Showing posts with label attention. Show all posts
Showing posts with label attention. Show all posts

Monday, September 24, 2012

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.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Children and Adults Use Different Networks to Solve Problems

When doing arithmetic problems, Stanford researchers found that children use different brain regions to solve problems. Children's decreased activity in the frontal lobes (executive function) was to be expected, but another striking finding was how important the right anterior insula was for children capturing attention, balancing working memory resources, and taking action to solve problems.

Perhaps salience networks are more important in general for children's problem solving. Rather than prefrontal-heavy strategies for learning and problem solving, we should be thinking about insula-activating use of novelty / engagement, emotion, reward anticipation, and even risk.

Last week we had the pleasure of having dinner with Katherine Schantz, Head of the Lab School in Washington DC. She was in Seattle because of the NAIS conference. She told us about a teacher who presented a science problem to her class which required each student to vote on what they thought would happen to a piece of metal with heating. Each student had to take a stand - and then students debated back and forth what they thought would happen. Eventually all shifted their votes to the correct answer - and the lesson was embedded in their long term memories. That's an insula teaching approach for sure. Not so different from Enrico Fermi's great lessons.

Monday, January 23, 2012

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.

Monday, May 23, 2011

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

Monday, November 08, 2010

White Noise Helps Memory Recall of ADHD / Reading-Impaired Students

In this interesting study, researchers Sweden discovered that providing white noise to ADHD students improved sentence memory recall in classrooms.

The researchers noted: "Why these paradoxical effects should occur is not well understood."

Well, we think one possible explanation is that the students diagnosed with ADHD were more susceptible to auditory distractions - so the white noise blotted out oddball or occasional distracting sounds, causing a net result of better memory performance with sentence recall. But for the non-inattentive kids, the white noise served only as a distraction - so the net result was poorer performance.

Another potential confounder in this study is the  likelihood of what the researchers were diagnosing was dyslexia with inattentive features, rather than ADHD alone. As the researchers describe in the  full report, the inattentive group had lower reading scores and an inverse relationship was noted between reading performance and positive response to white noise. The presence of hyperactivity had no correlation with the benefit or detriment of white noise.

In previous research it has been shown that dyslexic individuals are as a group more sensitive to auditory distractions - that is why the diagnosis of dyslexia is one indication for small group or individual testing on standardized tests.

Wide and diffuse perceptual modes characterize dyslexics in vision and audition

*** BTW, for Seattle readers, Brock and I will be speaking and the SPD Foundations' International Symposium in Seattle this Friday. We'll be speaking about common learning consequences of sensory processing disorders on the pre-conference day. Look forward to seeing some of you there! 

Monday, November 01, 2010

Engaged! - Why Many Learn Well with One-on-One Learning

Some people really thrive with one-on-one learning. It makes a difference. If they're in a class, no matter what class, or listening to a recorded lecture, or  doing an interactive computer-based learning program, it's not as engaging as learning in a one-on-one situation. The funny thing is, even some introverts thrive with one-on-one learning and much prefer learning from 1 live person in front of them than a book or a computer program. This study was looking and the different brain effects of a live vs. recorded experience with another person, and scientists were somewhat surprised about how much of a difference it made.

One-on-one live interactions stimulate many areas of the brain - including reward centers that increase general alertness and attentiveness. In the bottom right, see how much activation is in the anterior cingulate - that orange blog connecting both hemispheres. That's just the spot (see below) that kids with ADHD had trouble activating - and there is a suggestion that individuals with ADHD are more reward-sensitive for particular tasks.

When we see students with severe weaknesses in working memory, often we find that optimizing their reward systems may be essential to getting the most out of their education. Rewards are not gold stars or money (although it may be money) - they may also be social or experiential - like emphasizing humor or novelty.

This research may not come as a surprise to some homeschooling parents - because they have seen their child dissipate into a distracted, inattentive, and unengaged student once they walk into the school corridors, but know they will be revived working one-on-one with a tutor they really like or even with mom or dad at the kitchen table.

Some of the key to the role of the anterior cingulate is that this brain region is important for mood, emotions, and personal or episodic memory. Among our dyslexic students, we often see a very strong preference for personal learning - that's why many may later chose to enter the caring professions, business, or jobs that involve fieldwork.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

ADHD = Different Reward / Motivation Pathway?

More on the evolving story about ADHD biology and reward. Rather than ADHD appearing as a fixed deficit in executive function, increasing evidence suggests that children (and adults) with ADHD behaviors are showing impulsivity mainly in non-reward situations.

In this recent study from Germany, 8-13 year old boys diagnosed with ADHD showed a much greater ability to inhibit impulsive behavior on the go/no-go test if rewards- monetary or social were involved. The differences were striking between the two groups...whereas only 12.5% of the control group slowed down their behaviors and improved their responses in the control group, 43.8% of the ADHD group slowed down their behaviors and exhibited fewer false alarm rates. The implications for findings such as this are significant - if making external or situational changes to a task could eliminate or significantly reduce impulsivity, the impulsivity is not a disease or fixed deficiency, but rather a behavioral response to specific conditions implicit in the task.

The researchers are very careful to not overstate their findings: "given the heterogeneity within the ADHD population,it is arguable that dysregulated reward-seeking behavior alone can account for all cases of ADHD. Nevertheless, reinforcement theories are able to explain most of the ADHD symptoms [44]. ADHD possibly represents the final outcome of diverse and discrete neurodevelopmental
pathways with an 'extreme reward approach pathway' leading to impulsive and overactive behavior."

One might also argue whether the term "extreme" is unduly negative to describe what could be an alternative and not necessarily pathology reward pathway. Why locate the fault in the children? Why not say that 1/4 of the population of children don't respond well in an "understimulated" environment. Why should a child be motivated to perform a meaningless go/no-go task?

So what about the child diagnosed with ADHD whose symptoms are worst with uninteresting (at least to the child) classroom work? Perhaps the rewards of socializing, dodgeball at recess, doodling a design for game, or designing a space ship out of legos are more rewarding (and deserving of focus and care) than Mad Math Minutes? Our prior blog post on fMRI activation patterns for money-induced incentives and ADHD now seem more compelling...

p.s. Data such at this also lend positive support for the use of more extrinsic rewards when tasks are not completed by children with ADHD.

Greater Sensitivity to Social Rewards In Children with ADHD pdf
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Amphetamines Blunt Rewards in Normal Subjects
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Money, Motivation, ADHD, and the Brain

Monday, June 14, 2010

Why Math is Hard - Implications of Developmental fMRI Changes in Arithmetic

In this paper from Stanford, Menon reviews how brain pathways necessary for multistepped math problem solving take time to develop from early grades into adulthood. It's studies like these that are long overdue.

Children have to drive their procedural and working memory systems much harder when solving path problems because they haven't automatized number relationships or procedural steps. The brain areas involved show that math is difficult because it requires word / symbol recognition, basic number / quantity processing, fact and procedure retrieval, working memory, visual / semantic representations, episodic memory, attention, decision-making, and of course error detection, conflict resolution etc....and the truth is many of these cognitive systems don't come on online until later in childhood, and sometimes not fully into the early 20's. Some implications for educational programming are obvious - are some educational expectations developmentally appropriate? Are teachers sensitive to individual differences in neurodevelopment and can they modify educational expectations appropriately? The conventional school approach is to not advance students to the next grade if certain academic standards are not met. But what of the legions of students who are ahead in some areas and behind in others?

The developmental truth seems to be that brain processes important for math problem solving take time to develop:


"maturation of the prefrontal cortex and development of connections to the
prefrontal cortex increase in children between ages 6 and 14 years"

"posterior parietal cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex regions that
support working memory continue to mature from the age of 7–25 years"

"the capacity of memory systems, the speed of retrieval and the strategies used to remember continue to develop through young adulthood"

And "Because the prefrontal cortex matures relatively slowly compared to the posterior parietal cortex, children may be slower or have particular difficulties with certain types of arithmetic problems that require reasoning and interference resolution even when computational and retrieval skills are mature."

In our dyslexia clinic, these developmental factor often become huge issues. Though a student may be advanced in many areas, if automatization of tasks such as rote math fact retrieval or handwriting or weak, it may be enough to sink their boat and hold them back a whole grade. But if you follow these kids into high school, college, and beyond, you see their abilities just come online later - suddenly everything is easier and tasks that would have taken them hours to days, now can be done in 20 minutes.

This paper also highlighted another bone we have to pick with the way things are in medicine and education. When a child has weakness in visual working memory, we can't use that as a diagnosis in the clinic (ICD9 codes) or classroom (504 or IEP). They have to be diagnosed with ADD or ADHD or nothing. It's like trying to fix a fine precision watch with a sledgehammer. If a review paper from a reasonable place like Stanford can address children's learning in terms of episodic and procedural memory, visual or semantic representations and decision making, can't some of these same principles be discussed at school? The better we can get at identifying the problem, the better we can get proposing an answer.

Developmental cognitive neuroscience of arithmetic

Monday, May 10, 2010

Attention and Distraction - Battle Between the CEO and Creativity Director

Recent research from Illinois researchers indicates that the battle for attention in the Stroop task is not a matter of frontal executive function being present or absent, but rather due to the different patterns of activations in the posterior attention (parietal lobes) brain areas.

When two different Stroop tasks were given that different in the nature of task-irrelevant information (color-word vs. color-object task), little changes were seen in frontal executive areas, whereas marked differences were seen in the posterior areas.

 At left, color-word (orange), color-object (blue) for incongruent vs. neutral condition. Overlapping areas were shown in purple.

The data are interesting and remind us of the Chief Operations Officer or COO (executive) and Creativity Director described in our book, The Mislabeled Child. Stroop tasks are commonly employed in ADHD scenarios or tests of executive function, but this research suggests the truth is a bit more complicated than that.
Some children (and adults) undoubtedly may struggle with the Stroop because of weaker frontal executive functions, but differences in posterior pathways probably account for at least some of the lower performers - the question is how to distinguish the two - either in the clinic or in the classroom. Recently dyslexic teens were reported to have poorer performance on the Stroop, but is that because of weak COOs or 'too strong' Creativity Directors?

In this older study of positive mood on creative fluency and executive function (Stroop) , positive mood was positively correlated with greater creative fluency (e.g. how many different things can you think of to do with a cup), but negatively correlated with strong executive function performance on the Stroop. So happiness may help the Creativity Director, but not the COO. Instead, perhaps it's Seriousness (i.e. not really a positive mood) that drives the Chief Operations Officer.

Two attention systems in the Stroop pdf

Monday, February 08, 2010

Confessions of a Limited Working Memory Victim

A friend recommended I watch neuroscientist Jill Taylor's TED talk Stroke of Insight. In the talk, Dr. Taylor recounts her personal experiences with a stroke in her left language area. It's a remarkable lecture and a highly recommend it.

But I confess, her story got me thinking about my own learning differences, and in particular, my limitation with working memory. And I thought as a neurologist, maybe it would be interesting to some of you to share how I became aware of my working memory limitations and what my experiences are with it.

As it often happens, I only accidentally discovered how bad my auditory working memory was when we were playing a memory game with our kids. To my surprise, I had the worst memory span in our family (we were practicing repeating back sentences of increasing length), all this despite the fact that working memory tends to increase into adulthood.

How is it that I only really discovered it now? One answer, I think, is Compensation.

How could I get by well enough to make it through medical school and Harvard, and manage my share of the household to a reasonable degree? (I confess do forget to pick up things at the market and misplace items with regularity) And I know I'm not alone. Some ADD doomsayers wouldn't think that a person like me could exist, but there are many examples of other famously feeble LWMV's who have managed to survive and thrive*, and here are a few reasons why I think that may be so.

How Do Limited Working Memory Victims Survive and Thrive?

1. Flitting Not Sitting

Many successful adults with teeny tiny working memories flit about in their activities - some keep physically busy doing different things, while others keep intellectually busy in the same flitting way. Over the course of an hour, I may return to a difficult task multiple times, like a hummingbird drinking nector from different flowers. It allows me to take in as much as I can at one time, then break, then take another little sip again when I'm ready. It works for me because my long term memory is quite strong - it's just my working memory that is weak. I can remember where I was when I return to it, and this is working more productively than if I were to force myself not to switch off, but stick to a single task. I think taking in information with little interruptions also takes advantage of the novelty learning in me. Stick with something for a long time would seem like such a chore, but this way is manageable.

2. Long Term Memory is Strong

If our long term working memory is strong, then a limited working memory doesn't have to be a huge handicap. Many gifted individuals with ADD may fit this could they score so well on their IQ tests if they didn't have strong long term verbal or nonverbal memories? It's the kids and adults with both weak working and long term memories that face the greatest obstacles in school and life.

3. Successful LWMV's may be Strong Inductive or Bottom-Up Learners

I have a suspicion that the LWMV is especially well-suited to the inductive learner, i.e. learners that learn best from firsthand hand experiences or personal example. Inductive learners are sometimes called bottom-up learners because they take information in from many different examples then reason back to rules based on patterns that they find. The LWMV-ADD-Inductive Learner connection may be why so many kids with attention complaints have diffuse attention and why we find they prefer to learn kinesthetically or from direct personal experiences. It seems that many of these kids seem to for a reason.

4. Many LWMVs are Strong Interest-Based Learners

There does seem to be a paradox that exists for many LWMV's: if something really captivates their interest, like music or photography for Ansel Adams or a beautiful problem to an LWMV mathematician or physicist, then persistence at a task doesn't seem to be a problem. It's like getting the key that unlocks all of memory's doors, and time may seem to stop. No doubt some outsiders would call this a LWMV's hyperfocus, but it misses the point if it doesn't recognize that only certain intrinsically motivating and pleasurable activities trigger this remarkable focusing and memory-enhancing phenomenon.

Anyway, some more things to think about when wrestling with decisions about what to do about limited working memory. It is possible to survive and thrive even with itsy bitsy working memory spans.

*Some famous LWMV's: Enrico Fermi often complained of a terrible memory. He took notes all the time and called his notebook his "artificial memory". From Polya's Mathematicians I Have Known, "Are mathematicians absent-minded or eccentric? I don't know, but there are infinitely many stories purporting that they are, and I shall quote a few...There is a party at (David) Hilbert's house and Frau Hilbert suddenly notices that her husband has forgotten to put on a fresh shirt...David...meekly obeys and goes upstairs. Yet he does not come back. Five minutes pass, ten minutes Frau Hilbert goes up to the bedroom and there is Hilbert in his bed. You see it was the natural sequence of things: He took off his coat, then his tie, then his shirt, and so on, and went to sleep!"

If you'd like to read more, also check out The Man of Genius. Excerpt: "Forgetfulness is another of the characters of genius. It is said that Newton once rammed his niece's finger into his pipe; when he left his room to seek for anything he usually returned without bring it..." Now obviously not everyone with the working memory of a gnat is a genius, but the point I'm making today is that it is possible to achieve a certain level of success and still seem to have only the smallest file cabinet for working memory.

BTW, if you think there's a high incidence of physicists and mathematicians in this group, you may be right. I have physicists and engineers in my family tree. Working memory limitations often run in families (but don't have to), and are seen more often in spatially-talented families, dyslexic families, etc. They may be attracted to simplicity because that's all they have room for.

Eide Neurolearning Blog: Motivation and Memory
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Passion and Flow as a Learning Strategy
Eide Neurolearning Blog: ADHD - A Different Motivation Pathway?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Orchid Kids: The Positives of Intense and Demanding Children

"Themistocles was an unruly boy, and carried on his mad pranks without much restraint. When taken to task for them he said, "The wildest colts make the best horses when they come to be properly trained." - Plutarch (46-120 AD)

Interesting article The Science of Success in Atlantic Monthly:

The first part starts out pretty predictable..."In 2004, Marian Bakermans-Kranenburg, a professor of child and family studies at Leiden University, started carrying a video camera into homes of families whose 1-to-3-year-olds indulged heavily in the oppositional, aggressive, uncooperative, and aggravating behavior that psychologists call “externalizing”: whining, screaming, whacking, throwing tantrums and objects, and willfully refusing reasonable requests. Staple behaviors in toddlers, perhaps. But research has shown that toddlers with especially high rates of these behaviors are likely to become stressed, confused children who fail academically and socially in school, and become antisocial and unusually aggressive adults."

The researchers found that behavioral interventions and video feedback to mothers really helped behavior, for instance helping mothers to recognize that their fidgety kids really did enjoy reading books together although they were restless and seemed distractible. But the study also had another level of analysis that highlighted the unexpected greater good in the genetically at-risk kids. When the outcomes of 'at-risk' allele kids were compared to outcomes of 'protective' allele kids, the 'at-risk' ones actually fared better.

"As it turned out, the toddlers with the risk allele blew right by their counterparts. They cut their externalizing scores by almost 27 percent, while the protective-allele kids cut theirs by just 12 percent (improving only slightly on the 11 percent managed by the protective-allele population in the control group). The upside effect in the intervention group, in other words, was far larger than the downside effect in the control group. Risk alleles, the Leiden team concluded, really can create not just risk but possibility.

Can liability really be so easily turned to gain? The pediatrician W. Thomas Boyce, who has worked with many a troubled child in more than three decades of child-development research, says the orchid hypothesis “profoundly recasts the way we think about human frailty.” He adds, “We see that when kids with this kind of vulnerability are put in the right setting, they don’t merely do better than before, they do the best—even better, that is, than their protective-allele peers..."

Very encouraging finding for families dealing with intense difficult temperament kids (difficult temperaments have been described as intense, negative, and slow to adapt), and bears out with our clinical practice too. Parents of these kids often need a great deal of support - and it is true that some kids are A LOT harder to parent than others. But there is an encouraging light at the end of the tunnel.

The authors argue for a more complex view of understanding 'genetic risk' - certainly when it comes to behavior: "...This new model sugggests that it's a mistake to understand these 'risk' genes only as liabilities. Yes, this new thinking goes, these bad genes can create dysfunction in unfavorable contexts- butthey can also enhance function to favorable contexts."

The story concludes: "The orchid variant of the DRD4 gene, for instance, increases risk of ADHD (a syndrome best characterized COchran and Harpending write, 'by actions that annoy elementary school teachers'). Yet attention restlessness can serve people well in environments that reward sensitivity to new stimuli. The current growth of multitasking, for instance may help select for just such attentional agility."

Eide Neurolearning Blog: Elementary Angst May Still Mean Success

Monday, September 14, 2009

Multi-Tasking Dumbs Us Down for Some Jobs, But Could It Provide Breakthroughs for Others?

"They're suckers for irrelevancy," said communication Professor Clifford Nass... "Everything distracts them."

Because many in your acquaintance (or even household) may proudly tout their media multi-tasking ability, researchers thought for sure they could identify the cognitive gifts that come with this ability. Researchers at Stanford searched high and low for this gift, but their final conclusion - it's not a gift at all, but a liability.

"We kept looking for what they're better at, and we didn't find it," said Ophir, the study's lead author and a researcher in Stanford's Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab.

Now by true multi-tasking, we don't really mean semi-automatic activities like listening to familiar pleasant music, walking, or driving a car. These tasks don't require a lot conscious higher cortical brain work, like say reading and responding to an email or answering questions when a colleague or classmate calls you to find out what was missed in an important meeting.

At left look how poorly high media multi-taskers did compared to low media multi-taskers on a distraction task. Not only were the high media multi-taskers more distractible, but they also performed lower on memory tests and ability to task-switch.

A few years ago, a Hewlett-Packard sponsored study suggested that the IQs of knowledge workers distracted by emails and phone calls dropped their IQs about 10 points, and a Microsoft study found that on average, workers who stopped their activities to read emails needed on average about 24 minutes to return to their tasks.

All this seems very reasonable, but some of crazy media multi-tasking that many of us in think-heavy careers might do is not the same as the tasks given in these paradigms. The Poincare examples comes to mind. Henri Poincare (mathematician extraordinaire) has written that whenever he wanted to think deeply about a problem that remained unsolved, he would put it away and then work simple derivations in an absent-minded way. Often when he was at work with such 'mindless' activities, a new possible solution would come to him and he would return to the problem and find he had had a breakthrough.

The increase susceptibilty of media multi-taskers to peripheral distractions is not a surprise if you consider the research about diffuse attention and creativity,but I can't help thinking that the learning and task-switching results might arrive at different conclusions had the nature of the focus and distractor task been very different, especially if the focus task required more insight-based problem solving than a demanding problem solving task that require several very consciously-solved steps.

The ideal distractor, it would seem, should be familiar and not overwhelmingly activity that perhaps could shift the brain into a pleasant 'default rest' or daydreaming state. Kind of like Einstein playing his violin for a while to come up with new ideas for solving difficult problems.

Anyway, something to think about before management gets the bright idea about doing away with email checking or games at work for high-level knowledge workers, It's not by accident that many of the most successful creative companies embrace a good deal of play and distraction at work.

Cognitive control in media multitaskers
Media multi-taskers pay a price
Death by information overload
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Biology of Creativity

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Bad, the Good, and Variability of Time Blindness

"Time is more flexible than most of us think." - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

We know them, we love them, we are them - the time blind are constantly running into trouble for being late or missing assignments, but they also can persist longer than non-blind people at projects or activities (forgetting to eat, sleep, etc.) and achieve things that time-keepers can only dream of.

Who is Time Blind?

Time perception is worse for children than adults, and children diagnosed with ADHD and children diagnosed with specific language impairment, but some variations in time perception occur in healthy people (apparently we are better at perceiving time in the morning compared to the evening...makes sense), and video games like Tetris causes adolescents to lose time (underestimate video game time vs. reading).

Recently there have been a number of research papers providing insight into what causes the perception of time to go awry - many things, it seems, but among them stress (car accidents, catastrophic life events etc.) or distractions, sensory mismatches, and strong positive or negative feelings. Moviemakers recognize the 'when time stood still' phenomena of cataclysmic events - because they slow down the film speed when portraying car accidents, attacks on the battlefield and the like - and that is often what people in crises situation say - everything seemed slowed down or it was like I saw things in slow motion.

What Keeps Time in the Brain?

Competing theories (above) point to either a single site in the brain (for instance the cerebellum, basal ganglia, or dorsal prefrontal cortex) or networks of sensory areas (vision-auditory-somatosensory areas) that dynamically interact with each other. Either idea might explain why some children (and adults of course) are so time-blind. If one system is off (for instance vision) - it throws the whole network 'out-of-sync', explaining why so many different kids (sensory processing, ADHD, speech problems, dyslexia, etc.) struggle with their awareness of time.

Context Matters and Time Blindness

In an interesting landmark study involving 10- and 14-year olds remembering to check a clock to take cupcakes out of the oven in time (they were distracted by playing a videogame while waiting), Ceci and Bronfenbrenner found both groups were better at checking the clock and taking cupcakes out of the oven in the laboratory, when compared to home. Only 1 child failed the task when it was performed in the laboratory, whereas 42% failed when the task was given at home. Reasons for this are open to discussion but might include the special setting of the laboratory, increased distractions at home, etc. The researchers also made the conclusions that the children were more strategic in the laboratory (increased clock checking closer to the time the cupcakes were to come out).

An interesting subsequent study compared young adults to seniors - and found that although young adults were better than older adults if the cupcake / oven test was performed in a laboratory, but interestingly - the performance results were reversed if the experiment were conducted at home. Several ideas have been raised about these results - young adults may have been more familiar with the laboratory conditions, and perhaps the improved results for older adults' time perception at home was the presence of familiar surroundings and familiar supports for remembering and time awareness.

When Time-Blindness is Good --> Flow

But what about the positive side of time blindness? Not uncommon when we're talking to a family about the problems with time blindness in young student, a parent sheepishly admits he or she is also time blind - and that they have to be reminded to eat for instance if they're working on a complex computer project, job, etc. Since Csikszentmihalyi's work with 'flow', additional studies have confirmed that highly intrinsically motivated students check the time less often, are less aware of time, and lose track of time more often when their working on their favored tasks. So there is a positive side of time blindness. Intrinsically-motivated students perceive time as passing more quickly, that's why external commitments slide.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined 'flow' as an optimal experience that people can move into when they are so completely involved that 'nothing seems to matter', self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time is distorted. He proposed that had 4 components: control, attention, curiosity, and intrinsic interest.

All this important to keep in mind if young Johnny or Jane is getting in trouble with time-blindness. Some very bright kids struggle in school because they have powerful interest-driven learning styles - they learn a lot of their own choosing, but if a topic doesn't seem important or appeal to them well....Time blindness can be a clue. Another is a learning style - learning environment mismatch like an inductive learner being taught with exclusively deductive methods.

Photos: stopwatch, cupcake

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Biology of Self Control

In an Cal Tech fMRI study of self-reported dieters, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) emerged as the important area for self-control. Subjects who exercised poor self-control in the study chose to eat fattening and non-nutritious foods and it correlated with a lack of activation in the DLPFC.

Excerpt: "The vmPFC works during every decision," says Hare. "The DLPFC, on the other hand, is more active when you're employing self-control."

"This, ultimately, is one reason why self-controllers can make better choices," Rangel adds.

Still, the DLPFC can only do so much. For instance, it can't override a truly negative reaction to a food, notes Hare. "We rarely got people to say they'd eat cauliflower if they didn't like cauliflower," he says. "But they would choose not to eat ice cream or candy bars, knowing they could eat the healthier index food instead..."Imagine how much better life could be if we knew how to flex the willpower muscles in the brain and strengthen them with exercises," says Camerer.

How does this all fit with what we know about the development of kids? From Bunge lab, not surprisingly this self control area usually takes quite a while to mature (colored in green at left). In fact in kids, control seems to much more subcortical (caudate) and direct-reward related. With maturity (not surprisingly), additional higher order types of information direct decisions.

Another interesting study that came out re: kid self-control is one from Opposite - Head-Shoulders-Knees-and-Toes task in which kids are supposed to do the opposite of what was asked (kind of like a Stroop interference). The kids who were able to do this task well had the highest achievement scores in reading, vocabulary, and math.

The next obvious question is, would training in self control result in greater achievement? The likely answer is yes. Another self regulation game involves practice doing the opposite game in a back-and-forth ball activity.
Science Daily: Self Control (original scientific article not yet free access)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Dyslexic Mind / Dyslexic Advantage Social Network

We've just launched a new social network called Dyslexic Advantage at We recognized a tremendous need for a community that approaches dyslexia from the big picture - recognizing as much (if not more) of the strengths associated with dyslexia as its frustrations and learning obstacles. Dyslexia also changes dramatically through the life span - and needs of an 8 year old are different from a 16 year old, are different from a college student, and an adult at the peak of their career. Dyslexia also runs in families - and there are issues and that affect siblings, spouses, and the whole household dynamic - and we really found little discussion of that aspect of the dyslexic experience. Our site also has videos, podcasts, journals, and discussion forum.

For today's post, we thought we'd talk about the work of Dr. Matt Schneps, Director of the Lab for Visual Learning at the Harvard Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Schneps has become interested in the question of why so many dyslexics are in the field of astrophysics. In fact, he has an NSF grant to study the question and may still be looking for participants here.

One hypothesis is that dyslexics show advantages in visual peripheral processing that allows them to excel at spatial learning and anomaly detection - skills that may be well suited to main domains including astrophysics and scientific image analysis in general.

From an LVL Powerpoint Presentation:

So what makes it harder to focus in on individual words (individual word reading is often very weak) and the center part of words - may make it easier to see the outer edges. This fits with what we see in most dyslexic kids (and adults) and also with Karolyi's work finding that dyslexics excel at global visual processing and the detection of impossible figures.

"It's as if people with dyslexia tend to use a wide-angle lens to take in the world, while others tend to use a telephoto," explains Matthew H. Schneps, the lead author of the study. “It’s not that the close-up lens always makes better photos than the wide-angle. It’s that each is best at revealing different kinds of detail. Schneps adds, "We may be short-changing students who have reading difficulties...These students may have strengths for visual learning that we could be building on.” Such strengths are likely to be of particular significance for fields like science and mathematics, where visual representations are key to instruction…and to discovery.

CFA Harvard press release pdf
Wide and diffuse perceptual modes in dyslexia - auditory and visual
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Diffuse Attention Correlates with Higher Levels of Creative Achievement

Monday, May 11, 2009

Different Brain Networks for Novelty-Induced vs. Voluntary Attention

This may come as no great surprise to parents or teachers, but still the implications are significant for the classroom: different brain networks exist for attention depending on whether it is novelty-induced or voluntary. So it should come as no great surprise that a child with strong attention for novelty things or ideas (perplexing puzzle, a strange objects, etc.), may still be seen to thoroughly struggle when trying hard to direct his or her attention (voluntary control). A novel stimulus captures attention passively (whether you want it to or not)while other brain pathways are responsible for attention under voluntary control.

It's those voluntary attention networks that are also more likely to take time to develop in children (including high IQ kids).

If we really appreciate this neurobiological difference, then - the question is... are we doing all we can to help teachers and parents "capture" the attention of novelty-based learners? Talented teachers (and parents) often know how to excite learning and curiosity using a variety of means (invoking wonder / awe - about beautiful things, mysteries / the unknown, puzzles, also funny stories, and the unexpected...), but they may have never been might have been they were novelty-learners themselves as kids.

As neurobiology increasingly supports the idea of novelty learning and novelty-based attention, however, may be we should think more about the educational expectations. We spend so much time trying to strengthen or speed up the development of voluntary attention, but perhaps we should spend as much time improving our capture of the attention that's already there -

Dissociable intrinsic networks for salience vs. executive control pdf
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Blessings and Burdens of High IQ

We talk more about novelty and attention issues such as this on the DVD of Day 3 of our Webinar: Attention, Sensory Processing, and Social Challenges of Gifted Children

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Biology of Creativity - Right Hemispheric Thinking, Problem Solving by Insight, and Diffuse Attention

A Northwestern research group has found that people that solve anagram puzzles by sudden insight rather than by conscious search or analytic strategies have an EEG resting state that prefers the right over the left hemisphere. What's different about this finding compared to a previous study is that this hemispheric difference exists even before problem solving begins.

Wouldn't it be preferable if teachers knew which problem solving style students they before they taught them? Couldn't mismatches between problem solving approaches (insight vs. non-insight) contribute to school-related struggles and so-called underachievement?

It's not a great leap to consider how these brain-related differences impact success or failure in the classroom, because we see many bright, creative children who seem to be inexplicably struggling in their early elementary school years. When we talk to them and set challenging tasks before them, they are so obviously bright, playful, and flexible in their thinking, and they frequently have very high IQ test scores to lend support to their promise, but report cards or teachers notes home seem to tell a completely different story... "Not meeting expectations" for motivation, work completion, could this be ADHD etc. etc. So what's the deal?

This excerpt from the Northwestern paper caught our attention:

"...psychometric measures of creativity and measures of real-world creative achievement are associated with a habitual tendency toward diffuse rather than focused attention, which results in ineffective filtering of distracting or irrelevant environmental stimuli (Carson et al., 2003; Mendelsohn & Griswold, 1966; Rowe et al., 2007). One view describes creativity as the ability to utilize nonprepotent remote associations of problem elements in order to discover nonobvious solutions to a problem (Mednick, 1962). Diffuse attention facilitates access to remote associations because it enhances awareness of peripheral environmental stimuli that could serve as cues that trigger retrieval of such associations (Seifert et al., 1995)."

How often it does seem that it's the highly creative child who is having the greatest struggles in the conventional classroom! It's nice finding research that backs up the association. From this Harvard study, a diffuse attentional style was much more common among individuals with high lifetime levels of creative achievement.

The study concludes with a final interesting finding that differences in this attentional style might account for why high IQ beyond a certain point doesn't correlate with higher levels of creative achievement (the threshold effect...e.g. that once one is beyond 120, higher numbers don't correlate with enhanced achievement). If a focused vs. diffuse attentional style is taken into account, then it becomes more evident that diffuse attentional style + high IQ are important factors that contribute to high levels of creative achievement.

Different Problem Solving Styles (Sudden Insight vs. Conscious Manipulation) at Rest
Creative Achievement and Diffuse Attention pdf
Eide Neurolearning Blog: The Most Creative Brains
Eide Neurolearning Blog: The Tyranny of Our Thinking Styles

Friday, March 06, 2009

Passion and Flow as a Learning Strategy - Talent and Dyslexia

"When we look at highly successful dyslexic individuals, we see that they succeeded by following their substantial gifts, not by focusing on their difficulties." - Thomas G. West, In the Mind's Eye, Thinking Like Einstein

"I was at the bottom in reading skills and spelling. I was a very, very, slow reader and couldn't read out loud or silently...when I was a freshman in high school, I became fascinated with nitrogen chemistry so I got organic chemistry textbooks and read them and various aeronautic journals..." - Roy Daniels, dyslexic biochemist

When a student struggles with learning, the most common response of a parent or teacher would seem to be to have them work longer and harder on weaknesses. Presumably strong areas should be able to take care of themselves. But this strategy could backfire. Intrinsic motivation can powerfully harness cognitive resources (increase attention, increased cognitive control) so that not only will the best resources be neglected, but also existing resources will come under attack as students become swallowed up in feelings of low self-esteem. If all your time in school is spent on your worst subjects, why wouldn't you think you're a failure?

In a recent study from NYU, scientists showed that frontopolar activation correlated well both with the presentation of rewards and how subjects performed on a cognitive control task.

In an interesting study by Rosalie Fink, interviews of 66 successful adult dyslexics currently thriving in reading-intensive fields such as medicine, law, business, or physics, found that a common factor in everyone's history was their discovery of a burning passion as a child or young adult "Each individual had had a burning desire to know more about a topic of passionate personal interest. Spurred by personal passion, curiosity, and intrinsic motivation, they all read voraciously...they read everything they could find in order to learn more about a topic that fascinated them..." -(High Interest Reading)

If a child has trouble in core school subject such as reading, an equally intensive search should be made for a child's strengths and interests, remembering to specifically set aside time for gift / talent development.

The abilities of those with reading disabilities pdf
Motivational influences on cognitive control fmri pdf
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Money, motivation, adhd, and the brain

Monday, March 02, 2009

Recess Essential for Improving Attention

From the New York Times:

"The best way to improve children’s performance in the classroom may be to take them out of it.

New research suggests that play and down time may be as important to a child’s academic experience as reading, science and math, and that regular recess, fitness or nature time can influence behavior, concentration and even grades.

A study published this month in the journal Pediatrics studied the links between recess and classroom behavior among about 11,000 children age 8 and 9. Those who had more than 15 minutes of recess a day showed better behavior in class than those who had little or none."

The full article can be read here.

An especially important reminder as recess times shrink and attention deficit disorder diagnoses go up. Young children with sensory processing disorders are especially susceptible to behavioral and attention problems if they are not allowed to move and exercise throughout their day.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Myth of Multi-Tasking: The Problem of Listening while Driving

As we head into the holiday season, this study is a good reminder that cell phones and driving (and even listening to conversation while driving) has its risks. Using a driving simulation setup, Marcel Just and his colleagues saw that listening to sentences robbed from visual and spatial areas necessary for driving. This is also why hands-free phones are really not any better than conventional cell phones. The problem is not just having to hold the phone, it's diverting the brain's resources for visual and spatial awareness.

This principle applies to much more than driving while listening. It's especially hard not to multitask as we head into the holiday season, butits it's wise to realize it often comes with a price. For more on this general topic, check out Christine Rosen's The Myth of Multi-tasking

Driving while listening to someone speak fMRI pdf