show benefits in their memory.

In many ways, MS patients with memory deficits may be similar to kids with memory deficits who have suffered mild or diffuse brain injury. The results may also be helpful to adult with diffuse conditions like diabetes, lacunar strokes, or age-related memory decline.

Memory Training in MS

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Obsessions and the Will - Frontal-Striatal Circuits

The biology of overactive frontal-striatal circuits is at the center of many behavioral disorders - including, but not limited to: obsessive compulsive disorder, Autism and Aspergers, ADD and ADHD, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, and Tourettes. These pathways seem to be important both for the perceptual processing (what do you attend to) and behavior (what you actually do).

In these subjects with OCD, frontal-striatal circuits are overactive even when correctly rejecting a signal (the Go vs No-Go task)- a visual correlate to the feeling "something's just not right", and then the vicious cycle of obsession. Interestingly, cognitive therapy involving OCD patients being allowed to view their own fMRI scans appear to work when patients could 'see' that their brains were feeding them false signals. For more reading on this check out the book The Mind and the Brain

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and fMRI
Cognitive Control

The Biology of Emotional Control

Emotional dysregulation may be the most troubling behavior presenting with school problems. Is it possible we're seeing much more of it in school aged children? - the answer is definitely yes. The causes are multifactorial - mild birth injury, prematurity, autism spectrum disorders, psychiatric or psychological disorders (explosive or 'bipolar' child) and others, and schools have had to adjust by adding behavioral specialists and adjusting classroom environments at school.

Having a visual fMRI paradigm like this to assess and quantitate emotional regulation will be important for designing more specific interventions in the future.

Emotional Regulation

Visual Processing Problems in 'Clumsy' Children

We hope this will be the decade that finally recognizes perceptual processing disorders in children. Perceptual processes underlie dyslexia (auditory and visual processing), auditory processing disorders (a major ADD Look-Alike), and now 'clumsy child'. In this Norwegian study, researchers discovered that 'clumsy' 8 year old children were not clumsy due to motor coordination problems, but due to undiagnosed visual closure difficulties. These are the kids who seem 'spacey' (visually disoriented) and disorganized, bump into things and trip.

The truth is, visual perceptual disorders are rarely specifically diagnosed in children. Why? Because it's just thought to be something they were 'born with'. Partial injury to the long visual pathway fibers that reach back to the back of the brain is usually what's responsible for these impairments. The kids at risk are those with some birth injury (though may be mild), prematurity, and maternal infection. Many children seem to misdiagnosed as 'mild autism' or Aspergers because of their poor eye contact and impaired social skills. It's hard to be social if you can't see properly and a little off-kilter.

Treatment for visual closure may involve a therapist and cognitive training to recognize salient visual features (for instance, edges, shape, color) to improve visual orientation and identification.

Visual Perceptual Problems in 'Clumsy' Children

Monday, March 07, 2005

Novelty Learners and Independent Thinking

"It's the thing that doesn't fit that's the most interesting..." - Richard Feynman

Novelty is not just fad or a learning knick knack. Novelty is the thing that doesn't fit, and if we are active learners, novelty is new information that can make us think about information in a different way so that we form new associations about what we know. Novelty-seeking in school children is usually seen as a negative ADD-type quality, but it may just reflect more autonomous and intrinsically-motivated learners. These are children (or adults) who may prefer to decide knowledge and patterns for themselves.

The brain areas associated with novelty-learning (or super learning as its described in the paper) are similar to the ones seen with learning by insight (Aha!).

Novelty Paper

Anxiety High Over New SAT

It's here- This Saturday, college bound kids will take the new SAT, with new sections on writing and math. Anxiety High Over New SAT

More Sensory Integration- Seeing Affects How You Feel

The links between seeing and sensory threshold may have implications for many children with visual processing problems like severe amblyopia, convergence insufficiency, or visual perceptual disorders (e.g. nonverbal learning disabilities). How many times does it seem that these children bump into things, don't know how they hurt themselves, or "have a high pain threshold". Because these children cannot properly see even their own bodies, they don't feel as much, and therefore may be at greater risk for really hurting themselves (activate fewer protective reflexes).

Seeing Affects Touch Threshold

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Extroverts More Ready to Perform

Extroverts were clearly better mobilizing more brain resources for the memory tasks in this report by Gray and colleagues at Kings College. This kind of makes introverts look bad, but maybe it depends how you look at it. Maybe it is just harder to get some of the introverts 'into' the task?

Introversion-Extroversion differences can be source of big personality clashes for some gifted kids in school. Supposedly 77% of the general population is extroverted, whereas 67% of high IQ students are introverted. Maybe introverts are more reluctant to 'perform'?

Also there might be a difference depending on whether the task was intrinsically- motivated or extrinsically-motivated (prior motivation post)? All the same, it is interesting. Maybe the picture also gives us insight into what happens to well-compensated introverts when they need to 'switch on' in performance mode (classroom discussion, networking, lecture circuit) as the needs require.

For those who want to brood more on introversion-extroversion differences, we've listed more links below.
Personality and Cognitive Demand
Piirto MBTI
Introversion: The gifted
Brains on Fire for Parents pdf file

The Talents of Dyslexia

This is such a wonderful paper, we have to include it in our blog. It's amazing that the very first case of dyslexia in 1896 had the headmaster's note that the boy "would be the smartest lad in the school if the instruction were entirely oral". How often this is true today. Eventually many bright dyslexics learn to read fairly fluently by silent speed reading. Their dyslexia might only be betrayed by the writing disability.
Talents of Dyslexia by Thomas West

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Visual, Sensory-Motor, & Mathematical Spatial Learning

Spatial learning is one of the most neglected 'intelligences' in the conventional classroom. Although recreational video and other spatial gaming can exercise the 'Spatial Mind', rarely will a child actually receive instruction in spatial learning. And yet spatial skill is essential for many technological and scientific disciplines like computer modelling, chemistry, physics, engineering, or mathematics.

Brain research has come a long way from the first brain images of people 'mentally rotating blocks'. The view below was published in 1996. It shows the pattern of brain activity when subjects mentally rotate the blocks (not just flip) from side to side.

Our understanding of spatial learning is still in its infancy, but some interesting links to read below are references to folks like Erik Demaine (homeschooled by math dad who worked at craft fairs, MIT's youngest professor- now the 'Origami Professor', combinatorial game theory, etc) and an abstract (sorry, no free access yet) of a brain study showing different brain pathways for mental rotation depending on whether visual strategies (imagining floating) or sensory-motor strategies (imagine turning by hand) were used.

Ideally, spatial problem solving should be cultivated by training in visual, sensory-motor, and mathematical spatial learning approaches. In the ideal world, having all 3 in your problem solving arsenal would provide you greater flexibility in your approach to spatial problems.
Demaine 'Origami Professor' at MIT
Erik Demaine's Videos
Erik Demaine
Different Strategies for Mental Rotation
UCLA Mental Rotation 1996

Suspension of Adderall Sales in Canada - FDA Response

Because of 20 international reports of sudden death in patients (children and adults), Canada has decided to suspend all sales of Adderall XR. Today the FDA announced they "do not feel that any immediate changes are warranted in the FDA labeling or approved use of this drug based upon its preliminary understanding of Health Canada's analyses of adverse event reports and FDA's own knowledge and assessment of the reports received by the agency."

FDA recommends not using stimulant medication in children with known structural heart problems, but families should also be aware that Adderall is often prescribed without any specific guidelines for ruling out heart problems.

Suspension of Adderall RX Sales in Canada

Friday, March 04, 2005

Gift in the Disability - Rembrandt, Babe Ruth, & Lazy Eye

With lazy eye, hyperacuity develops in the good eye - and perhaps this helps with hitting the ball and artistic vision? Check out Professor Livingstone's theories about lazy eye and the geniuses of Rembrandt and Babe Ruth. Like other situations of deprivation, the brain revs up to compensate for the loss and develops supersensitivity for what's intact (lazy eye...lazy brain).

See how much more visual cortex is activated by the 'good' eye?
p.s. Here's an added a detail from Rembrandt's Self Portrait
Stereoblindness - the Gift in the Disability
Comparison between anisometropic and strabismic amblyopia in fmri
WebMuseum: Rembrandt: Self-Portraits

Motivation and Underachievement - Lessons from Harvard B School?

"If only he were motivated...
"She's just given up....

These can be the watchwords of dreaded middle or high school angst. Often the 'victims' are very talented and creative young people, and worried parents and teachers agonize how to reach them.

Is there anything we can learn from a Harvard Business School Professor? Teresa Amabile's teaching about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are important here. It just seems like common sense, but for gifted and creative young people, intrinsic motivating factors are much more powerful than extrinsic rewards. To answer the questions for a particular young person, we have to give them a supportive environment, opportunities for reflection and the development of a personal vision.

Even younger gifted children are often extremely sensitive and idealistic. Behavior modification, the collection of classroom 'tokens' are not going to be the answer. Children should be invited into the problem-solving experience.

The links below are articles written for business managers of creative groups, but there's plenty of good advice for families and teachers too. For these kids we need to ask - have we created the right environment for them to succeed?
Time Pressure and Creativity: Why Time is Not on Your Side
Motivation in Software Communities
Extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation

Visual-Verbal Teaching - It's Not What You Think

This is a funny little article. University of Chicago researchers found teachers were most effective at teaching math if they presented their language in a bit of a jumble. They verbally taught one way, but gestured to explain the visual processes at the same time. This mish-mosh was dramatically more effective in helping kids learn than if the teacher tried to explain both methods verbally. With that approach, the kids were overwhelmed.

We think this is because the dominant visual learning kids are just watching (they're not listening), and the dominant auditory kids are just listening (and not watching). This harkens back to that finding that 9-10 year olds can't take in more than 13-word sentences at one time (Everybody's Talking..).

Studies like these are cautionary to teachers - "Beware of TMI" or Too Much Information.

Teaching Math Two Ways Best for Learning

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Brain of the Blogger

During the past five years, blogging has exploded from virtual non-existence into an important and influential sociocultural force. Recent survey data indicate that there are now nearly 10 million bloggers, 90% of whom are between the ages of 13 and 29 years old. This incredible upsurge in activity has caused us to wonder: What effect is all this blogging having on the brains of bloggers?

Why ask this question? The primary reason can be found in one of the central tenets of modern neuroscience: "The neurons that fire together, wire together." What this basically means is that our mental activities actually cause changes in the structures of our brains--not only what we think, but how we think as well. Given such activity-directed change, it always makes sense to ask whenever large numbers of people start using their brains in new and different ways, what effects these new activities are likely to have on brain structure and function. Blogging, which only seems to be accelerating in popularity, is a prime candidate for such investigation. After surveying the general range of materials that the blogosphere has to offer, we believe the following basic largely supportive conclusions are warranted:

1. Blogs can promote critical and analytical thinking.

First, there are blogs and there are...well, blogs. The best of blogs are rich in ideas and promote active exchange and critique. Rather than creating closed communities of like-minded troglodytes, these best blogs foster conversation, interactions with other blogs and other information sources, and invite feedback from their readers. Posts can form "threads" or links to other Web materials where readers can examine primary source material or articles that offer competing ideas and views. Blogs that follow this format are far from simple substitutes for television or video games. In fact, they are an ideal format for promoting critical and analytical thinking.

Because blogs are text-based, bloggers must write and visitors must read (rather than passively view) the postings. In research comparing newspaper and television news, public policy experts have previously found that consumers are far more likely to question what they read than what they see in pictures or on TV. There are several likely reasons for this: First, text can be assimilated in a self-paced fashion, allowing time for analysis and reflection. Second, words must--by their very nature--be analyzed, organized, and interpreted before they can be understood, providing more time for critical reflection. In contrast, pictures and music have more direct access to brain areas dealing with emotion and motivation, thereby potentially avoiding or even subverting reason and reflection. Third, pictures and music not only have the potential to alter our interpretations of the words we hear, but can actually alter our perceptions of the words we believe we have heard. Because our perceptions are formed by combining our sensory input with contextual cues from other inputs or stored memories, strongly arousing visual or sound images have a profound ability to alter the words we hear. This is the reason behind Reagan aide Michael Deaver's famous statement to CBS's Lesley Stahl that he didn't mind what CBS said about Reagan on TV, so long as any voiceovers were accompanied by pictures of the President standing in front of a flag. Blogs, with their text-based format, tend to avoid the more manipulative aspects of visually-embedded media.

2. Blogging can be a powerful promoter of creative, intuitive, and associational thinking.

To remain popular with readers, blogs must be updated frequently. This constant demand for output promotes a kind of spontaneity and 'raw thinking'--the fleeting associations and the occasional outlandish ideas--seldom found in more formal media. (Fortunately, the permanence and easily searchable nature of archived posts helps maintain some sense of decorum.) Blogging technology itself fosters this kind of spontaneity, since blogging updates can be posted with just a few clicks whenever a new thought or interesting Internet tidbit is found. Blogging is ideally suited to follow the plan for promoting creativity advocated by pioneering molecular biologist Max Delbruck. Delbruck's "Principle of Limited Sloppiness" states we should be sloppy enough so that unexpected things can happen, but not so sloppy that we can't find out that it did. Raw, spontaneous, associational thinking has also been advocated by many creativity experts, including the brilliant mathematician Henri Poincare who recommended writing without much thought at times "to awaken some association of ideas."

3. Blogs promote analogical thinking.

Recent international surveys have shown that students in the United States have fallen far behind most of their first world peers in problem solving and critical thinking. This fall has coincided with a shameful decline in school-based instruction in critical analysis, rhetoric, and persuasive writing. However because professionals like attorneys, philosophers, and academicians run many excellent blogs, we all can benefit from their intellectual rigor, and their use of analogical thinking when communicating to the common world of the blogosphere. Back-and-forth blog-based exchanges between experts also provide a unique opportunity for young thinkers to witness and evaluate arguments from analogy on an ongoing basis, and to develop their own abilities to think analogically.

4. Blogging is a powerful medium for increasing access and exposure to quality information.

Because blogs link many facts and arguments in branching "threads" and webs, and append primary source materials and reference works, they foster deeper understanding and exposure to quality information. In turn these sources can seed other creative projects.

5. Blogging combines the best of solitary reflection and social interaction.

Research using the Lemelson-MIT Invention index found that invention is best fostered in solitude (66%); yet other research has shown the beneficial effects of brainstorming with a community of intellectual peers. So blogging may combine the best of "working by yourself" and "working with other people." Bloggers have solitary time to plan their posts, but they can also receive rapid feedback on their ideas. The responses may open up entirely new avenues of thought as posts circulate and garner comments.

In conclusion, it looks as if blogging will be very good for our brains. It holds enormous potential in education, and it could take societal communication and creative exchange onto a whole new level.