Friday, April 27, 2007

Thinking Blogger Award - Thanks!

Thanks ZenPundit for tapping us for a Thinking Blogger Award. We are honored and have learned quite a lot from your blog and comments here.

Now if we've got it right, this honor comes with responsibility. The rules from the thinking blog are as follows:

"1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think.

2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme

3. Optional: Proudly display the 'Thinking Blogger Award' with a link to the post that you wrote (here is an alternative silver version if gold doesn't fit your blog)."

There are many wonderful blogs to choose from, and some have already won this award. It was difficult to limit ourselves to five (especially as Brock and I have different favorites), but here are think-worthy five blogs with a lot brain-burn going on. We have learned from your news, reflections, discussions, and different points-of-view(in no particular order):

1. Cognitive Daily
2. Mind Hacks
3. I Speak of Dreams
4. Powerline
5. Idealawg

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Benefits of Mixed-Dominance...Lefties, Dyslexics, and Gaming

If you are frustrated by what's not easier to do with mixed-dominance, then read on- In a recent study by Australian researchers, lefties and dyslexic subjects were found to be faster at interhemispheric transfer than more conventional right-handed controls. Although it seems to be a right-handed world (90%), people with quicker interhemispheric connections are over-represented among the mathematically gifted and they tend to perform more quickly and accurately in demanding and complex tasks.

In the figure at right, BDA corresponds to "Bilateral Distribution Advantage". So the idea is that although "L-brain" folks may be better at simpler visual or motor response activities, when visually demanding tasks are given (challenging both hemispheres simultaneously), the mixed-dominance folks win.

Excerpt from Nick Cherbuin interview: "There are more left-handers who have brains that are more symmetrical, where the left side is more equal to the right side, whereas in right-handers one side tends to be larger than the other.

KATHRYN ROBERTS: So what exactly does that mean?

The researchers studied the reaction times of 100 volunteers to two computer tasks, which measured the speed of transfer between the left and right sides of the brain and the quality of the interaction.

Dr Cherbuin found that the left and right hemispheres communicated faster in left-handed people.

NICK CHERBUIN: Those people who have more efficient interactions between the two sides of their brain tend to perform better at complex tasks that require more resources, and when one side of the brain runs out of processing power it recruits more processes from the other hemisphere.

So those tasks that are very complex or that require very fast processing tend to be helped by spreading the load across the two sides of the brain.

KATHRYN ROBERTS: He says left-handers might be better at playing computer games, driving in traffic, or piloting a fighter jet, and may even have an advantage in old age..." For more, read here.

For a LOT more on this, you can download Cherbuin's thesis. We haven't had a chance to read it in detail. One chapter discusses dyslexics (they have faster interhemispheric transfer times or ITT), though. Apparently fast ITT is not always a good thing; some think while it may make synchronous activities easier, it may make the timing of alternating movements (between right and left) harder.

BTW, we'll be going off the blog briefly because we'll be keynoting at the Boston Learning and the Brain Conference this weekend. Please stop by and say hello you come to the conference. We'll be speaking on Stealth Dyslexia April 29th 3:30 - 4:40 pm (Salon I-II) and give the closing keynote April 30th 4:00-5:00 pm in the Grand Ballroom. The meeting takes place at the Marriott Cambridge Hotel. We may still post occasionally if we something interesting comes up, but otherwise we'll be back on a regular schedule next week, April 26th.

Cherbuin's Thesis on Mixed Dominance, Dyslexia, and Bilateral Distribution Advantage
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Well-Rounded vs. Lop-Sided Learners

Technorati tags , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Vivid Visual Thinkers - Blessings and Burdens

When one of our vivid visualizing preschoolers was being tested for a gifted private school, the school psychologist gushed about the possibility he might have a near-photographic memory, but unfortunately he wouldn't make the cut-off for the school. This wouldn't be the last time this student and his parents would see that gifts can also turn out to be burdens, depending on the expectations and tasks at hand.

Webster's dictionary defines eidetic memory as involving "extraordinarily accurate and vivid recall especially of visual images" and in the first systematic study of this form of memory, when elementary school were told to look at a picture like the one on the right, 2-15% were able to recall the picture with a high accuracy of detail, the images seem to last for 40 sec on longer, and additional details were added after their eyes appeared to scan a blank screen in front of them. In a more recent study of eidetic kids (Miller and Peacock, 1982), eidetic kids said that their images lasted 25-180 sec, compared to non-eidetic controls (0-13 sec). The eidetic kids were also more susceptible to interference.

When we test all sorts of individuals with vivid visual thinking, we can see that they can occur in all sorts of varieties - those with strong visual imagery and weak visual memory, or strong visual imagery and strong visual memory, adding to that, the variables of strong or weak spatial memory, and those with or without synesthesia (mingling of senses - seeing, hearing, touch, taste, smell) added on. Each variation may prefer different ways of taking in, storing, and retrieving knowledge, so it only follows that different styles of teaching will be more appropriate for some than others.

Common Gifts of Vivid Visual Thinkers

1. Exceptional photographic recall
2. Ability to visually imagine, manipulate, and rotate objects in mind.
3. Cinematic thinking - potentially great for film-making or storytelling
4. Strong recall of detail
5. Strengths in visual analysis, problem-solving, pattern recognition

Common Problems of Vivid Visual Thinkers

1. Trouble Putting Visual Perceptions and Memories into Words - reluctant or late talkers, individuals who know a lot, but have trouble conveying their knowledge
2. Trouble Ordering, Relating, or Connecting Pieces of Information
3. Sensitivity to Visual Overload
4. Increased Tendency Toward False Memories
5. Trouble Retrieving Information - but Cue Can Bring Back a Flood of Knowledge

Earlier this year when we were speaking to preschool through high school teachers at Seattle Jewish Education Council, we found it interesting that groups of teachers (preschool-4th, 5th-middle, high) varied dramatically in terms of their visual imagery and verbal preferences for thinking and remembering... an overwhelming majority of preschool-4th grade teachers indicated their preferences for visual only, while 5th grade-middle school teachers indicated they were mostly verbal (Hebrew middle school emphasizes verbal reasoning), while high school teachers insisted they clearly used both verbal and visual imagery in how they recalled and processed information.

Eide Neurolearning Blog: Vivid Imaginations and the Brain
Eidetic Imagery: Raising More Questions Than Answers
Vividness of Visual Imagery and fMRI
Photographic Memory
Presentation on Cognitive Imagery
Gerald Grow: Teaching for Different Channels of Attention pdf
Gerald Grow: The Writing Problems of Visual Thinkers
Gifted Dyslexic Storytellers (Visualization Strengths)
Thesis of Brain Mechanisms of Visual Awareness (a little visual imagery covered included)

Technorati tags: , , , , , , ,

Monday, April 23, 2007

Creative Minds: What is Divergent Thinking, Anyway?

Thanks, Kristine for this HT at

" would an engineer see the glass? Probably that it's twice as big as it needs to be. The accountant would want to know if the glass really needs all that water. The physicist would say that the volume of this cylinder is divided into two equal parts; one a colorless, odorless liquid, the other a colorless, odorless gas. Thus the cylinder is neither full nor empty. Rather, each half of the cylinder is full, one with a gas, one with a liquid. And the quantum physicist would tell you that the glass has a 50% probability of holding water." Click on the link to read more descriptions, and also check out the comments from marketers about what they see.

I love this post because it made me think about how superficial many of our attempts at divergent thinking might be. If you go to a weekend workshop on lateral thinking, present your lesson plan on divergent thinking, or try to sit and think up more creative possibilities for a problem, you may come up with more ideas (some more formulaic than others), but they won't be so different as they would be coming from a totally different expert in a totally different discipline. That's probably why switching disciplines can be such a powerful stimulus to production of creative work. Anyone can sit with a laundry list of creative techniques and move variables around like tiddlywinks on a page, but really see information from a different knowledge base and context may lead to more profound insights and associations.

In a study such as this which instructed test subjects to "be creative" (vs. "be uncreative") making a story out of certain words, its not surprising that mostly prefrontal activity in the brain is seen (thinking a creative solution). What don't you see? Mobilization of prior knowledge (temporal lobes), imagery (parietal), or even emotions or reward (limbic). This might be the difference between the little-c creativity and big-C Creativity Simonton talks about in articles like this one.

Now wouldn't be interesting to compare minds of engineers, artists, quantum- and non-quantum physicists, marketers, writers, and you name it looking at the same glass? Could we be forcing students to look their glasses with only one answer?
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Switch! Cross Disciplinary Thinking
Eide Neurolearning Blog: fMRI of 'Creativity'

Technorati tags: , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Troubled Youth: The Neurobiology of Violence and Schizophrenia

As more details surface over the troubled life of Seung-Hui Cho, unrecognized schizophrenia seems to increasing likelihood in the tragedy that unfolded at Virginia Tech.

As with any slowly progressive brain condition that affects behavior, the changes may be so gradual that it may be hard to recognize. The first neurosurgery operation I ever scrubbed in on was a storeowner who had been shot during a robbery. It was thought that he had been grazed by a bullet, but after he had returned home, his wife brought him back to the hospital saying that he had undergone a personality changed and now had an explosive personality. What they found was that a bullet fragment had lodged in his temporal lobe, and it had been missed on a CT scan because it had - blended into bone.

Schizophrenia can go unrecognized for a time because its onset is commonly in the teen and young adult years, a time when young people are afforded more independence and they may keep their thoughts and activities to themselves.

From the Mayo Clinic, the Signs and Symptoms of Schizophrenia may include some, but not necessarily all of the following:

- Delusions — personal beliefs not based in reality, such as paranoia that you're being persecuted or conspired against
- Bizarre delusions — for example, a belief in Martians controlling your thoughts
- Hallucinations — sensing things that don't exist, such as imaginary voices
- Incoherence (rambling narratives)
- Lack of emotions or inappropriate display of emotions
- A persistent feeling of being watched
- Trouble functioning at work or in social situations
- Social isolation
- Difficulty with personal hygiene
- Clumsy, uncoordinated movements

There have been many neurobiological findings associated with psychopathy, and generally changes in executive functioning and emotional and memory networks like the amygdala and temporal lobe have been seen. In schizophrenia, extensive gray matter loss can be seen in these same networks, and aberrant activation in the temporal lobes correlate with individuals' reports of hallucinations.

If you are worried that someone you know or care about may have schizophrenia, it's a good idea to get them help sooner rather than later. There is evidence that early diagnosis may improve the results of treatment.

The Virginia Tech victims and their families and friends are in our thoughts and prayers.

Recognizing Warning Signs of Violence in Others at the APA
Virginia Tech Gunman at Fox News
Neurobiological Correlates of Violent Behavior Among Persons with Schizophrenia
Neuroimaging studies at
Auditory Hallucinations fMRI Schizophrenia

Technorati tags: , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Curiosity and the Mind

"Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last." - Samuel Johnson

We are not all equally curious, what research there is, suggests that while curiosity can be inherited as a stable personality trait, it can also be manipulated by external means.

Daniel Berlyne was one of the earliest researchers in the science of curiosity, and he divided exploratory behavior into two types: one that sought relief from boredom and another that was more goal-directed or epistemic - "the brand of arousal that motivates the quest for knowledge and is relieved when knowledge is procured." It this type of curiosity that can be particularly valuable to awaken for creative achievement.

The biology of curiosity is still in its infant stages, but from curious researchers at Cal Tech, we have our first view of what curiosity might look like on fMRI.

It turns out the caudate / striatum is a particularly important area that gets activated when Cal Tech students read a list of trivia questions and found questions that particularly piqued their interest (BTW, the researchers also found that when students were tested later, they did remember best the questions that they had indicated they were most curious about...). For more on this study, see Neural Correlates of Curiosity pdf

The caudate shouldn't surprise us too much if we know a little about neurological diseases (after all in neurological conditions such as Parkinson's or Huntington's disease, injury to the caudate results in apathy), but should also ring a few alarm bells because the caudate has also been implicated in the pathology of ADHD. We know that curiosity often correlates with creativity and even general intelligence but lets face it, it can also be a nuisance and a distraction. Intensely curious kids can cause plenty of havoc in a conventional classroom. They may be selfish in their pursuit of their own interests, resist transitions, and be inattentive to all but their own interests. Is this the same as oppositional defiant or attention deficit disorder? Not really. But there are things that can be done to help them get along better with the world.

If you're curious about the effects of stimulants on the caudate and striatum, they do indeed change chemistry there - and that could account for some of their favorable behavioral effects. But, what is more worrisome is recent discovery of more long-term toxic effects of stimulants on the caudate / striatum. These medication have been well-recognized as having a neurotoxic potential; what is new, is that researchers have now observed injurious effects at levels used in standard medicine doses. It would be a terrible trade-off to cause long-term effects on reward and curiosity for short-term effects on compliance and behavior.

As far as tips go for enhancing your own or your kids' curious minds. Here are some that we have gleaned from our reading:

- Find time to reflect on questions and contradictions.
- Reframe boredom.
- Don't let fear or anxiety keep you from doing something new.
- Pursue your passions and gifts.

A final quote on curiosity: "I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious." - Albert Einstein

Using Instructional Design Strategies To Foster Curiosity
Flow Motivation as Gifted Thinking
Better living through creativity - interview with Bose
Neural Correlates of Curiosity Supp Info
Cultivating Curiosity
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Motivation and Memory
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Teens, 20's, and Rewards
Impulsivity, ADHD, and Reward
Curiosity and Motivation to Learn pdf
Alice in Wonderland "Curiouser and curiouser!"

Technorati tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Are We Preparing Students for College?

From the latest ACT Curriculum Survey, 1 in 4 college students are found to require some remedial work in the "basics" (reading, writing, math) when they are tested as freshmen. The big question is, why?

College profs are more skeptical than high school teachers that state standards are sufficient to prepare students for college:

But at least in this survey, the priorities for improving preparation only seemed to emphasize how far education is from "no child left behind." The ACT study points the finger at the need for more high school students to master the basics - basic mathematics computation and application, and writing mechanics basics like sentence structure and paragraph organization. But if basics is all that is taught, we're in a lot of trouble.

If Washington state's mandatory assessment the WASL is any measure, a looming problem is that we're not teaching kids to think. Many of you are already aware that Washington state is releasing 1/3 of WASL items every year (with examples of scoring) because they are facing large numbers of students not being allowed to graduate.

But here is opening paragraph from a paper that won a top score ("4") on a persuasive writing prompt WASL. Students were asked to present a persuasive argument supporting or refuting the proposition that requiring daily homework in every class would improve student learning:

From the glowing review of this essay:

Huh? This argument doesn't address the claim that mandatory homework will improve learning, if anything it's an appeal to pity. Ugg. This is an sample of what students should be trying to write? If anything, its use as an example shows us how an emphasis on form may hide an absence of substance.

Schoolteachers, professors differ on what students should know -
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Why are so many students failing the WASL?
Eide Neurolearning Blog: 50% Failing Math and Science WASL
Basics of Analyzing an Argument
WASL Released Items 10th Grade Writing
Seattle Times: Helping prepare students for the WASL
Seattle Times: New Push for Major WASL Changes

Technorati tags: , , , , , , ,

Monday, April 16, 2007

Cognitive Load, Working Memory, and Effective Teaching

Cognitive load refers to the amount information the brain has to juggle when it's thinking, reasoning, or solving problems. If you're feeling overwhelmed listening to someone explain a new idea or concept, chances are you're experiencing too much cognitive load (or working memory overload).

Some recent presentations and papers on cognitive load will be helpful for increasing awareness about how information may be effectively presented, but the researchers still underestimate the diversity of their audience. For instance, in this diagram, the argument is made that the text on the left splits attention compared to an integrated diagram on the right. In inaccurate soundbyte fashion, one news article heralds the death of Powerpoint presentations, but this is a bit premature. When we actually assess what students can manage, we've been impressed by the diversity of "preferred learning or working memory style" that exists.

Now, that is not to say, that educational researchers can't survey the most effective ways to reach a majority of students, but averaging the results won't tell you the most effective way to teach a particular student.

The problem is, some students will struggle with visual material and want to read through the text before they get to the figure, while others will want to skip the text and just look at the visual figure, while still others will need both - in an integrated fashion. And that doesn't even factor in the differences that exist with routes of learning- listening and seeing. Some will want to see and listen at the same time, while will prefer to uni-task...just listen or just see, before putting information together. The uni-taskers are often great note co-op people or natural online learners.

Take-home point: For the classroom, what may seem to be redundant information in a presentation, may be necessary for students with different information processing preferences.

There are helpful points that cognitive load theorists make here though...for instance, the need to present examples of correctly solved and fill-in-the-blank problems (1 step-at-a-time), but it's important to realize that troubleshooting an individual student's struggles might require trying a variety of approaches.

Additional tips for teaching overwhelmed students: break problems down into smaller bits, providing examples of correctly solved, goal-free, and completion problems, allowing work to be performed "open-book" (e.g. sheet of formulae, multiplication table, new vocabulary), use accommodations (scribe, keyboard, etc.).

In the brain study below, overlapping and distinct patterns of brain activation were seen for visual attention and cognitive load or working memory- this means that although there's some overlap, there are also distinctions. As it turns out the distinctions (attention vs. working memory) are easier to see by brain scan than ADHD checklist. Buyer beware!

Another point worth noting in the figure, is the involvement of the cerebellum in managing "cognitive load".

The cerebellum is a particularly easy to injure with mild birth stress, prematurity, deprivation, or conditions like the autism spectrum disorders - impaired cerebellar function might therefore a significant contributor to a student's working memory limit or his or her tendency to overload with too much information coming in at once. Other signs of cerebellar dysfunction: floppy tone, motor coodination problems, difficulty with multi-tasking, and sensory-sensory or sensory-motor coordination.

Cognitive Load Theory Presentation pdf
Cognitive Load and Learning press release

Joke Gettysburg Address in Powerpoint
Making of the Gettysburg Address in Powerpoint
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Easing the Work in Working Memory
Learning Efficiency and Cognitive Load / E-learning
fMRI of Working Memory and Attention
Eide Neurolearning Blog: The Cerebellar Child

Monday, April 09, 2007

Taking Time to Listen to the Music

We're on vacation and off the blog this week, but couldn't resist sharing this recent post from the Washington Post - Pearls Before Breakfast. WaPo put Joshua Bell (one of the top violinists in the world) into a DC subway station, candid camera-style...waited to see how many people might stop and take time to listen to the music. You can see for yourself with WaPo's videos.

Not everyone can recognize the difference between good and "world class". Bell is fortunate because his gift and expertise are well-recognized (at least in some circles!). How many young people don't develop their exceptional qualities because they learned how good or unusual they were?

Technorati tags: , , ,

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Letting Our Minds Wander

This recent study from Vancouver provide insights into what our minds do when the wander. Wandering minds are not just a sign of inattentiveness, as these researchers show. When our minds are supposed to be working on a task, they often drift - whether we are aware of it or not. If our minds have wandered and we aren't fully aware of it, it's likely to be that dreamy right temporal lobe, repository for autobiographical memory, and emotionally significant music.

Some people who depend on regular problem solving for their employment may want to access this "below-awareness pathway" so that they can generate new ideas and solutions from the extensive library of their personal experience. Activities that require a resting wakefulness - liking listening to familiar music or driving, jogging or playing a well-practiced musical piece - are common ways that creative people say they are able to find good ideas.

And on this last note, we'll take a brief break from our blog for the Easter holidays. Have a wonderful week, and we'll be back blogging April 16th!

Wandering Minds With and Without Awareness fMRI
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Insight, Problem Solving, Right Temporal Lobe
Right Temporal Lobe Activation with Emotionally Significant Music Abstract
Invention Index Lemelson Center
Eide Neurolearning Blog: The Daydreaming Brain

Technorati tags: , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Comprehending with Your Whole Brain

Just had to share this picture from a recent Mason and Just review looking at Neuroimaging's contributions to our understanding of discourse processing. This is a long way from our neurology clerkship teaching of the Wernicke's area (one of the little green spots on the left side) for language comprehension.

When we have a rich comprehension of a story, we don't just understand the words, we picture the imagery, we put ourselves into a story, we contextualize it, we empathize, and question what doesn't make sense. It makes perfect sense that comprehension is a whole brain activity, it's just that before functional imaging, there wasn't an easy way to show this.

This paper also reminds me of how crude our understanding of brain is with a "pathological" bias of brain function (deduce brain function by studying the results of profound damage). If we only notice the all-or-none qualities of brain function (our patients comprehend or don't), then we will be making errors on both side, missing subtle changes for the worse, and not admiring differences for the better.

I hope that this more nuanced view of brain differences will percolate into the day-to-day world of clinicians and behavioralists, but everyone should best beware - many medical student syllabi for Neurology may still only make scant mention of Language Comprehension, and the old news - that Wernicke's is where language comprehension resides- might be the only information young doctors-to-be might learn.

In this 201 page syllabus from Stanford's Neurology Core Clerkship, language comprehension mentioned only once (on page 114), and you might have guessed it, in association with Wernicke's area.

Neuroimaging and Discourse

Technorati tags: , , , , ,

Monday, April 02, 2007

Why It's Hard to Get Rid of Old Ideas

Dunbar and his colleagues at Dartmouth have been studying why it's hard for people to overcome their misconceptions. Their work had built on earlier studies that had found that University students, faculty, and staff, were held onto misconceptions about the origin of seasonal change (perhaps acquired in grade school, junior high, or high school), despite formal coursework in planetary motion or direct instruction with a videotape. Excerpt: "Why did the video, which was supposed to address the misconceptions, have no significant effect on the students? Interestingly both students' responses and their explanations, indicate that they did not encode the relevant information that was inconsistent with their theory."

When fMRI studies were done of students slipping into this same mistake, researchers found that information that fit within a person's preconceived ideas ("plausible") were more readily committed to memory, while contradictory ideas ("implausible") received less attention.

It underscores how important it is not to teach students incorrect concepts while trying to simplify concepts for younger children. It also highlights the importance for verifying knowledge (Socratic inquiry, testing) in order to guarantee mastery of novel concepts.

The tenacious grip of old ideas is a common dilemma of inventors and innovators of various sorts. No wonder, individual turn to transdisciplinary experiences, discussions with outsiders, even dreams to see problems from a different light.

Do naive theories ever go away?
Brain-based mechanisms involving complex causal thinking fmri pdf
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Old Dogs and New Tricks

Technorati tags: , , , , ,