Is Novelty-Seeking a Bad Thing?

"The thing that doesn't fit is the thing that's most interesting" - Richard Feynman

When we hear parents or teachers lament about 'novelty-seeking' it seems like definitely unwanted trait. What are the bad things we think about novelty-seeking? High risk behaviors? Undesireable Experimentation? The dark side of ADHD?

But this is not a balance view of novelty. Novelty-seeking is wired into certain ways that we learn. And for some people, it may be their preferred way of learning. In the linked papers below, the anatomy of 'novelty seeking' does not suggest that novelty seeking results from the loss of restraint or deficiency in some brain function. Rather, there are special areas of brain that preferentially respond to novelty, and these areas interestingly are centers for personal or autobiographical memory and multisensory (sight, hearing, touch, etc.) experience.

So a novel experience that can help us in problem solving, is one that is very different from our experience. It something that can help use reexamine our assumptions, reframe our questions, or completely change our point-of-view. In this way, the novelty learning preference is more alligned to inductive learning (generating the principle from the novel example) and hands-on learning.

Needless to say, this is not the dominant style of teaching in the K-12 classroom. For children who seem to strongly prefer novelty-learning, though, it might well be worthwhile considering whether a different educational format is really what is needed to teach them in the way they want to learn.

Multisensory Novelty Regions
Novelty Seeking and Medial Temporal Lobe
IngentaConnect Novelty Seeking and Reward: Impli...the Study of High-Risk Behaviors

Virtual vs. Real People? The Brain Can Tell

Real movies of humans vs. virtual movies of humans activate different brain pathways - at least in this study. Here researchers found that the 'anime humans' activated imagery areas, so they were recognized to some extent as 'unreal'. Wonder if that would hold true for CGI?

Virtual vs Real

Understanding the Connectivity Theory and Autism

There are many lines of evidence that many of the cognitive and behavioral difficulties associated with autism are due changes in the connectivity of brain areas. As a result, children or adults with autism have problems with activities that require the coordination of multiple brain areas (imagery) or flexible understanding (multiple representations) or spoken language.

In this paper from Stanford, the discussion is on "underconnectivity", but "overconnectivity" occurs in other systems resulting in overlod or hypersensitivities. From the paper:"The underconnectivity framework can account for the social symptoms of autism. Social interactions place large (if not the largest) demands on information integration. This model attributes social abnormalities in autism to a deficit in integrative processing. Abnormalities may arise in integrating the perceptual and affective processing of social stimuli such as face affect and prosody with language iwht the concurrent theory of mind processing to determine the social partner's intentions."

In the figures below, see the difference in the extent of brain activation with sentence comprehension. Also, when many brain areas are compared, high function autistic subjects had much lower levels of connectivity, at least as measured by activation on fMRI.

An interesting side note was that autistic subjects appeared able to answer sentence comprehension questions more rapidly, though less accurately especially when sentence structure was more demanding. More errors were noted with passive voice sentences like: "The editor was saved by the secretary" than "The cook thanked the father."

Underconnectivity and Autism (pdf file)

When Quiet Kids Get Forgotten in Class

Came across this article by accident, and it gave us the excuse to share some other introverted / shy child links.

When quiet kids get forgotten in class
Introverted Children in Extroverted Schools
GDC On Introversion
Activities Where Your Introverted Child Can Win
Introverted Child
The Shy Child
Working with Shy or Withdrawn Students
Social Skills and School

Increase the Challenge, Increase the Attention

Here's a nice research review of selective attention in Trends in Cognitive Neuroscience. Here's one interesting finding:

Older adults and younger school age children had problems with focus at low levels of 'visual challenge' (the task was to hunt for a letter in the setting of side distracting letter). When the task was made more challenging (centrally distracting letters), both the older and younger subjects performed better!

Think about this. This means that a significant component of visual distractibility is under cognitive control. For the school age child or older adult, hard is easy, and easy is hard. Maybe this should not be as counterintuitive as thought though. When are you most likely to doze off or daydream in a lecture - when you know most of the material and it all looks too elementary? or when you're presented with an intellectual challenge?

It also suggests that it might be wise to not be dismissive of age-related attention-focusing problems. There may be a lot to work with...

Perceptual Load and Attention

Flashes from the Past: "He had as many as three or four epileptic spells a day..."

He had as many as three or four epileptic spells a day, and also had frequent attacks of asthma. Tutored at home by his older sister, he didn't attend school until he was 11 years old. He loved writing poetry at an early age and also found he had a talent for drawing. In a letter to his sister at age 14, he was already making up words. The letter started "Dear, and very dear relation, Time who flies without cessation"...The letter goes on to include words like "deliquation", "obtrectation", and "refulerlation".

Who was this? This was the remarkable Edward Lear - author of Nonsense Poems and Sketches, and an impressive landscape artist in his own right until he gave it up because of partial blindness. Edward Lear had a truly remarkable life, and if your children love his limericks, check out the kids' biography: "Edward Lear, King of Nonsense", written by Gloria Kamen (1990).

There was a Young Lady whose chin,
Resembled the point of a pin;
So she had it made sharp,
And purchased a harp,
And played several tunes with her chin.

Edward Lear

The Joy of Teaching Kid Geeks

At the library, this book title caught our eye: Leading Geeks. As it turned out, there are many pearls in here for kid geek teachers and their parents.

There is culture war in classrooms across the country, pitting pint-sized prodigies against eager, but bewildered early elementary school educators. At times the battleground looks grim, but rapprochement is possible, provided attempts are made to bridge the cultural divide.

Many geek parents will recognize that their kids are a somewhat a chip off the old block. Culturally "insensitive" or ignorant teachers may brand these children simply as "rude", "oppositional-defiant", "arrogant", "conceited", "socially inept", "ADHD", or "Asperger-ish". But conventional teachers and these kids come from different worlds with different value systems, habits and customs, and beliefs.

Check out these geek definitions and observations from Paul Glen (a self-avowed geek and now geek management guru):

Definition: "Geeks are the people who deliver technological innovation."

Early Success: "They tend to be drawn to computers at an early age...They are rewarded early in life for their aptitudes and demonstrations...Many geeks as a result retain a somewhat childlike outlook on the world, for better and worse. It shows iteself in their curiosity and playfulness. But it can also show in insensitivity, lack of self-awareness, and condescension."

Life of the Mind: "Geeks love intellectual activities. The engagement of knowledge, creativity, and logic is a lifelong pursuit for them."

Smart People: "Geeks share a reverence for smart people...They hold those with creativity, knowledge, ideas, and the ability to apply them in very high esteem."

Power and Loyalty: Power and Loyalty are "useless with Geeks"...and although "most geeks are relatively timid and quiet people, scratch the surface, and you will find a strong rebellious streak."

Does this sound a little familiar? The following take-home messages of Glen's seem to particularly resonate:

For Leaders of Geeks, or Teachers:

- Make Their Work Meaningful - this may involve reframing reality into their value structure
- Turn Projects into a Game with Defined Goals
- Some External Competition May Be Fine
- Surround with Skillful or Intelligent Peers, Be Intelligent Yourself
- Encourage Interdependence Between Groups
- Include in Decision Making
- Understand the Problem Solving Thinking Style of Geeks - Solving a Problem Helps Organize Their Ideas
- Fight Against Doubt and Dissonance
- Be Consistent
- Do Not Monitor Excessively
- Show Interest
- Offer Free Food Intermittently
- Avoid Artificial or Fluctuating Deadlines
- Insulate and Protect Geeks
- Help Acquire and Provide Resources, Perspective, and Meaning regarding their Work

The truth is, being a teacher or leader of kid geeks is a very exciting and fulfilling job, just like for the grownup versions. But being a great kid geek leader or teacher means understanding that your role, context, and relationship in your job are very different than in the non-geek world.

Brain Break: Guess the Google

This will get your visual associational areas throbbing- play this game by looking at visual images retrieved from Google searches, and guessing what keyword they have in common.


Problem Solving & the WASL - Should We Be Loving It?

Washington state students just finished their WASL testing week, and now students, parents, teachers, and school administrators will await the results. Don't expect dramatic changes.

In Washington state, the WASL is a great experiment - a different sort of test that designed to assess applied and critical thinking, and problem solving - all good things, the problem is, the state is scrambling, because this test doesn't seem to be testing the way most students have learned.

The situation is dire: only 32% Washington state students passed the Math section of the WASL (needed for a high school diploma in 2010), and for African-American students, the pass rate has only been 16%.

So what is going on here? And what are these test questions that two-thirds of high school students are failing?

OSPI released one-third of WASL test questions, to give students, teachers, and parents a look at what the WASL is (some cynics thinking a ninth-inning effort to improve scores), but the types of questions are somewhat surprising. Here's one:

The question is: How many spheres will balance one cube?

Apparently only 41% of 10th graders got this one right. It's a little funny isn't it? Not exactly technically hard in the sense of trying to remember formula you crammed in your head in high school, but not a 'cinch' either. We provided our solution in the next post. The funny thing was, we gave the question to our dyscalculic 10 year old (math facts memory problems), and he solved it pretty easily. It doesn't require math facts or multiple calculation steps. It just requires reasoning and problem solving. Hmmm. Maybe that's why all the excitement over this new test.

There are 'good' things in this WASL (there are bad things too - especially for LD students - but we'll tackle that another day), among them: the requirement to reframe data, to translate between words, numbers, and pictoral representations, to critique data or methods, to select essential features, to prioritize strategies for solving problems, thinking logically, and convert real world examples into mathematical equations.

The task before Washington state schools is not an easy one. Problem-solving is an excellent focus for education, it just seems like students and teachers have to make up a lot of ground. And the deadlines for graduation are coming up fast.

Because this post is getting long, we'll try and tackle some of the nuts and bolts and roadblocks to the solving of problems in the near future. We think problem solving instruction should consider individual learning strengths and preferences, and students (and teachers) should be given the opportunity to learn how they prefer or don't prefer to solve problems. In our practice, we have seen that many people with very strong learning styles have special difficulty learning to solve problems different ways. Problem solving is not like rote memorization. If the WASL is really to be the test to beat, then a very different style of instruction needs to come to the classroom.

Taking the WASL
10th Grade Sample Questions pdf file

One Answer to 10th Grade WASL Problem

There are different ways to solve this problem, but this is the way our 4th grade son tackled it. He simplified the equations by taking the same shapes off each side. The only part that was a little bit tricky was recognizing that he had two different equations that were equal to one cube.

Look back at the Seattle P-I article link below. The critique of Ingraham High's Math Chair seems a bit shakey: "students don't normally see three variables in an equation until junior year." This question required basic math reasoning ability, but no higher math concepts.

Reading Emails Lower Your IQ?

Dr. Glenn Wilson of Kings College, London, has found that adult workers who compulsively check their email are more likely to be distractible and sleep-deprived, and drop their IQ by 10 points. 62% of people checked work-related email at home or when they were on holiday ( that supposed to be bad?). The group concluded that although technology can help productivity, workers needed to learn to turn off computer and phones.

The main problem with this soundbyte research result is that no paper is available to review (at least that we've been able to find- let us know if you find anything). It looks like it's from a study was commissioned by Hewlett Packard and Dr. Wilson's webpage describes his area as 'psychology and work productivity.' Is this result supposed to be a reason a corporation will develop a policy of reducing access to email? To be fair, we noticed some work productivity gurus have posted organizational tips that include turning off your email arrival beep, so some people have already noticed its distracting influence.

But we would like to see the data. Were two IQ tests done over a short span of time? (that's a no-no) Did individual workers' IQs actually drop? or were comparison groups just different by 10 points (nominal)? Who did they look at anyway? Office workers? computer programmers? Middle managers? Top Execs? Probably there wasn't any way to blind the study. It also sounded a little dubious that the study suggested email was worse than marijuana use. Maybe marijuana users didn't feel inclined to confess their use to administrators of an employer-funded research study?

Don't put your mail on vacation hold yet!

Guardian Unlimited | Online | Emails 'pose threat to IQ'
Why texting harms your IQ - Personal Tech - Times Online
Organization Tips (including how to ignore constantly checking your email)

Visual Perception, Visual Imagination, and Cognitive Control

Imagery and imagination, fantasy, and magical thinking are powerful influences for many people throughout the life cycle, but among children, they may be particularly rampant, and not limited to storytime, planned imaginary exercises, or periods of creative play. We frequently underestimate these forces at work when children try to make sense of events, make decisions, and have strong emotional feelings. There are some interesting readings here on imagination - both its biology and its influences among children.

In the figure below, we share reduced figures from Kosslyn's group - to show you how much brain is activated with visual imagination and perception (largely overlapping, but some differences)- which means a lot of work and potential for exhaustion. It's also interesting to see that when imagination is activated in adults, it is not just a passive reviewing of previously seen images, but rather an active process managed by cognitive control areas (frontal). Check out the full length report at the link below.

Vivid imagination and personal imagery can lead to all sort of good things for creative processes and decision-making, but they may also lead to confused reality (false memories), distraction, and isolation. In hospitals, clinical groups have used visualization approaches and self-hypnosis to alleviate fear of painful or uncomfortable procedures. Maybe we should think about how to encouraged 'controlled' or 'focused' imagination so children reap more benefits than harm?

Children's emotional and mood disorders are receiving a great deal of attention from pharmaceutical companies, but we would like to see more imagery work and cognitive therapy to teach children more cognitive control. Biofeedback does tend to be more effective in children than adults - perhaps children's rich imaginative lives can help fuel positive and calming imagery?

Imagination Benefits
HGSE News: Who Needs Imagination? Paul Harris
Visual Perception and Visual Imagination

Testosterone, Men, Women, and Mental Rotation

Various studies have shown that in general, men fare better than the ladies on spatial rotation tasks. Here Kossalyn's group takes a stab at seeing whether salivary testosterone levels could account for better performances. The results were a bit surprising. This was clearly exploratory work, but the higher 'T' subjects apparently had lower error rates and faster responses, suggesting the possibility that greater precision and speed of decision making, rather than spatial ability accounted for the differences.

Testosterone, Men, Women, and Mental Rotation

Internet Archive: Wayback Machine

The Wayback Machine is a way to quickly look how far we've come on the Internet. Check out the Web Pioneers (the earliest Yahoo or sites). Our kids laughed at how simple the sites looked.
Internet Archive: Wayback Machine

Noise, Noise Noise, Noise - Protect the Ears

It's easier than you might think to develop noise-induced hearing loss. Even short brief very loud noises can cause cause permanent damage to delicate hair cells. The danger zone is about 80 dB, but even lower levels can cause damage if its continuous. Warning signs include temporary shifts in hearing, ringing or buzzing in the ear, difficulty hearing in noise, and symptoms of hypersensitivity along with hyposensitivity (when one area of frequency gets lost, neighboring frequencies may become more sensitive).

The pictures below are from Chang and Merzenich, showing how white noise in young rats caused disorganized patterns in the auditory cortex. They also found that providing low level structured sounds as adults corrected some of the abnormality, so look for more interesting auditory training approaches for humans in the future.

1/3 of Americans with hearing loss have their loss from noise. Some rock bands have caught on (Quiet Concert), but there are also obvious dangers from listening to music on headphones (at level 5, 100 dB - can damage after just 15 minutes per day), Barbie CD player on high(84-114 dB), NICUs (neonatal ICUS) 80 dB, Game arcades 115 dB. The entertainment industry needs to jump on the wagon too.

Chang and Merzenich paper
Noise-induced hearing loss
Noise Rewires the Brain
Loud rock music, Baby Boomers, Hearing Aids
CBC News: Noisy toys damaging kids' hearing
HRQ Noise
Noise-Induced Injury in NICU Kids

Look at Vision Rehabilitation: The Developmental Optometrists Were Right!

There is now a surge in well-controlled studies showing the scientific benefits of vision therapy and visual rehabilitaion. Although therapies involve eye movements, improvements occur in the 'seeing' parts of the brain. Some physicians will now have to eat their hat. In an unfortunate 1998 Joint Statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus, and American Academy of Ophthalmology, vision therapy was largely poo-poo'ed (they thought no problem with the eyes), but as a result many patients (including children) have been denied access to helpful therapies because their insurance plans didn't cover it.

Medical insurance companies will hopefully respond quickly to the flood of new research studies. The latest research paper in JAMA about the visual acuity correction of older children with amblyopia may help:

That study revealed that older children (age 13 through 17 years) even benefit from eye patching and vision therapy. It makes sense of course - because of the degree of plasticity that can be induced in adults in other brain resgions. Said Dr. Sieving, Director of the NEI, this latest study is “a wonderful example of the adaptability of the human visual system and brain."

Lazy Eye: Older Children Can Benefit From Treatment
Joint Statement 1998
Therapy to Correct Amblyopia
Vision Restoration Therapy
Review of Efficacy of Eye Exercises
Vision Restoration Therapy
Correction of Visual Field Defects with Therapy

Generation M: Report on Kids & Multimedia

Interesting reading - Some highlights:

TV or video console in the bedroom looks like a bad results in more TV watching or video game playing and less reading.

Heavy video game use does not mean less reading - in fact heavy game players seemed to read more and spend more time with their parents (see full report for details of this)- but there seem to be some mixed results. Children with the poorest grades, had the lowest times spent reading (no surprise), but also spent more time each day playing video games.

Other interesting info one-quarter of these kids reported that they often multi-tasked while using media (listening to music, watching TV, etc.), and girls preferred music (auditory), whereas boys preferred video games (visual, hands-on).

CBS News | Kids Today: Media Multitaskers
Study of Entertainment Media & the Internet - Kaiser Family Foundation

Baron-Cohen Interview at The Edge - "Hyper-Male" Theory of Autism

Interesting discussion (blog-like, with some dissent) at The Edge (HT:Mind Hacks). We aren't familiar with the this research area, but it seems like a stretch. Baron-Cohen has done some other excellent research in autism though.

Online Animated Phonetics

Here's a nifty site we came across from the U of Iowa. It has free 'movies' that show the mouth movements for certain sounds. See how sounds are pronounced can be very helpful for some with dyslexia and other auditory processing disorders. The site can also be translated into Spanish.

Phonetics: The Sounds of English and Spanish - The University of Iowa

Growing Up and Growing Down - fMRI Changes with Age

Isn't this interesting, school-aged children had very different patterns from adults while listening and watching, and generating words. Interestingly, correlating brain activations with age showed that some areas of brain appear to grow up (more activated), whereas other areas seemed to grow down (less activated) as we get older. Maybe some of that is good, and some of that bad? Either way, parents and teachers probably experience learning very different from children. For those right brain-left brain fans, looks like a little more right brain action in kids.

Remember, fMRI only shows you differences in anatomical activation, not causes or mechanisms, but its helpful to remember reciprocal changes - some of the changes with age are likely for the better (cognitive control), but are does our visual experience dim with age?

The truth is, the whole thing is rather complex. Say the authors: "It would appear, then, that there is no simple mapping of maturational effects onto broad brain regions, such as the mere 'coming online' of left frontal cortex. Instead, task-specific developmental changes appear to occur in a complex functional mosaic."

Hmmm. Guess that means beware simplistic 'hypofrontal' views of children or teens, or "ADD" for that matter. We also probably need to think more about children perceive and organize information.

Word Generation in Children and Adults

Computer-generated Paper Accepted to Scientific Conference

These MIT students made a computer-based paper generator that got accepted at a scientific meeting. The Rooter paper begins: "Many scholars would agree that, had it not been for active networks, the simulation of Lamport clocks might never have occurred. The notion that end-users synchronize with the investigation of markov models is rarely outdated..."

Good grammar was all that was needed to make the grade (the conference organizers have since rescinded the invitation since finding out about the mechanical fraud). The areas important for semantic sense and real word sense (is it true?) appear to be located in about the same location in the brain, but physiological tests can tell the difference. Maybe a physiological machine would have done a better job figuring out if the paper made sense?

Rooter Paper
MIT students pull prank on conference
Different Brain Areas for Being Understandable and Making Sense>

Da Vinci's Notebook

Check out Da Vinci's Notebook at this site at the British Museum (need Shockwave). It's beautiful. Maybe it's more what our lab notebooks should look like. Trash the graph paper and draw more.

Da Vinci's Notebook

Learning from Bad Examples

In James Adams' book Conceptual Blockbusting, he tells of an engineer whose style of solving difficult design problems was to first create a terrible awkward design. He'd bring it around to everyone he knew then listen patiently as his colleagues unloaded on him criticisms they had with his model. He then pooled all these fresh ideas, so that when the deadline came, he had a great finished product.

This is a clever way to get others to solve ones' problems, but the paper below also suggests that it be a strategic approach to get more R hemispheric contributions to problem solving.

The left prefrontal cortex is often associated with what most people think of as conscious logical reasoning or problem solving. The right prefrontal cortex is a bit different. It gets activated most by a "bad example".

In the figure below, the right prefrontal cortex was more juiced by poor analogies than good ones. Negative selection, some might say.

The Bad Example should not be forgotten as a possible 'trick' to use when stumped for ideas or drawing a blank for writing. The answers are not always found in thinking harder, but rather going away from the problem or adopting a bad example.

If we are trying to help students who are paralyzed by an empty page or blinking cursor, maybe we shouldn't spoonfeed them with possibilities (why don't you choose one?), but rather give them ideas they won't want - and then see what they come up with themselves. Maybe this jazzes up their amygdalas (disgust?) so that strong words and ideas flow out.

Recently our son really experienced this phenomena when he 'hit a wall' in his RPG Creator class. He needed to be frustrated by the lack of flexibility in the program and crudeness of game play to organize his ideas about what he wanted to make in a game he could design himself.

Analogies and Semantic Associations

Inquiry-Based Science Resource

We came across this very nice report (24 pages, pdf) from the American Museum of Natural History that on Inquiry-Based Science Learning. It provides specific examples of how to model questions, pose scenarios, and stimulate reflection and critique.
Inquiry-Based Science Resource pdf

The Perils of Giftedness or Confronting the Emma Dilemma

In Jane Austen's Emma, an intelligent, but sharp-tongued heroine gets her come-uppance after she lets slip a witty but mean remark, that is noticed by her close friend and confidant, Mr. Knightly:" How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?-- Emma, I had not thought it possible." Emma recollected, blushed, was sorry... tried to laugh it off... (but) as she reflected more, she seemed but to feel it more..."

Many gifted people are vulnerable to the Emma Dilemma, and the young perhaps more so because they are frequently underestimated and limited in the world of adults as well as in formal education. Even fairly young gifted children soon learn they have intellectual power, and interactions with the world teach them that others are slow and may even be foolish. Intellectual sharpness is a gift, but it can also be a weapon.

Leta Hollingworth in her study of profoundly gifted children in the book Children Above 180 IQ concluded: "Of all the special problems of general conduct which the most intelligent children face, I will mention five, which beset them in early years and may lead to habits subversive of fine leadership:

(1) to find enough hard and interesting work at school; (2) to suffer fools gladly; (3) to keep from becoming negativistic toward authority; (4) to keep from becoming hermits; (5) to avoid the formation of habits of extreme chicanery.

In truth, intellectual precocity can create all sorts of mischief and misbehaviors. We all would do well to remember that being 'smart' doesn't necessarily mean 'wise'. In fact, having advanced abilities puts some children and greater temptation for arrogance, Machiavellianism, and trickery. If parents don't consciously teach and encourage their children in the moral leadership, or the importance of forbearance, self-reflection and critique, generosity, and personal integrity, then they are teaching them that these qualities are unimportant.

It is not always easy teaching these traits with intellectually restless and independent-minded children, but it helps to start early. Books that we've found helpful along the way have included reading biographies of intelligent and good famous people, Teaching Your Children Sensitivity, 'Acts of Kindness' books, and of course modeling and discussing acts of kindness as they happen.

Note Taking, Da Vinci, and the Cornell Method

Note taking is a complicated process that requires listening, seeing, writing, and abstraction. When a lot of information is being presented, it's impossible to take everything down, so you must select and prioritize - and that is the essence of good note taking.

Some prefer words and some prefer pictures, but Da Vinci and inventors prefer both. The first link below compares Da Vinci's sketchbooks to the 'Cornell method' of taking notes in two columns - with key words on one side and explanations and drawings on the other.

Some people naturally know how to extract the most essential details in a lecture, but many need to be taught. If you know a student who is falling behind in a class, take a look at their notes. Do they know what to select? Are they identify the essential information?

Taking notes with words and pictures is not only for remembering what others have told you. Many people use Cornell approaches for think their way through problems, reviewing the data 'in hand' and then generating alternative perspectives.

Drawing to help you think through your own problems and drawing to communicate with others are two different skills. We should encourage children to think with their writing or drawing early on as it could help them their whole lives long. Check out the last paper below which investigated the ways new ideas were 'hidden' in
an architect's sketches. By doodling and turning around the pictures on paper, he became more aware of different visual characteristics, visual spatial relationships, and perceptual assumptions.

Da Vinci and Cornell Notes
The Cornell Note Taking System
Hidden Discoveries in Design Sketches

Flashes from the Past: "Sickly as a child, he wasn't able to eat solid food until he was five years old..."

Sickly as a child, he wasn't able to eat solid food until he was five years old. Because of health problems, he was schooled at home, but that was also where he learned to play golf..." It was at the age of 6, he won his first tournament, at 9, he defeated a 16 year old to win the Atlanta Junior Title, and soon he was on his way to becoming the greatest champion golf had ever seen.

This was Bobby Jones who won the U.S. and British Open and amateur Championships all in the same year, and the first to win the Grand Slam in one year. Amazingly, he amassed this record while playing mo more than an average weekend golfer. He usually spent no more than three months of the year traveling to tournaments, and in the mean time obtained first class honors degrees in Law, English Literature, and Mechanical Engineering. He graduated from Georgia Tech and Harvard, and practiced as a lawyer after retiring.

Bobby Jones' story is a remarkable one, and it is also told pretty well in the recent movie Bobby Jones, Stroke of Genius. The neurological problems get only brief mention in the movie (it turned out to be syringomyelia, a spinal cord problem), but Jones' victory over perfectionism, intensity, and an 'explosive' temper on the golf course is told masterfully. BJ is an inspirational '2E' story. If you want to see Jones' legendary golf swing, one of the links below has it on video.

Bobby Jones
Movies: Bobby Jones, Stroke of Genius
Bobby Jones Golf Swing

More on the Complexity of Attention

The more we learn about the complex process of attention, the more we know that behavioral checklist-diagnoses of children for ADD and ADHD is not the answer. When children aren't paying attention in class, the possibilities are as complex as the brain itself - for some children it does seem to be a global impaired sustained attention, but for others it is auditory attention only or visual attention only, problems with visual or auditory perception (or both!), problems with shifting attention, or problems with feature-based attention. Feature-based attention is the topic of the link below. In this study, both frontal and parietal (spatial cortex, a place where sensory inputs integrate, images too)areas were important, but the parietal lobe especially for selecting the task-relevant feature and ignoring details not relevant to the task. The task here was a visual sorting task involving number estimation.

Figuring out the true nature of "what it takes to attend" is essential before we are really able to go about troubleshooting it. In children particularly, pathways and connections are actively forming. "Training the brain" is really just understanding what specific tasks the brain has trouble with, and matching the right targeted practice or education to build connections.

Feature-Based Attention

Secrets of Visual Thinking: Looking Closely

Here's a lovely spring photograph from the Flower Log (HT: G is for Good, H is for Happy).

Because our brains become easily swamped by visual information, the practice of looking slowly and closely is one of the most powerful tools of inventors, artists, scientists, and other creative people.

In some circles, visual learning is equated with immersive learning from pictures, movies, computers, and the like. But remember the problem of saturation. To look closely, we may have to slow way down, change our perspective, and develop a relationship. To see 'more', we may have to see 'less'. From Georgia O'Keefe: "Still-in a way-nobody sees a flower- really- it is so small- we haven't the time- and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time."

Or Leonardo Da Vinci reminds us: "There are three classes of people: those who see, those who see when they are shown, and those who do not see."

Understanding Biology through Design

We liked this article Life's Top 10 Greatest Inventions because it looked at nature through the eyes of a Designer. Science teaching often covers topics like the Scientific Method in great detail, but neglects skills like pattern recognition, analogy, and design, the most common tools of scientific or other discovery.

New Scientist Features - Life's Top 10 Greatest Inventions

Easing Up on NCLB Law

Signs of flexibility regarding Federal expectations for No Child Left Behind. The Education Secretary squeaked up the percentage (now 2%)of students with significant disabilities who don't have to keep the same pace for 'meeting standards', and stated the emphasis will be on making sure schools show progress.

Secretary Spellings Announces More Workable, "Common Sense" Approach To No Child Left Behind Law

Vivid Autobiographical Memory

What experiences are the most memorable? Experiences that are novel, emotionally or personally moving, or evoke strong sensory or imagery responses. Too much results in saturation though, lowering the likelihood remembered. Music, words, images, and stories are powerful activators of memory, perhaps why long ballads became such a popular route for passing down information between families and generations. Read more about this in the Rubin articles below.

The second link also talks about traumatic and 'flashbulb' memories (vivid memories of important public events), and how different aspects can be vividly remembered or forgotten - for instance context and situation, or the central events themselves.

The figure below shows the unusual 'memory bump'. Apparently experiences at ages 10-20 seem to be remembered particularly well.

An interest in sensory perception and experience is behind Sony's recent patenting of a machine that at least theoretically would use transcranial magnetic stimulation to directly activate the brain's sensory areas. Could this be more real than reality?

Vivid Autobiographical Memory
Autobiographical Memory
Sony patents sensory perception beam - Engadget -
Music Helps Memory for Words, and Words Help Memory for Music

Mathematician Brothers Solve Unicorn Tapestry Puzzle

More evidence promoting the switching of domains and creativity.

Mathematicians and the Unicorn Tapestry

More Visual Learning or How To Avoid Failure in the First Grade

Most professionals working with school aged children know that some grades are more challenging than others. First grade is one of them, especially for boys - for various reasons, delays (compared to girls) in writing and often the need to be more physically active. Now there's a third reason - auditory working memory.

As we look at the higher rates of boys being referred for attention deficit disorder and learning disabilities, we have to come to grips with the reality that many traditional early elementary school classrooms may be 'out-of-sync' with the developmental and learning styles of boys. Are there really up to 9 times as many boys with a diagnosis of ADD, or are they victims of a classroom model that is not designed for them?

Check out the link below. It's a Finnish study of 'normal' school aged children from a high socioeconomic are. At ages 6-8, both boys and girls had an easier time keeping visual information in mind compared to auditory, but boys had much higher error rates than girls.

This study found that in normal unselected 6-8 year old boys visual working memory was much more reliable than auditory. With time (up to age 13)and no specific intervention, these differences tended to diminish, so the authors conclude that boys just tend to mature auditory memory pathways a little later than girls. In fact, visual teaching looked like it could be a more efficient strategy for instruction than auditory even by age 11-13. In fact, the authors noted that "children aged 11-13 yrs performed visual 1-back and 2-back tasks almost at the level reported previously for adults," although "the corresponding auditory tasks clearly below the adult level."

We have seen this general trend in our clinical population. It might also explain the reported paradoxical 'hyperfocus' of ADD children, which usually occurs in the setting of visual activities like computer games. The second link below is to a previous post which showed that children used their visual cortex to keep words in mind in contrast to adults who use their frontal regions.

Perhaps our ideas for education have been biased by perceptual differences in how many of us grownups prefer to learn.

Auditory Learning Takes Longer to Mature - pdf file
Visual Learning as Kaleidoscope

Google Maps- Spatial Thinking Practice

Always getting lost? If so, then practice your route and spatial knowledge with Google Maps. Although we may all have the capacity to navigate in our surroundings with landmarks, route, and survey or aerial view information, some of us are a lot better at this than others. Besides being a fun site to visit, the Google maps site is a powerful resource for kids or adults to work on spatial orientation practice.

Many people who 'always seem to be getting lost' may rely too much on landmarks or routes. The main problem with this is that if you take a wrong turn, well.... you know the rest. The superiority of the survey / aerial / satellite view is that it provides an integrated picture of the whole area (i.e. not just the route). The resolution at Google Maps is stunning. You can pick out your house by putting in your address.

Google Sightseeing
Google Maps -Disneyland
Landmark, Route, and Survey in Navigation

Do You See What I See? - Visual Perceptual Problems

Visual Perceptual difficulties vary widely, although the tools clinicians have to evaluate them are often too simple. Often it's hard to understand what another's visual experience is like, but figuring out pieces of the puzzle can help you troubleshoot when problems arise.

Many kids visual perceptual problems - including, but not limited to some with dyslexia, premature birth, or one of the autism spectrum disorders. Because the eyes are at the front of the head and the visual cortex is at the back of the head, visual information travels a long distance, so there are many spots to goof up the signals.

Here's a recent paper which seems to have figured out the site in the left frontal lobe that becomes activated when the brain decides it's really seeing something.

If you have a child with visual perceptual difficulties, remember that the brain matures a great deal from early childhood into adulthood, and visual perception can improve. The first thing one needs to do is become a visual detective - studying under what conditions visual confusion or overload occurs. Are there environments or handouts that are troublesome? Look for situations where there may be too much movement, visual crowding of details, or problems with lighting, glare, or color. In future posts, we'll talk about strategies to improve visual orientation and discrimination.

Visual Discrimination - "I See It"
Visual Perceptual Changes in Children Abstract
Visual Problems in Young Children
Visual Perception Autism Research
More Visual Perception and Autism
Visual Perception and Dyslexia Research

Blogger is having problems today, hope this goes through.

No, That's What You Said! False Memory in Children

A false memory is a memory that is mistaken, but the patterns of false memories can often be traced to mistakes made when other information was filed. For instance in the example below, if a test subject saw the words 'dream', 'bed', and 'snore', they might later falsely remember that they had seen the word 'sleep'. False memories happen to some people more than others, and they can be increased in times of information overload and emotional distress.

In children, false memory may also present as 'mishearing.' Kindergartners are more likely to have false memories with similar sounding words, and older children (and adults), with words that are related or associated.

False Memory in Children
fMRI and true and false memory
False Memory

Homeschooling to College Article Links

Great links (HT: WSAH List):
Homeschoolers to College Research Shows Us
Admission Officers' Perceptions
Unintended Admission Consequences

VIsual and Motor Imagery- Separate and Together

We've been seeing more interesting research studies looking into the the respective roles of visual and motor (or shall we say sensory-motor?) imagery. Although the full length paper is not freely accessible yet, the punchline for the study is that although visual and motor imagery are tightly coordinated in imagined activities like walking on a narrow plank, they were also distinguishable by difference types of interference (for instance engaging in motor tasks interfere with motor imagery). These results might have implications for the ways we should use imagery, learning environment, and understanding how different kinds of imagery work together.

Considering the importance of imagery to problem solving, it's surprising how little thought is given to its discussion in education. Sport coaches certainly use imagery a great deal, but imagery for sports achievement is different from imagery used for spatial problem solving, scientific or mathematical problem solving, and, get the idea.

Although the numbers are still low, we were intrigued to see so far that 31% of poll respondants solve problems by visual imagery, while 20% are words, 17% symbols, 11%, hands-on. Because for many problem solving is nonverbal process, it might tell us why it can be hard to teach to others.

Visual and Motor ImageryAbstract

The Beauty of Mathematical Proofs

We know there are some math-lovers who visit our blog. This is for you, recently published in the Economist.

Video Games Said to be Effective Learning and Teaching Tools by MIT

We came across this article and found the research paper online. Students who played this video game outperformed classmates who didn't play by 20% in a test of main concepts.

Computer animations may be an ideal format for conveying multistepped and complicated spatial processes. The opportunity for multiple replays and visualization from different perspectives may make the difference for understanding. "For these students, learning science through exploratory activities was uncommon..."

Good computer-based programs may strike a balance between the didactic and exploratory learning. With didactic only, the student does not experience what it is like to be a scientist - and discovery. With exploratory only, students may run the danger of never discovering or drawing the wrong conclusions (the real practice of lab bench science).

The article is an honest article, and it discusses the problems as well as the promise.

Xbox Solution - Video Games Said to be Effective Learning and Teaching Tools by MIT
Supercharged! Paper

Autism: Emotional Responses to Faces vs. Cartoon Characters

In this autistic study from Yale University, researchers found that emotional activation by Digimon characters (at least as measured by the amygdala) was stronger than for familiar faces(controls were non-autistic liking Digimon and autistic with no interest in Digimon).

Problems emotionally responding to familiar and unfamiliar faces create significant social challenges. But like everything else involving the brain, functional differences may vary widely. Some people with fairly severe facial recognition problems can intuit emotions from other senses - including tone of voice or body gesture. Dissecting out the individual differences in recognition and emotional responsiveness will tell us more about amygdala functioning in autism spectrum disorders, and about what variations exist.

In the pictures below, the arrows point to the amygdala. The scans are from the autistic Digimon fan.

In this boy's case, it's even possible that his primary problem may be with visual perception of faces. There are some studies that have shown that some autistic subjects are better able to perceive facial expressions in caricature form than 'in real life' or in photographs. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but it might be that photographs or 'real life' faces are presenting too much visual information that can be taken in at once. Think about how much memory it takes a computer to download a photograph compared to clip art.

This information can be important to know because some can be taught to improve their emotional facial recognition by either a part-to-whole method (start with only a part of the face like the eye brows or mouth, looking at the face bit-by-bit) or by training first with caricatures (less information), moving on to exaggerated black and white photographs, then finally real life.

Differences in Emotional Activation in Autism - Human Faces and Digimon

Too Much TV Makes Kids Bullies

More reasons to turn off the TV and hang out with the kids. Based on a recent report from the University of Washington, 4 year olds who watch more TV a day are much more likely to be bullies. They were less likely to be bullies with good emotional support when young and regular play, reading, and outings with family members.

The TV-bully factor had been reported with older kids, but the surprising result was that it was also present in children this young.

In another link below, almost half of sixth graders surveyed reported being bullied at least once in the last five days. Bullied children were much more likely to report depression and other problems like frequent headaches and stomach aches.

TV Turns Kids into Bullies
Half of Kids Are Bullied, Study Suggests
Health News - Too Much Tube Time Can Turn Kids Into Bullies

Inflection Points: Personal Discoveries that Redirected Children's Lives

If we look back at the childhood histories of innovative people, we often find important events that sparked a lifelong interest. Einstein liked to tell a story about being shown a magnetic compass at the age of 4 or 5 years old. He became fascinated by the fact that an invisible force always directed the needle North, and thought about the need to "something behind things, deeply hidden."

Other inflection points in famous peoples' lives:

“I loved to read and I spent a lot of my time at the public library…one day I found a big book on the table. It was a book of engraved prints after the works of Michelangelo." - August Rodin, Sculptor

"When I was twelve, I contracted measles and was put to bed for two weeks…My father read to me when he came home from the office…The spaces between the shade and the top of the windows in my bedroom served as crude pinholes, and vague images of the outer world were projected on the ceiling. When anyone moved outside to the east, the highly diffuse image would move along to the west above me…My father explained it and I then grasped the theory of the camera lens and why the picture was upside down on the film. He opened his Kodak Bullseye camera, placed a piece of semitransparent paper where the film usually resides, set the shutter on open, pressed the button, and voila- a camera obscura!" - Ansel Adams, Photographer

“…the stomach pains returned, preventing him from attending first grade, and his mother decided to school him at home for the rest of the year…(his mother) read aloud from Ossian, Poe, Wordsworth, Longfellow, and Bryant, among other poets…” - Robert Frost, Poet Laureate

As a child, this boy's parents taught him to think unconventionally: he’d play games over the breakfast table with imaginary numbers (what’s the square root of minus 4?) and make pretend computers out of cardboard boxes and five-hole paper tape. He would later remember “One day I came home from high school, I found my father working on a speech... He was reading books on the brain, looking for clues about how to make a computer intuitive, able to complete connections like as the brain did. We discussed the point…but the idea stayed with me…” - Tim Berners-Lee, Inventor of the World Wide Web

“When I was about 6 years old, I was sick in bed for a few weeks with a serious illness. My father brought a tape recorder home from the university. At that time, tape recorders were gigantic. I could sit there and make noises and tell stories and I could listen to things and play them back. It became a form of entertainment. I started recording off television, my favorite television shows, and listening to the sounds back without seeing the picture. That led to a real interest in the use of music and sound effects, how they were used to tell a story, how they augmented the presentation…” – Ben Burtt, Sound Engineer Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET…

The physicist Edward Purcell once said, "The wonderful thing about science and about teaching is that all you need is one good example." If we look at some of the most motivating events for young people who later grew up to be great innovators, we find that their 'one good example' often had two shared characteristics: Beauty and Mystery.

In the rush to have all our school children 'meet standards' and be taught "what every n'th grader needs to know", we shouldn't forget that some of the most memorable experiences are those which make children yearn to learn more.

Flexible Strategies for Sensory Integration

It's ironic that there are still physicians who don't believe sensory integration problems exist in children, but that's only because the research hasn't caught up to clinical practice. Only recently have new research technologies been able to quantitate events like brain reorganization or motor imagery. In this new work too, virtual reality was needed to test individual contributions of visual and sensory input.

The link below takes you to a PubMed abstract (sorry, full article not free online yet) from April 2005 Nature Neuroscience basic research article showing that the brain uses different strategies and not just sensory inputs to determine how to guide the hand to its correct target. It makes different predictions or adjustments depending on the nature of this task.

Clinically this is probably why children with sensory integration or processing problems (seen in a wide variety of conditions involving brain recovery) need sensory-motor repetitions in specific activities (for instance, writing by hand, throwing a ball, catching a ball, protective reflexes) before improvements in real life activities are seen.

Flexible Strategies for Sensory Integration

Doctors Who Homeschool - Grasshoppers

Another part of our eclectic life is homeschooling. Here's a snapshot and links from a grasshopper study. We let the kids watch online video excerpts from the 'B' Movie Beginning of the End (Grasshoppers overrun the earth), took questions ("Why would they think grasshoppers would want to eat people?" "Do grasshoppers really chirp like that? How do they chirp?" etc), then studied a real grasshopper with an Intel microscope. The latter is a nifty little gadget (we got it for $30) that hooks up to the computer so you can view the magnified image on your computer screen. The kids were thrilled to snap a picture of the ommatidia (eyes) below.

We also had the kids brainstorm about design features and interesting aspects of the grasshopper - e.g. think about how the human leg has a different organization from the grasshopper leg (knees face opposite direction), and what advantages and disadvantages this difference might have. The book the Robot Zoo (also a website below) was also a cool way to compare design and form and function.

The Robot Zoo Grasshopper
Grasshopper facts
B Movie Site: Beginning of the End

Switching to Mon-Fri Posts

Because our Neurolearning book is due at the Editor's soon, we're going to take a break from blogging on the weekends. See you Monday.

Huh? The Complexity of Sentence Comprehension

As Microsoft's Grammar Check knows (see second link below), English is a hard language learn.

Here's the brain pattern for sentence comprehension:

Can you see the different brain areas and the different arrows? Sentence comprehension is a complicated task that affected by word choice, word order, word grouping, and conventions. Sample sentences from the paper:

The writer attacked the king and admitted the mistake at the meeting.

The writer that the king attacked admitted the mistake at the meeting.

The pundit that the regent attacked admitted the gaffe at the conclave.

These sentences vary in complexity, and speed of processing. Sentence comprehension is a hidden cause of underachievment in some middle and high school students. They may get along all right with reading and listening to information told 'in context' (in a lesson plan, lecture, or story), but then make huge blunders on brief non-contextual sentences that are presented in the form of questions on tests.

Targeting the source of comprehension problems is often the first order of business. One strange quirk of the brain is that different parts of speech are stored in different areas. Some students have particular problems remembering the meaning of connector words like 'although' or 'until' because they are a bit abstract and they are understood only in relationship to other parts of the sentence. The second step may be troubleshooting specific memory problems (for instance auditory word memory) and devising strategies to overcome them (e.g. imagery).

The Neural Bases of Sentence Comprehension
Microsoft's Terrible Grammar Checker
Owl Purdue English and Grammar Resource

Problems Getting Test Accommodations for Gifted Dyslexics in Medical School

Here are some recent links we came across for a medical student fighting to obtain accommodations for dyslexia. Graduate school tests often are do not provide accommodations for students with disabilities. Several lawsuits are making their way through the court system.

There have been many famous dyslexic physicians throughout history - in the medical field these have included Harvey Cushing (father of neurosurgery), Carl Jung, Arthur Conan Doyle, and many chairmen of medical departments. Unfortunately at the graduate school level, accommodations appear to be given somewhat erratically, and students and their families may have to be prepared to do battle.

University and Graduate Students with LDs
Resources for Dyslexics in Medical Field
Dyslexic Physicians
Dyslexia Colleges
Dyslexia College
Learning Disabilities OnLine: LD In-Depth: College Students and Disability Law
AAMC sued over medical school admission exam