Friday, July 28, 2006

Beyond Black & White: Learning to Tolerate Ambiguity

We wanted to post on this topic, because we've noticed a problem that some children really struggle with - and that involves the toleration of ambiguity. Normally, ambiguity is thought to be a later life developmental task (teen to young adult years), but young gifted children may really battle with it - in a deep existential way as they confront discrepancies in their abilities (like a strength in generating ideas, but problems putting their ideas into writing), or their successes and failures. At their worst, these kids may develop intense feelings about their own goodness and badness (splitting), to the point that they may feel their life is not worth living.

The picture below shows an interesting view into the biology of perceiving ambiguity - when decisions about categories are not so clear. And, it shows that frontal striatal circuits play an important role in recognizing ambiguity.

If you follow the biology in this blog, you may say - Aha! Frontal striatal circuits - why those are the ones that are implicated in obsessive compulsive disorder, but also in premature birth, attentional problems and impulsivity, depression, different types of birth injury, and autism spectrum disorders. And if a child you know has some frontal-striatal circuitry problems, you may notice attentional problems, depression, compulsivity, and resistance to ambiguity at various different times of their lives.

When kids start out in life with impaired frontal-striatal pathways, it can be pretty rocky going in the early years - but for most, the outcome is good. Frontal striatal pathways don't really mature fully into the teen to young adult years, although they are maturing throughout childhood. Look at the parts of the brain that mature from the teen age years into young adulthood. Notice the frontal (purple) and the striatal (green).

Children with frontal-striatal difficulties often need loving support, predictable and welcoming environments, and incremental practice as activities that enhance control and reduce impulsivity - learning to wait, self-calming and cognitive control strategies, and increasing conceptual acceptance of ambiguity.

In fact, ambiguity is not well-recognized as an important part of nearly all creative processes (some examples below). In brainstorming sessions, innovative work teams may practice with ambiguity exercises like those posted in the bottom link. There's a book called The First Honest Book About Lies* that we the bottom of the cover it says *You always have to read the asterisk. It has its humorous side, but about ambiguity - it hits the mark. The book starts out with optical illusions (these are ambiguous, aren't they?), then moves on the topics like white lies and propaganda. In a gentle way, it introduces the idea that real life lived is filled with ambiguity and nuance - and you may find it a valuable starting point for discussion.

Visualizing Uncertainty in Decision Making - fMRI pdf
Sites Where Teen Brains Mature into Adulthood
Lexical Ambiguity
Ambiguity as an Essential Feature of Research
Creative Curriculum
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Obsessions and the Will - Frontal-Striatal Circuits
Mind Flexors

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