Brain Scans Show If Ready to Learn

MIT researchers found that activation of the parahippocampal gyrus was associated with better memory if visual scenes followed.

Abstract: "The rate of learning or memory formation varies over time for any individual, partly due to moment-to-moment fluctuation of brain state. Functional neuroimaging has revealed the neural correlates of learning and memory, but here we asked if neuroimaging can causally enhance human learning by detection of brain states that reveal when a person is prepared or not prepared to learn. The parahippocampal cortex (PHC) is essential for memory formation for scenes. Here, activation in PHC was monitored in real-time, and scene presentations were triggered when participants entered "good" or "bad" brain states for learning of novel scenes. Subsequent recognition memory was more accurate for scenes presented in "good" than "bad" brain states. These findings show that neuroimaging can identify in real-time brain states that enhance or depress learning and memory formation, and knowledge about such brain states may be useful for accelerating education and training."

It's interesting that the parahippocampal gyrus also seems to be involved with exposure to novel stimuli. Perhaps that's why many talented teachers think about using a 'hook' to awaken the interest of their students. The paraphippocampus may turn on and the following lesson becomes much more memorable as a result.

Fact Retrieval vs. Problem Solving in the Brain

Researchers from Stanford have found that school children retrieving math facts to solve arithmetic problems show different brain fMRI patterns when retrieving math facts, than when solving problems. It was important to control for different learning strategies, so researchers asked the children whether they counted, used their fingers, or remembered math facts.

In general, 2nd-3rd graders will switching a counting strategy to math facts retrieval when doing arithmetic, but these researchers found "considerable variation in the mix of strategies used to solve these problems...Retrieval fluency related to grade level in this sample."

The study is also a good reminder that fact retrieval is not the same as problem solving...something that has tremendous implications for how we should design education.

If you haven't read this 'oldie-but-goodie' paper, check out Transforming Physics Education. Researchers found that "students receiving traditional instruction, master, on average, less than 30% of the concepts they did not already know at the start of class." Nearly all teachers overestimate the ability of their students to answer questions correctly after attending a lecture.

"The definitive conclusion is that no matter how "good" the teacher, typical students in a traditionally taught course are learning by rote, memorizing facts and recipes for problem solving; they are not gaining a true understanding."

The study's conclusions? "To move a student toward expert competence, the instructor must focus on the development of the student's mental organizational structure by addressing the 'why' and not just the 'what' of the subject...(introducing) ideas in terms of real-world situations or devices with which the students are familiar; recasting homework and exam problems into a form which the answer is of some obvious utility rather than an abstract number, and making reasoning, sense-making, and refelcting explicit parts of in-class activities, homework, and exams..."

Algebra Problem Solving paper:
Newman et al., Journal of Problem Solving

Remembering Inhibits Learning

In an interesting study, researchers from Duke University found that learning and remembering compete when both are made to occur at the same time.

Test subjects were asked to learn new scenes that were presented visually as they were remember what words they had read on a screen. When remembering and studying visual scenes happened at the same time, learning was inhibited. On fMRI, the decreased learning performance was associated with decreased blood flow in the visual cortex and medial temporal lobes.

It would be interesting to see this sort of test in younger children (these test subjects were in their 20's) especially those with decreased working memories.

We've noticed that often when multisensory teaching is recommended, students who have trouble with this form of instruction do better if the modes of instruction (seeing, saying for instance) are presented sequentially rather than at the same time...another bottleneck. Maybe students would fare better if a slight delay were given between asking questions and teaching new information. Or perhaps new information should be presented before questions were asked? We look forward to seeing more research from this group.

The Steps of Creativity - Early Crowd sourcing and Prototyping

In this interesting paper from Stanford, researchers found that adults asked to perform a creative task (drawing) did better if they were exposed to examples early in their approach to the task.

Over-all, the use of examples tended to increase conformity (decreasing creativity or reducing novel responses), but this creativity-deadening effect was more evident if examples were given late in individuals' work on a project.

Early examples had a stimulating effect on creativity, increasing subjects' openness to possibilities, increasing the numbers of novel prototypes or drafts.


"One possible explanation for these effects is that early exposure to examples aids the designer in understanding the scope of acceptable solutions to a problem, and helps form an initial representation of the creative concept (Heit, 1992). Prototyping results in subsequent abstraction and refinement of the initial representation (Lim et al., 2008). Without initial exposure to examples, the refined representation may dif fer widely from the one embodied in examples, which would make it harder to map concepts from the example to one’s own representation. When exposure is only for a short duration (90s in our experiment), it is possible that only concepts with high enough activation, such as critical features in our experiment, are transferred (motivated by Boroditsky, 2007). Another counter-intuitive experimental result is that repeated exposure to the same examples led to higher creative quality. This may also be explained by a seeding-and-transfer account. Initial exposure to examples prevents the refined representation formed by prototyping from diverging greatly from the one embodied in the examples. This refined yet similar representation would then allow the designer to learn different concepts on re-exposure to the same example. In essence, the crucial ingredient that allows repeated exposure to improve creativity might be the prototyping that occurs between exposures."

Prototyping and exposure to outside ideas is a recurrent theme among successful entrepreneurs.  "Act now and learn new things." 

The lessons of these two articles are really hitting home the past few weeks. Our teens have been doing the new beta Stanford Human-Computer Interaction course through Coursera has been keeping them busy. The first week they thought was a snap when they were asked to brainstorm a possible new business application. Then it turned to shock when they realized they should design a prototype and load it onto a website. They're learning more about Flash Catalyst than I ever would ever have thought possible. How much less they would have learned if their classroom work was confined to 'thinking' and not 'doing'. Learning by leaps.

Photo credit:

Impulsivity and Business Success

Answer - it depends. In the paper Taking More Now: The Optimality of Impulsive Choice Hinges on Environment Structure, researchers at the University of Texas found that the reward environment involving choices determined whether highly impulsive test subjects performed better or worse than their low-impulsive testing counterparts.

The test involve college students who were administered a personality test that estimated trait-impulsivity. The experiment involved planning a business investment game which varied the conditions to optimize rewards either in the short term (e.g. cut costs, immediate boost in profits) or long term (e.g. invest in new equipment and training, delayed profits). One interesting observation of the test is that the higher trait-impulsive students were more likely to be attentive to changes in the game variables that affected immediate short term profits - so they out-performed less impulsive students when the experimental situation favored short term rewards.

"Crucially, whether each tendency was advantageous or disadvantageous depended not on any endogenous factors, but solely on the environment."

The researchers conclude: 

"While impulsivity is often discussed as a maladaptive trait associated with myopic decision making and a myriad of pathological behaviors (Patton et al., 1995; Perry & Carroll, 2008; Petry, 2001), the present set of results lends credence to the notion that impulsivity is not a purely maladaptive trait but one whose consequences hinge on the structure of the decision-making environment. We found that low- and high impulsive participants exhibited consistent trial-to-trial choice
behavior across the two experiments: impulsive participants were more likely to choose the option with larger immediate rewards—based on their direct experience from sampling the two options—whereas less impulsive participants were more likely to pass up larger immediate gains and opt for the option associated with increasing rewards over time."

We had several thoughts - first, that when working with trait-impulsive students in the classroom or at home, it probably is worthwhile to optimize reward systems that are more immediate than delayed. If doing a task is not intrinsically rewarding, then sweetening the process with more immediate external rewards would likely help. 

We also couldn't help wondering if this preference for more immediate rewards is why so many highly successful entrepreneurs with ADHD / impulsive traits seem to flourish in the world of technology and start-up companies. The next thought that those of us who find ourselves counseling and giving advice to young people regarding the choosing of their careers, should mention entrepreneurial possibilities that may be especially well-suited to their temperaments and personalities.

Finally, we found it very encouraging that the authors of this student reflected on the flip side of 'deviation from the norm'. They commented on the fact that the trait of impulsivity was often studied by academics in the context of significant pathology (like violent parolees or heroin abusers), rather than 'normal' non-clinical populations. 

Perhaps this century will see more of a shift toward appreciation of neurodiversity by psychologists and psychiatrists. We would like to see the extremes views of every difference = disease become a thing of the past.

Google Brain: Inductive Thinking and Curiosity

In a Scientific American blog post Deep thought is dead, Long live deep thought, a bioinformatics analyst broods on the question, ‘Where are these jobs that will require such rapid “searching, browsing, assessing quality, and synthesizing the vast quantities of information?" and decides quiet a lot of information can be gained by this type of superficial processing of large quantities of material.

"Our ability to produce data is outstripping our ability to understand it. In fact, the need to make sense of these mountains of information is so great that it’s given rise to one of the hottest interdisciplinary fields on the market: data mining and predictive analytics."

Perhaps it's a trade-off. A lot can be gained from slowly and deeply reading a dense but wise text, but a different sort of knowledge (and equally legitimate) can be arrived at by superficial processing of large quantities of material. This more superficial processing may be particularly well suited to inductive problems where principles may be extrapolated from different examples or instances.

Recently researchers in Neuroimage found that the striatal-thalamic regions (blue left) were important for the extrapolation step in inductive problem solving. This is all very interesting because of the association of striatal structures with curiosity and novelty.

One wonders whether strong caudate learners should be considered as a distinct learning style - novel, curiosity driven, inductive learners who learn best by engaging primary or direct experiences- then reasoning back to first principles.

We see many of these types of learners in high tech / computer engineering fields - and that probably also jives with the video gamers have bigger brains (caudates) research.

Reading Metaphors and Individual Differences in the Brain

Researchers at the University of Washington and Carnegie Mellon found that reading and comprehending metaphors had very different patterns of brain activation depending on whether statements were provided in context. In the right context, metaphor comprehension was an easy - required much less brain work- but with neutral or opposite context, look how much effort was expended. In the opposite context, the metaphor was ironic or sarcastic.

- If students aren't 'getting it', they may need more context
- Irony needs a brain workout - no wonder irony is more common among brainy types

Other interesting findings:
- right temporoparietal was active for all figurative vs. literal conditions
- the metaphor area largely overlap an area associated with verbal analogical reasoning
- the benefits of context was stronger among individuals with stronger working memory
- increased right hemispheric activation was noted among lower vocabulary individuals under all processing conditions - (could some have mild dyslexia?)
- not all students are alike - researchers noted fMRI differences among students with different working memory and vocabulary - simple reading fMRI studies may need to consider more cognitive variables in their design of tests

All the subjects were students at Carnegie Mellon University

Reading Metaphors and Individual Differences Brain fMRI

Metacognition, Math, and the Brain

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon found that students solving 'regular' problems based on an example showed overlapping, but distinct patterns of brain activation when 'exception' problems were presented. 'Cognitive' pathways were activated whether a problem was hard or easy; 'metacognitive' pathways were activated especially when challenging problems were presented, and they were activated for a much longer time after problems were already solved. Regular problems involved small positive number values and a single unknown, whereas exception problems used fractions, negative numbers, or repeated variables.

The study was a good reminder that the real work of learning takes place when a student gets something wrong - and that's when the higher network (the 'A' team) gets called into work - and keeps ruminating even after the problem has been solved.

If our students are up to the challenge, it's important we give them a chance to work on very hard problems. If they aren't getting anything wrong, then they're probably not getting any workouts to their metacognitive network. It's not just students, of course. If you're not making and analyzing you're mistakes, then maybe you're coasting too much on cognitive auto-pilot.

The metacognitive regions included sites like the superior prefrontal gyrus, angular gyrus, and frontopolar regions.

Why It's Hard to Listen to Two People Talking at One Time

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon show us why it's hard for us to listen to two people talking at one time. In addition to listening to the individual messages, we have to use bilateral brain pathways to resolve conflicts in what we heard (or what we think we heard) and piece together information.

Developmentally, the need for bilateral brain coordination and interhemispheric pathways is plenty good reason for why some students (and nearly all young children) may have a harder time listening over background noise or focusing on a teacher's comments while a classmate is talking.

In the figure at left (see this study), see how the digit (number) recall of 6-9 year old children goes steadily down as background noise goes up.

There is an entire science of noisy classrooms - but briefly, background noise in occupied classrooms is significant  (48-68 dB in one study) and it significantly affects classroom performance particularly for subjects like reading, spelling, attention, and behavior. And yes - it also affects teacher performance. Children with hearing loss or auditory processing disorders are affected more than their non-impaired peers.

Pattern Learning and the Brain

From NY Times:

"For years school curriculums have emphasized top-down instruction, especially for topics like math and science. Learn the rules first — the theorems, the order of operations, Newton’s laws — then make a run at the problem list at the end of the chapter. Yet recent research has found that true experts have something at least as valuable as a mastery of the rules: gut instinct, an instantaneous grasp of the type of problem they’re up against. Like the ballplayer who can “read” pitches early, or the chess master who “sees” the best move, they’ve developed a great eye.

Now, a small group of cognitive scientists is arguing that schools and students could take far more advantage of this same bottom-up ability, called perceptual learning. The brain is a pattern-recognition machine, after all, and when focused properly, it can quickly deepen a person’s grasp of a principle, new studies suggest. Better yet, perceptual knowledge builds automatically."

This is like the Turkey and the Crow.

Expertise at pattern recognition is a very different brain-based process than expertise at rule-based learning or a motor skill. Patterns are more flexible and iterative than conventional rule-based processes, so as a result, it shouldn't be surprising that more and bilateral brain pathways are activated among pattern recognition experts, whereas fewer areas of brain activated in rule-based or motor skill (cognitive efficiency).

For example, fMRI studies of chess grandmasters and chess novices found that chess experts use twice the brain of novices when looking at chess piece positions.

But musicians activated less brain than non-musicians when performing a simple motor task.

For people who are very good at solving problems,  the ideal situation is to be good at both, recognizing what pathways and resources to activated for rote and simple motor tasks in addition to being able to switch gears for bihemispheric brain work that recognized patterns, similarities, and differences.

Memory, Reward, and Dopamine

Nice review of Dopamine and Adaptive Memory from TICS.

When Princeton student volunteers where told that they would receive a significance monetary reward for some pictures on a computer screen that would follow, their midbrain reward centers and medial temporal lobe became activated in anticipation of the pictures that they would see. Testing the next day showed that the rewarded pictures were better remembered and better associated with their associated context.

It's an interesting review because it ties together data involving episodic / autobiographical / personal memory, novelty, and generalization. In our dyslexia practice, we often see students with a very strong bias toward episodic memory - memory for events that happened at specific times and in specific places.  Many of these students could meet diagnostic criteria for ADD or ADHD; at the same time, they may learn well with novelty and have gifts at "big picture" thinking (mentioned as "generalization" in the paper).

So how to we reconcile these results with anti-reward proponents?

Carol Dweck and Dan Pink have cautioned about perils of rewards, but the distinction may be tasks that particularly work well with rewards are those that have little intrinsic interest or motivation themselves.

For instance, if a child loves playing the piano, don't pay them to practice...just give them plenty of opportunity to play and enjoy their performances. If , however, piano practice for a new student is complete chore, then little rewards and games (novelty) may be that spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down until they master enough that the enjoyment of playing is reward enough.

For the classroom, one implication is that for some students (those that heavily prefer episodic memory, for instance), engagement, novelty, and rewards may be educational necessities to maximize student achievement.

Problems and Perils of Praise
carrot picture

Happy Thanksgiving in the Brain

We wish you all a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday.

Gratitude and thanksgiving are whole brain activities that involve deep-seated emotional areas, areas associated with context-sensitive morality, and abstract conceptual understanding.

Thankfulness to God involves multisensory areas, imagery, and regions associated with feelings of justice, peace, happiness, and unconditional love.

Our family has very much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving - bless you all!

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving week.

Gratitude, Neural basis of human social values fmri pdf
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Celebrating Thanksgiving with all your mind
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Thanksgiving, Charity, and the Brain


Complex Development of Moral Sensitivity and Empathy - fMRI

From the Decety lab:

"Moral reasoning involves a complex integration between affective and cognitive processes that gradually changes with age and can be viewed in dynamic transaction across the course of ontogenesis. The findings support the view that negative emotion alerts the individual to the moral salience of a situation by bringing discomfort and thus can serve as an antecedent to moral judgment."

Children as young as 6 months seem to preferentially interact with people who help and altruistic behavior can be seen in early childhood, but developmental steps, biological underpinnings, and individual variations are not well understood.

This study (age 4 to 37 years) provides insight into the complicated brain dance of perception, emotional response, and empathetic concern when viewing unintentional and intentional hurtful acts. All age groups reported feeling sad and upset when viewing intentional harm and harm directed toward people vs. objects. Emotional responses were similar in young children as adults, but  amygdala activation was greater - the adults were better able to turn down amgydala activation compared to younger children. What being older also seemed to help with was distinguishing accidental from intentional harm (children tended to view all harmers as 'malevolent').

The study made us think of children (like those with sensory processing disorders) who struggled with empathetic behaviors although their emotional reactions and mirroring seemed normal. The perceptual side of empathy was intact, but the intensity of emotion reactions and cognitive decision making immature. On the flipside, other children might reason well about empathy, but have blunted emotional responses. The behaviors could look the same, but causes and interventions would be completely different.

Brooding Perfectionism -

We recently came across the topic of Brooding Perfectionism.
There are different types of perfectionism (e.g. failure to live up to one's idealized standards or failure to live up to idealized others' standards), but brooding perfectionism adds the element of rumination, which Olson and Kwan define as "a maladaptive style that is defined as the unintentional process of repetitively and passively thinking about one's negative emotions and focusing on depressive symptoms and their meaning." It can be a difficult vicious cycle because reflection and seeking to understand both seem to be good things - but what's striking is how negative an effect rumination has on general thinking (it swamps working memory), problem solving, and resilient behaviors.

Excerpt (sorry the whole article is not available free access - but it can be rented with a free trial): "A ruminative response style has also been shown to prolong depressive episodes. Rumination leads to irrational, negative interpretations of life events. In addition, focus on negative thoughts leads to an absence of potential efforts to ameliorate the consequences of a negative life event. The combination of a depressed mood and rumination may activate doubt regarding one's problem solving abilities, leading the individual to give up hope on solving problems. Individuals may also believe that their problems are less controllable than they actually are. These individuals are unsuccessful in efforts to diminish the problems, focusing more on their emotions than on productive behaviors that could potentially correct the problems."

What the researchers found is that a ruminative tendency predicted whether depression would be severe in the setting of setbacks. High brooding perfectionists were not more depressed as a group when they hadn't experienced serious negative life experiences. But they were very vulnerable to depression when negative events occurred.

For another great read, check out Rethinking Rumination. Interesting tidbits covered included the difference between worry and rumination, the difficulty that ruminators have with task-switching, the paralyzing effect of rumination (more think than do), and rumination's effects on attention and memory bias. It turns out ruminators are more likely to generalize rather than specifically remember from life events (autobiographical memory). Fortunately, the paper also includes interventions to overcome rumination and there are papers like this Seligman paper have specific suggestions to reduce destructive rumination and increase happiness. For highly intellectual persons, it can be freeing notion learning more about this dark side of reflection and perfectionism.

For a pretty accessible self-help book, check out The Power of Now.

Thinker Pic - Flickr Dan MacKay

High Fluid Intelligence, Gestures, and Simulation

In an interesting study, German researchers found that increased hand gestures of 11th graders predict their correct solving of a chessboard visual analogy problem as well as predicting increased cortical thickness and higher fluid intelligence.

"...all the students talked about the same things in their explanations, but almost no one actually mentioned anything about rotation. But by looking at their hands – not by listening to what they were saying – we could distinguish between people with high and average fluid intelligence. We think that these hand gestures mimicked the strategy that the students used in solving the task. That is, they rotated the patterns in their imagination, just as they did with their hands. This suggests that individuals with high fluid intelligence engage more in simulation when imagining the problem than those with average fluid intelligence.

In fact, when we made Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans of the students’ brains, we found that the cortical tissue in several areas of the brain was thicker among those students with high fluid intelligence who gestured more than among those with average fluid intelligence.

Our results indicate that the cortical thickness of those brain regions is related to both high fluid intelligence and the production of gestures. We do not know with certainty yet, but this result suggests that some brain areas may be more developed for the students with high fluid intelligence, possibly like a muscle that grows larger when it is trained.

Recent theories about the processes of thought emphasize the role of so-called action simulation. Evidence from other brain imaging experiments show that some of the same areas of the brain are activated when people only imagine performing an action as when they actually perform it. One theory proposes that these strongly activated simulated actions are manifested as gestures.

We do not know yet whether gesturing facilitates the development of fluid intelligence or whether it is a by-product. But we do know that children who are asked to gesture in certain ways while learning new tasks learn better than children who are asked not to gesture. Considering that gesturing benefits children while learning, it is possible that gesturing plays a role in the development of fluid intelligence, perhaps by simulating action. If this proves to be true, children might be able to literally give themselves a hand in their own development by gesturing more."

It's interesting to think that teaching children to problem solve certain types of problems should involve strategies that take into account that fact that one is trying to train the imagery of the students. Just verbally saying back the steps of a problem or even watching an explanation won't internalize the imagery. To really 'get' certain problems, we have to enter into the simulation and perceive the question and solution in a bodily way.

What Educators Can Learn from Madison Avenue -Bad Design Kills

Jonah Lehrer recently wrote about the educational benefits of "ugly fonts", but though the research is a good, it's not really the case that they're ugly. What they are is novel. And novelty is usually a good thing when you have something you want remembered.

In this Princeton study, 18-40 year old test subjects were allowed to read short descriptions of aliens either in a "disfluent font" like Comic Sans or Bodoni (top right) or a "fluent font" like Arial (bottom right).

After a 15 minute delay, participants were able to recall 14% more information if it was presented in the disfluent.

Now Madison Avenue and even the US government have known for some time that font shape, size, and color make a difference in terms of what one notices and remembers, Isn't it time for teachers to catch on, especially if they want their students to remember better?

A future study of course should be with younger students and we would hope dyslexics. Many dyslexics and people working with dyslexic students have noticed that font and color can affect both readability and memorability for text.

Young children learning to read are often confronted with early readers with homogeneously looking words in chubby fonts like the one above from Starfall. If the words are closer together, it may be almost unreadable.

Not ever child has problems, but in our experience, those with limited visual spans do - so much in fact that they may see an increase in their reading abilities if switched to different fonts or even more challenging early readers in which word length vary. If these kids are older late readers who have a strong listened vocabulary, then they may quickly progress with books like Geronimo Stilton (above) that have fairly challenging vocabulary, but visual cues and elaborated fonts to aid the decoding process.

Hopefully the publishers of educational curriculum will catch up to all this. Visual perception principles are not just for wonky science aficionados. They're what we need for the classroom.

Stories, Empathy, and the Brain

Want an empathy workout for your brain? Read a book!

At right the blue shows activation patterns associated with emotional comprehension (blue) and perspective taking (yellow) when reading a story.

It turns out, when we read an emotional work, we activate a complex mentalizing network in order to think about the mental state of another person. Imagining a person in a different place takes more brain power (reading slows) and also activates the spatial network necessary to set up a scene in the brain.

No wonder reading complex novels with all their differing personalities, motives, and scenarios can be an exhausting process.

If we want to train children up in empathy, then stories are a great way to do it. Seeing the complexity of the pathways required for empathizing should help us understand why people with sensory processing challenges have such difficulty projecting themselves into stories and empathizing with different story characters. But this spatial network can be trained and research suggests empathy can also improve.

From Harvard's Mass General, 8 weeks of a meditation-mindfulness stress reduction course showed changes in cortical networks like this story network associated with empathy, sense of self, and stress.

Curiosity, Doing, and Creative Success

Thanks Brain Pickings for this talk by filmmaker Andrew Zuckerman on Creativity, Rigor, and Learning as You Go.

"The rigor came from the curiosity..."

There's a good take-home point listening to Zuckerman talk about his Wisdom Project, a project to gather 'senior' creatives from around the world to share their thoughts on wisdom and lessons learned.

Good points are made about curiosity and openness to experience, flexibility and tolerance of imperfection, and the importance of follow-through.

Andrew Zuckerman from 99% on Vimeo.

For more on curiosity, check out Curiosity and Success Curiosty and Creativity and Curiosity and the Mind

The Dyslexic Advantage is Out! - Dyslexic Inventor James Russell

It's here! Our book, The Dyslexic Advantage is out!

In Dyslexic Advantage, we weave together stories from incredibly talented people with dyslexia (writers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and more) with some of the latest neuroscience research about dyslexic processing, insight-based thinking, visualization, and scene construction.

Listening more different people's experiences with dyslexia tells us much more than simplistic categories of learning disabilities.

Check out this brief excerpt from our interview with James Russell, inventor of the compact disc.

Us: Were you a math kid?   

James Russell: was something of a struggle to learn addition, subtraction, multiplication and that sort of thing. I devised various schemes –particularly multiplication to figure out what the answer was  without having to memorize the times'...

Us: I would’ve thought that physics and electronics is rules…it’s not?

James Russell: No, it’s visual

Barbara Russell: In Trigonometry – you have to memorize all the trig functions – Jim found it easier to derive them each time rather than memorize them.

Us: How is it visual?

James Russell: If you’re talking about circuits, the electrons are going this way (gesturing), then there’s resistance (gesturing) and the storage capacitors (more gesturing) and the Philip capacitors.

Us: So a lot of movement, right?

James Russell: Yep. Sure.

Eides: Now there was a story about Tesla where he had said if he were building a machine, he could imagine it in his mind so clearly that he could manipulate it and tweak it to see what would happen.  He said he could perform experiments in his mind. Do you have something like that?

James Russell: Sure.

Eides: How detailed are the visual images. Can you see them like pictures or do you have a sense of relationship and their kinetic properties.  Are they color images?

James Russell: That’s a tough one to answer. That depends on what level. If we’re talking about building something like a chair, then it’s all detail visual. I’ve got a 2 by 4 and put another 2 by 4. I’ll nail it this way and so forth. If it’s something more technical, then there are still images, but they aren’t exact images. It's an image type-thought. It's not a specific image.

It's interviews like that that should make us pause to ask how much we really know when we say we understand dyslexia or different thinking or problem solving styles for that matter. James Russell was by his own admission an "average" student in school, but there were definite glimmers of his ingenuity and talent at a very young age.

We hope that The Dyslexic Advantage is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to an understanding of the breadth and depth of dyslexic gifts and talents. Dyslexia is thought to be as common as 1 in 10 people - if that is so, that's a lot of diamonds in our midst.

photo James Russell

Math in the Brain: Change from 2nd to 3rd Grade

From Stanford comes this study looking at the difference in brain fMRI patterns of 2nd vs. 3rd graders working on arithmetic.

It turns out a lot of differences can be seen in just one year - and accompanying  greater accuracy and quicker reaction times, are changes in several brain areas that suggest that math is done by large scale brain networks interacting with each other rather than a single location for 'math'.

As the developmental steps for problem solving become clearer, expect more developmental guidelines guiding curriculum. Working memory (visual as well as verbal) also takes quite a while to develop (see here). Being able to know where a student is starting from the cognitive standpoint makes the educational process all that much easier.

Working Memory, Math Performance, and Math Anxiety

For math tips, check out some of Marilyn Burn's articles here.

Head for the HIlls - Cities Bad for Your Mental Health

From the journal Nature, German researchers found that city dwellers showed much more social stress (measured by amygdala activation in response to an examiner scolding them as they were doing math problems) than country folk.

Lead researcher Meyer-Lindenberg was looking to tease out factors that contribute to a 2-fold higher incidence of schizophrenia in city vs. rural dwellers.

The study  is a good reminder the importance of environment on psychological health - it seems obvious, when for instance a child is having a psychological crisis in an environment of significant stress, it's surprising how often environmental changes (like take them out of school or a bullying situation?) take a back seat.

Studies like this are helpful. Of course,  it shouldn't take an fMRI study to tell us that put-downs and city stress are bad for our brains. It should also be common sense.

Wired: Cities Change Your Brain for Worse

The Nature article is free with registration.

Why It's Hard For Kids to Stand Still

Researchers from France were surprised to find that children ages 7-10 had a harder time standing still when compared to older children (12-15) or adults due to immaturity in their sensory readjustment systems (proprioceptive weighting).

The visual system also contributes significantly to postural balance, so don't be surprised if kids with visual problems have problem standing (or sitting) still too.

Hmm. Makes you think about  what we're expecting of young kids and when educational or behavioral expectations will catch up to developmental science.

Photo : rocket ship from Flickr

Great Fathers

"[My father] advised me to sit every few months in my reading chair for an entire evening, close my eyes and try to think of new problems to solve. I took his advice very seriously and have been glad ever since that he did." Walter Alvarez, professor Earth and Planetary Sciences, son of Nobel prize winning physicist Luiz Alvarez

"Although Sklodowski would never forgive himself for losing the family savings in a bad investment, the children honored him for nurturing them emotionally and intellectually. On Saturday nights he read classics of literature to Maria and her siblings. He also exposed them to the scientific apparatus he had once used in teaching physics but now kept at home, since the Russian authorities had eliminated laboratory instruction from the Polish curriculum." - about dual Nobelist Marie Curie's father

Marie Curie also said "“I easily learned mathematics and physics, as far as these sciences were taken in consideration in the school. I found in this ready help from my father, who loved science...."

"I often wonder at the strength and courage my father had in taking me out of the traditional school situation and providing me with these extraordinary learning experieces. I am certain he established the positive direction of my life that otherwise, given my native hyperactivity, could have been confused and catastropic. I trace who I am and the direction of my development to those years of growing up in our house on the dunes, propelled especially by an internal spark tenderly kept alive and glowing by my father." - Ansel Adams

Happy Father's Day.

The Turkey and the Crow - The Tension Between Expertise and Creativity

Although we train students toward expertise and mastery, a tension seems to exist between cognitive efficiency and automaticity representing expertise, and divergent problem solving and innovation.

Once we started looking for the turkey-crow split, the more we started seeing it everywhere.

Please share your thoughts, comments, and criticisms, and share this video with your friends if you find it helpful. Education would really be much better if it recognized  how fundamentally different turkey- and crow-biased thinkers approach learning. It wouldn't hurt either for more teachers, parents, professionals, and really everybody else came to appreciate the remarkable talents of the crow.

A Jolt of Insight

"It is by logic that we prove. It is by intuition that we discover." - Henri Poincare

Intuition has tremendous allure because it's thought to hold the key to unexpected discoveries, big picture insights, and paradigm shifts that can create or break whole disciplines. Because intuition is a less conscious process than logic or deductive thinking, it is also mysterious and unpredictable.

We've written about the right hemisphere's role in insight before, but Australian researchers have now find that giving an electrical jolt to the right anterior temporal lobe while suppressing the left improved problem solving by insight.


"60 healthy right-handed participants were asked to take an insight problem solving task while receiving transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to the anterior temporal lobes (ATL). Only 20% of participants solved an insight problem with sham stimulation (control), whereas 3 times as many participants did so (p = 0.011) with cathodal stimulation (decreased excitability) of the left ATL together with anodal stimulation (increased excitability) of the right ATL. We found hemispheric differences in that a stimulation montage involving the opposite polarities did not facilitate performance. Our findings are consistent with the theory that inhibition to the left ATL can lead to a cognitive style that is less influenced by mental templates and that the right ATL may be associated with insight or novel meaning."

This pattern is very close to the Miller and Hunt theory recently retold in Eureka Hunt :

The prefrontal cortex "is responsible not only for focussing on the task at hand but for figuring out what other areas need to be engaged in order to solve a problem. One implication of this is that if we’re trying to solve a verbal puzzle the prefrontal cortex will selectively activate
the specific brain areas involved with verbal processing. If it decides to turn on parts of the right hemisphere, then we might end up with an insight; if it decides to restrict its search to the left hemisphere, we’ll probably arrive at a solution incrementally or not at all."

Don't sign up for electrical stimulation right away though. There are other ways. Though insight-based thinking may not be a fully conscious process, we do know many situations that favor or disfavor insight. Sensory overload (including visual details) and verbal explanation can impair insight, as can stress and involvement in competing cognitively demanding tasks. To favor insight, one needs to do the reverse - remove one's self from visual or other sensory overload, avoid talking and active thinking - in other words, RELAX.  Avid readers of the biographies of famous discovers know that many  of the most famous breakthrough insights in history have occurred after men and women had labored hard and unsuccessfully on a problem, then took a nap, travelled, took a shower, or went on a walk.

From Poincare, who has many wonderful retellings of how he arrived at new mathematical ideas:

"I turned my attention to the study of some arithmetical questions apparently without much success and without a suspicion of any connection with my preceding researches. Disgusted with my failure, I went to spend a few days at the seaside, and thought of something else. One morning, walking on the bluff, the idea came to me, with just the same characteristics of brevity, suddenness, and immediate certainty, that the arithmetic transformations of indeterminate ternary quadratic forms were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry...Most striking at first is this appearance of sudden illumination, a manifest sign of long, unconscious prior work. The role of this unconscious work in mathematical invention appears to me incontestable..."

Insight - Easy and Hard Problem Solving

Why Daydreamers May Become Visionaries

Need a whole brain workout? Try daydreaming and imagining solving in the future.

In this nifty research from Harvard, researchers found that college volunteers imagining future scenarios and solving problems there activated both the default network (also know as the "daydreaming network") and executive function brain regions. So it's daydreaming with a purpose.

The default or daydreaming network includes multiple bilateral brain areas that are turned down when external attention switches on.

May that's why many visionary personalities are often recalled as daydreamers in their childhood (and adulthood too if the truth be known) ...Maybe they were building better visionary brains in their youths while other more externally attentive children weren't.  Wouldn't it be a pity if we don't give children time to boost their default networks?

One famous daydreamer in history was Isaac Newton: "Growing up Isaac barely maintained average grades and often lacked attention in school. Villagers looked upon his daydreaming, habits of reading for hours at a time, and keeping records of his interests as mere eccentricity.."

Isaac Newton also had the dubious honor of losing a horse that he was leading because he had been reading a book at the same time...

Solving Future Problems - Default Network, Executive Function, and Mental Simulations
Daydreaming Brain
Isaac Newton

Mathematical Minds

"Most mathematicians did not just take up math as a "job"...(most) get more pleasure out of mathematics than almost any other activity. And they often discovered this pleasure when they were young..."

While most people would agree that "math people" are not like "non-math people", it's not always easy for non-mathematical minds to recognize (and appropriately nurture) mathematical ones. The reasons for this are several - mathematical kids are often independent and internally-driven problem solvers who may or may not excel in the standard math tasks of the elementary school classroom (if he's such a math kid, how come he's getting C's on his timed drills?...) Many students with extreme talents in math may also be relatively verbal-poor, so are less obviously the "smart" children in class. Also they may be reluctant to show what they know or what they are interested in to relative strangers, and may have difficulty explaining how they arrived at answers. Many mathematical minds are dyslexic or twice exceptional in another areas, too, complicating their identification with standardized tests or screening tools.

Numbers Kids The numbers kids are perhaps the easiest to recognize - and they often come from families where one or both parents have a special affinity to mathematics (engineers, computer science, academics). It may start out with children interested in patterns and facts within mathematics (divisibility rules, cube roots, etc.), card and other games, recreational math topics (Fibonacci sequence, fractals, probability, solving problems for 'fun') or mathematics in the world of adults (e.g. Philip Davis' cousin who let him be bookkeeper at the age of 7, keeping track of a race horse's handicap and winnings).

Tinkering Kids Tinkering kids tend to enjoy conceptual science books, building and unbuilding (gears, taking apart ball point pens and toys, clocks, cameras, origami etc.), computer-related activities, projects (completed and incomplete), and beautiful and unbeautiful design.

By temperament, strong math minds will tend to be introverted and have high focus and task persistence for activities of intrinsic interest. This may mean they are difficult to direct in the traditional or even non-traditional classroom (prefer studying lines of own interest), and they may be benefited particularly by mentors (often relatives or math teachers at higher levels of education) willing to discuss topics, ideas, and problems far in advance of their years.

Silverman and Feldman have distinguished engineering / math-gifted individuals into sensor (likes facts, data, experimentation) and intuitor (prefers principles and theories) groups. Both were capable of becoming "fine engineers", but sensors with less direct success in traditional academics.

Recently, some investigators have begun to look at brain-related differences in mathematically-gifted students (to our knowledge this has not been done in professional mathematicians, engineers, physicists); in his study of mathematically-gifted adolescents, Michael O'Boyle has found that superior mathematics performance was correlated with increased bihemispheric activation (vs. unilateral activation) for mathematics tasks, enhanced involvement of the right hemisphere for information (including linguistic) processing, and strong prefrontal cortex activation. As seen in the figure above, math-gifted adolescents performing mental rotation tasks activate much more brain bilaterally than average math-performing peers.

The optimal educational pathways for young math thinkers may also vary widely. Some thrive with subject acceleration, while others plenty of free time to explore topics of personal interest - whether conceptual or technical.

Perhaps the most common feature seen in young mathematical minds is their interest is solving problems. If you have a young mathematical mind in your house and he or she hasn't seen the PBS special on Fermat's Last Theorem, check it out.It's great - sort of what Race for the Double Helix is to budding scientists. The PBS video on Fermat's Last Theorem (

From Andrew Wiles:

" I loved doing problems in school. I'd take them home and make up new ones of my own. But the best problem I ever found, I found in my local public library. I was just browsing through the section of math books and I found this one book, which was all about one particular problem—Fermat's Last Theorem. This problem had been unsolved by mathematicians for 300 years. It looked so simple, and yet all the great mathematicians in history couldn't solve it. Here was a problem, that I, a ten year old, could understand and I knew from that moment that I would never let it go. I had to solve it."

Learning Styles in Engineering Students
Discovering Mathematical Talent
Cognitive Profiles of Mathematical Precocity
Interhemispheric Interaction in Mathematically Gifted Adolescents pdf
Developing Mathematical talent
Parental roles of mathematically gifted students pdf
Aha Moments in Math
Riemann Hypothesis
Fermat's Last Theorem
Autism occurs more often in the families of physicists, engineers, and mathematicians pdf
Education of a Mathematician

Cradles of Eminence?

“But if they’re out of a diaper and can sit still with a Kumon instructor for 15 minutes, we will take them.” - Joseph Nativo, CFO Kumon North America

"In homes that cradle eminence, there are strong tendencies to build directly on personal strengths, talents and aims, rather than to assume that there is a large, specific body of knowledge that everyone should possess. A family, or some member of the family, is likely to take off wholeheartedly on a course of investigation or action that differs from one's contemporaries." - Victor and Mildred Goertzel, Cradles of Eminence

In Fast Tracking Kindergarten, we hear of the burgeoning trend of preschoolers attending Junior Kumon or Junior Kumon-like classes, doing reading and math drills.  What's wrong with this picture? 

One can think of the short term advantages that Kumon preparation might have - faster retrieval of math facts, quicker decoding of pages, and better admissions prospects to exclusive private schools, but, but...

If you really learn more about the childhoods of men and women who would late  become eminent, the common factors were more that they were allowed to do what they wanted to do and immerse themselves in whatever interesting subject or idea struck them at the time. It looks very different from this scheduled routine of Junior Kumon, karate classes, and after preschool tutoring all before the age of 7. 

From Deidre Lovecky:

"Many exceptionally gifted children learn in a non-linear manner in which they take in large amounts of information and integrate it into an underlying big picture. Zachery, for example, at age 7, was interested in Egyptian hieroglyphics and computers; he attempted to use computer language to study other types of language... Feldman (1986) described the learning style of Adam as both nonlinear and omnivorous in his desire for knowledge. His style is further described as being "non-Western" and untraditional so that a regular school program did not work for him. Adam grasped concepts holistically and intuitively. Once he acquired the basic framework, he filled in the particulars. His parents thought he first developed theory, then learned basic facts and skills. Later, he questioned basic assumptions about theory. Adam had a number of ongoing interests which he explored at increasing levels of complexity including symbol systems (cartography and languages), music, science and mathematics."

You don't have time to do all this if all your free time is spent in sequential and rote activities. 

In fact, many research studies into the early lives of gifted individuals show that growing up on a farm or long periods of time with unstructured play were part-and-parcel of their childhoods. Children who haven't yet learned how to add and subtract or even read, can learn by asking questions of their parents or anyone more knowledgeable, and by experiencing and testing out new ideas or phenomena directly.

From Goertzel and Hansen, 

"The freedom to follow paths that are non-traditional is important if one is to learn to be independent in thought and action. Parents and educators can perhaps help best by encouraging young people to explore their options and make the most of available resources as they follow their own muse wherever it leads them."

There are many pressures confronting today's parents to conform and adopt a heavily systematized advanced education, but also something irreplaceable about some of simple pleasures of under-schedulization and time for self-discovery in childhood.

Psychology of Avatars and Virtual Experiences

In the burgeoning field of virtual psychology, researchers are finding out that they ways people act in their virtual selves is similar to real life. Social interactions, ranging from interpersonal body space to group influences in virtual worlds seem  pretty much the same as in real life (see Get a second life).

But the converse can also be true - when an avatar goes through or how he or she changes can also affect how players perceive themselves. Sometimes this would seem for the good - for instance in Psychology of Avatars, researchers describe the work of Stanford psychologists Yee and Bailenson who found that players implanted into the body of a senior citizen reduced their negative stereotypes toward the elderly significantly. This same group also found that players with taller avatars seemed to have greater confidence and those with attractive avatars were more likely to walk closer to and talk to new acquaintances.

The implications abound for children or adults who may be playing for hours in online virtual environments.  What your avatars does or experiences can affect you.

Obviously there can be positive effects of positive virtual characters and environments, and there is reason to believe that children would be just as susceptible (if not more) to these positive projections than adults. For instance, studies have shown that children who are very afraid of dogs can greatly reduce their fear after watching a film clip of a child happily playing with a dog (Bandura and Menlove, 1968).  After only 4 days of watching the film, more than half of the children we were willing to play in a pen with a dog while everyone else left the room.

The military is even investigating how positive psychology and team-fostering experiences in virtual environments can promote real-life changes in attitude and character here.

But what of a 'negative' avatar who is aggressive or exhibits risky behavior? Playing in virtual life may not be a harmless activity at all. For more on this, check out Negative avatars can prime antisocial thoughts.

Proteus Effect - How Avatar Changes Online Behavior

Creative Minds are More Eccentric

From Scientific American Mind and Dr. Shelley Carson: "The incidence of strange behavior by highly creative individuals seems too extensive to be the result of mere coincidence. As far back as ancient Greece, both Plato and Aristotle made comments about the peculiar behavior of poets and playwrights...Albert Einstein picked up cigarette butts off the street to get tobacco for his pipe; Howard Hughes spent entire days on a chair in the middle of the supposedly germ-free zone of his Beverly Hills Hotel suite; the composer Robert Schumann believed that his musical compositions were dictated to him by Beethoven and other deceased luminaries from their tombs; and Charles Dickens is said to have fended off imaginary urchins with his umbrella as he walked the streets of London. More recently, we have seen Michael Jackson’s preoccupation with rhinoplasty, Salvador Dalí’s affection for dangerous pets and the Icelandic singer Björk dressed for the Oscars as a swan."

The biology discussed in the article mentions several interesting and different lines of research - some of the research involving diffuse attention and lifetime creative achievement, but also 'inner world' thinking she relates to cognitive filtering:

"Reduced cognitive filtering could explain the tendency of highly creative people to focus intensely on the content of their inner world at the expense of social or even self-care needs. (Beethoven, for example, had difficulty tending to his own cleanliness.) When conscious awareness is overpopulated with unusual and unfiltered stimuli, it is difficult not to focus attention on that inner universe."

Almost sounds like sensory processing dysfunction. Children and adults with sensory processing overload may seem oblivious to social or self-care needs, but they are often very sensitive to other stimuli or experiences. In truth, there are a great deal of overlaps between sensory processing checklists and checkslists for Dabrowski's Over-excitabilities.

Other biological studies mentioned in the article were were EEG studies which found more alpha waves among the highly creative, and schizotypal and D2 receptor studies which also raise associations with psychosis and ADD.

The article ends on kind of an upbeat suggesting that "the plight of square pegs may be improving." At least creativity seems to be sought-after in the business world. Now if only the same could be true in schools (for more on this, see Creativity Asset or Burden in the Classroom?)