Monday, September 24, 2012

fMRI of Dysgraphia - Lack of Automaticity and Need for Visual Monitoring

Thank goodness for Todd Richards and his collaboration with Virginia Berninger and her group for looking into the brain-basis of dysgraphia.

In this interesting fMRI study, good and poor child writers were compared on a task of writing a  new pseudoletter. The 'good writers' (scored in the normal or higher range on WIAT writing test) showed a strong coordination between the cerebellum (motor-sensory feedback) and primary motor-sensory areas in the precental and postcentral gyrus.

Poor writers had a very different pattern. Their cerebellar activation was stronger in midline structures (trunk > fingers) and also visual areas of cortex were much more active than primary motor-sensory areas around the central gyrus. This result is very interesting - because in the clinic, we often see that students require much more visual monitoring of their letter formation (increases the labor, working memory requirement, and general tedium of writing by hand), and this greatly slows processing speed.

Sorry we haven't had time to regularly update this blog. But will let more articles trickle. I'm going to speak at the AACAP (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry) next month and Brock at the annual meeting of the International Dyslexia Association - so our time's been swamped more than usual over our usual clinic.

For dyslexia-related articles, please join our forum and newsletter at:

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, August 13, 2012

Fact Retrieval vs. Problem Solving in the Brain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 02, 2012

Remembering Inhibits Learning

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Steps of Creativity - Early Crowd sourcing and Prototyping

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

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

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


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

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

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

Photo credit:

Monday, June 04, 2012

Education for Misfits and Neurodiversity

From Schumpeter in the Economist, In Praise of Misfits reflects on how classrooms and marketplaces seem to love opposites. Educational experts are working diligently to turn out well-rounded graduates, while... "Software firms gobble up anti-social geeks. Hedge funds hoover up equally oddball quants. Hollywood bends over backwards to accommodate the whims of creatives. And policymakers look to rule-breaking entrepreneurs to create jobs. Unlike the school playground, the marketplace is kind to misfits."

It reminded me of a study from Vanderbilt a few years back. There are reasons that teachers and humanities majors may not understand engineers and career mathematicians and vice-versa. 

The researchers close with a quote from the 60's from I.M. Smith: "The qualities which make for greatness in scientists and engineers are of a different kind; ability to think abstractly and analytically together with a skill visualizing spatial relations in two and three dimensions..."

It's not just that school curriculums in general don't spend enough time cultivating spatial skills and talent; it's also that educators as a group skills and talents that are almost opposite to young or old engineers. It's not only that spatial instruction may not come naturally to teachers who otherwise excel in the basics of education like reading or writing, but it may also be likely that educators may not be able to recognize the spatial talents of their promising young engineers, just engineers and business people may not be able to appreciate the high verbal talent of budding humanities scholars.

So it takes all kinds. As we head into this 21st century of education, we hope this myth of a 'well-rounded education' for all is finally pounded flat. Ideal neurodiversity-aware classrooms and workplaces will recognize strengths and weaknesses as they see them and dedicate as much if not more time on what people do well as on what they don't.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day - Flash from the Past

He was small in stature, but scrappy. The first eight years of his life were spent in Nome, Alaska, which was still a pretty lawless place at the time, and he learned how to defend him self by street fighting. Finally his mother had had enough, she insisted on moving the family to California, where he could get more education.

He continued to streetfight, and in fact got arrested for brawling, but things changed when one of his teachers took him aside and taught him fight properly... Then fighting became discipline rather than an emotional outburst. The advice he would remember in years to follow: "You get mad when you fight, and if you lose your temper, you're going to get licked sooner or later because you let your emotions rule your body instead of your head." With this advice in mind, he also went on to win high school boxing championships in the bantam weight class.

As a teenager, this Flash from the Past also became increasingly interested in mechanics. He saved up his money, and built his first glider plane based on a design he found in Popular Mechanics. When he failed to get the glider airborne from a small hill, he convinced a friend to drag him from a car, but this resulted in the demise of his plane and he was dragged 100 feet before his friend could stop. This didn't stop him, of course, and he salvaged some parts from the wreckage to built a second plane.

In school, he admitted he "didn't have a fondness for academic classes but did have a liking for the shop courses working on gasoline engines and wood lathes."

Who was this? This was James ("Jimmy") Harold Doolittle, a scientist, aeronautics engineer (masters and doctorate from MIT) who greatly advanced flying technology, and General in the United States Army. He set a world speed record for flying and was the first pilot to fly completely "blind", using only instruments to guide a plane. He also lead a harrowing bombing raid over Tokyo (Thirty Seconds over Tokyo) that had an enormous emotional effect on War in the Pacific. He would be one the most decorated soldiers of WWII and a most worthy recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

On this Memorial Day Weekend, we'd like to pause and remember all the brave men and women and their families who have helped make and keep this country strong. Thank you, all.

Jimmy Doolittle Reminiscences About World War II
Wings of Valor II- The Doolittle Tokyo Raid

Monday, May 07, 2012

Failure School: Metacognitive Reframing Boosts Working Memory

What's a quick way to boost a student's working memory?  Tell them that learning is difficult and failure is common. At least that's a conclusion from a French research study that tested 111 6th graders with a series of difficult anagram puzzles. None of the 6th graders could solve them and then...

"... a researcher talked to the students about the difficulty of the problems. One group was told that learning is difficult and failure is common, but practice will help, just like learning how to ride a bicycle. Children in a second group were just asked how they tried to solve the problems. The students then took a test that measures working memory capacity, a key cognitive ability for storing and processing incoming information...the students who were told that learning is difficult performed significantly better on the working memory test, especially on more difficult problems, than the second group or a third control group who took the working memory test without doing the anagrams or discussions with researchers."

The researchers also went on to test reading comprehension, and the students who had heard that learning is difficult and often accompanied by failure scored higher than all the other groups.

"The study noted that the students’ improvement on the tests most likely was temporary, but the results showed that working memory capacity may be improved simply by boosting students’ confidence and reducing their fear of failure. “Our research suggests that students will benefit from education that gives them room to struggle with difficulty,” Autin said. “Teachers and parents should emphasize children’s progress rather than focusing solely on grades and test scores. Learning takes time and each step in the process should be rewarded, especially at early stages when students most likely will experience failure.”

Improve Memory By Metacognitive Reframing
Reducing Academic Pressure Helps Students Succeed Press Release
Working Memory Graphic

Monday, April 23, 2012

Overthinking and Creativity - Think Like Child

From Life Hacker, look at the puzzle to the left. How long does it take you to solve?

Preschoolers solve in 5-10 min, whereas programmers take an hour. Overthinking is a real problem at times, and sometimes to solve certain problems, a little ignorance is bliss (the solution is at the end of this post).

We see this with some of our most divergent students. They overthink questions and come up with several well-reasoned possibilities (our favorite subtest for this on the WISC-IV IQ test is 'Picture Concepts) where the answer key lists only one.

The immediate practical results of over thinkers on the WISC-IV are: 1. over thinkers take longer because they think of many more possibilities than the one accepted answer, and 2. their reasoning ability can be very underestimated if they mention an alternate possibility as the final answer instead of the conventionally accepted one.

But the Lifehacker study's main point is that over thinkers are disadvantaged in this task because they focus on meanings and patterns that more naive test takers (here, children) wouldn't even consider.

The biographies of many eminent people often mention that as adults these individuals retained a certain child-like quality of questioning basic facts and assumptions. The question is, is this something we're borne with, or is it something we can cultivate?

Here's a nice blog post from the J Curve about famous scientists who liked thinking like children.

Some great quotes:

"I know not what I appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore” – Sir Isaac Newton

“One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”
– Albert Einstein

Answer to the numbers question

The ques­tion has noth­ing to do with math­e­mat­ics. Look for the closed loops or shapes in each num­ber and count them. In 0, 6, 8 and 9. 8 has two of them. 2581 has two. The answer is 2.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Background Noise Problems in Dyslexia

More data supporting the range of perceptual difficulties in dyslexia.

In the figure below, researchers found that dyslexic subjects showed delayed responses to sounds (HP stands for Huggins Pitch, TN stands for pure tone)when played with background noise.

This background noise can be a big obstacle to efficient classroom learning for dyslexic students. Larger classes sizes, murmurings and rustlings from fellow classmates, and a fuzziness about phonology or weak auditory working memory, can spell failure (or ADD misdiagnosis) for even very smart or determined dyslexic students. This study only looked at tone and Huggins (kind of spectral noise) sounds...a test of similar-sounding phonemes might be even more dramatic.

Many parents and teachers out there might say, "Aha!". Students with background noise problems often show wide variability in their classroom success, that may be due to teaching style, class size, degree of noise, or seat placement. Be vigilant to the possibility, and help your student advocate for classroom speakers if needed.

Now is this education or neurobiology? Both of course! We do a disservice to children if we can't find efficient ways to share information between researchers, educators, and parents.

Background Noise Difficulties in Dyslexia pdf
Noise and Dyslexia

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Impulsivity and Business Success

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

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

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

The researchers conclude: 

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 26, 2012

Google Brain: Inductive Thinking and Curiosity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 19, 2012

Reading Metaphors and Individual Differences in the Brain

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

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

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

All the subjects were students at Carnegie Mellon University

Reading Metaphors and Individual Differences Brain fMRI

Monday, March 12, 2012

Metacognition, Math, and the Brain

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

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

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

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

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, February 06, 2012

The Increased Work of Dyslexia

Here is an interesting study from Stanford that gives support to what dyslexics have said for years - it's harder for them to read.

The fundamental difference in this study is that here dyslexic and non-dyslexic subjects were matched for reading performance - so differences in brain activation weren't due to efficiency of reading issues.

It's not surprising why so many bright dyslexics will fall between the cracks in the school system - even if they master the code of reading for comprehension, they fail to be identified as having a disability and are penalized for not finishing tests or papers, or required reading on time.

A study such as this also underscores the problems of defining dyslexia on the basis of reading performance.

The Neural Basis of Dyslexia
fMRI Supplemental Info
Stealth Dyslexia
Eides: The Surprising Things We Can Learn from Gifted Dyslexics pdf

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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, January 16, 2012

Pattern Learning and the Brain

From NY Times:

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

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

This is like the Turkey and the Crow.

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 12, 2011

Learning from Exceptions in the Brain

There is a learning style that seems unmistakable in some - and it seems to involve learning from exceptions. These may be children who from a very young age seem to question rules and challenge assumptions. They're kids who if you try to tell them what to think, they may quickly answer, "Actually..."

This learning preference often goes hand-in-hand with novelty and inductive learning because discovering an exception means that you might have to rethink your rules and shuffle your categories. 'Exception' learners are often highly motivated by bizarre facts and incredible stories that might push the limits of what is known, what is done, or what might be possible.

Texas researchers now have shown that learning from exceptions comes from processes originating in the medial temporal lobes, an interesting area of the brain because it's also where episodic memory (memory for personally-experienced events or scenes) lives.

Learners who drive their episodic memory systems over rote (many dyslexics, for instance) prefer experiential learning, learning from exceptions, and reasoning back to simple principles.

The weakness of 'exception' learning is that it may cause one to doubt 'obvious' rules (over-interpreting multiple choice questions for instance) and create chaotic grade records (i.e. "I don't get it" (fail, fail, fail)" - "Oh, I get it." (success)). 'Exception' learners don't feel they understand something until they've had enough examples or data points. They need enough observations to see that a rule exists - but also enough exceptions to distinguish examples or conditions that don't fit with a rule.

The advantage of 'exception' thinking, though, is when you need to break the mold.  If you need a paradigm shift or completely different perspective on a problem, go to the rule breakers.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Memory, Reward, and Dopamine

Nice review of Dopamine and Adaptive Memory from TICS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problems and Perils of Praise
carrot picture

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving in the Brain

We wish you all a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday.

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

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

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

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving week.

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


Monday, November 14, 2011

Complex Development of Moral Sensitivity and Empathy - fMRI

From the Decety lab:

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Brooding Perfectionism -

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

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

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

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

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

Thinker Pic - Flickr Dan MacKay

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Visual Overload and Visual Crowding - When More Means Less

"If there were only 10 problems on a page, I could do them all. But when there are 40 on a page, I can't do any of them." - 10 year old student

Visual overload and visual crowding are common problems in every school classroom or company work group, but the mistakes and errors that result from them are rarely recognized or traced back to their true source. It is a paradox - the more you see, the less you see, but it all makes sense if one recognizes that a child or an adult's visual working memory deskspace can become easily overloaded.

For visual scientists, visual crowding is a specific term that refers to a greater difficulty in seeing when other visual objects are present. When we look at a complex scene, for instance the picture above, it is impossible to take in all the other visual details. It's what causes some people to overload when they go to large gatherings like music concerts, Disneyland in the summertime, or a crowded Home Depot, but also children in crowded classroom, all-school assembly, writing on a scantron, or completing Mad Math Minutes.

Signs of Visual Overload
- Longer processing time, slow reading, and incomplete work on crowded worksheets
- Tantrums, irritability, and overload behaviors in crowded environments
- 'Careless' mistakes and unintentionally skipped problems on worksheets and tests
- Missed words or endings while reading, need to re-read words

Interestingly, a recent report on Visual crowding, reading, and dyslexia found that a visual crowding effect significantly contributed to slowness in word reading, and dyslexics as a group found that increased spacing between letters improved readability. The critical spacing threshold for readability was significantly higher for dyslexics as a group compared to non-dyslexic controls, so it became easier to identify a letter away from the center if the spacing between characters were greater.

Take-home points:

- Critical print size is larger for dyslexics than controls
- Critical spacing between characters is larger for dyslexics than controls
- Reading rate improves with print size to a critical point
- Explains why many dyslexics with excellent verbal funds of knowledge still have trouble reading long words

Classroom and Test Accommodations

In the classroom, more attention should be paid to print size and spacing in daily classroom (worksheets, handouts) and testing materials (as many as 1 in 5 students are dyslexic), and print size and spacing should be considered when purchasing books for students.

Large print books and reader glasses may help some students, whereas font differences (serifs like Times New Roman or hand-written fonts like Papyrus or Comic Sans often preferred) may be more important for others. For students with narrow visual spans (see only few letters at a time), serifs or handwritten fonts may dramatically lessen the work of reading - with serifs or personalized font shapes - it is easier to perceive the overall shape of words, so that even if a reader only sees the first and last letters and general shape of the word, they can make an educated guess about what that word might be even though they are unable to see all the letters.

Many of you are probably aware of this meme from the Internet:

"Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe."

Matt Davis has written more about the science and history of the discovery of this effect here.

Eide Neurolearning Blog: Blessing and burdens of vivid visual thinkers
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Video game training increases visual span
Photo: scantron

Monday, October 24, 2011

Real World vs. Simple Problem Solving

In the Neural Basis of Thinking, Vinod Goel reflects on the puzzle of a brain-injured architect. Although after his injury (R prefrontal cortex), he was still found to have a superior IQ (128 on the WAIS-R), he found himself unable to resume his work as an architect and live independently in the world.

What is it that common psychometric (and many school tests) miss, and how are they different from surviving and thriving in the real world?

Goel found that although the architect could manage the well structured problems of IQ tests well, he was unprepared for a more "real world task" that required him to design a new lab space. When his performance was matched to an architect of similar training and age,  he had trouble transitioning from the problem scoping to problem planning stage, he started planning too late in the exercise,  and he had trouble tying together earlier bits of information into a coherent plan to solve the task. He never made it to the detail stage.

What Goel suggests is that: "the right PFC (prefrontal cortex) plays a selective but critical role in situations where the problem space (1) is very broad and poorly constrained, (2) contains misleading / conflicting information, or (3) contains insufficient information to determine the conclusion. These are all hallmarks of real-world problems." Many have dismissed the right PFC to almost a supporting role to the left PFC, but in other testing paradigms that would seem closer models of real world problem solving (e.g. requiring hypothesis generation or trial-and-error learning),  the right PFC again leaps to prominence.

Goel goes on to speculate: "As standard neuropsychological test batteries consist only of well-structured problems, while real-world problems have both ill-structured and well-structured components (the former preceding the latter), patients may perform well in the lab, but stumble in the real world.

If this is a genuine double dissociation (and if success in the world consists of primarily dealing with the lack of structure), it should be possible to find individuals exhibiting the reverse pattern; ie being very successful in the world by underperforming in the neuropsychology laboratory...Certainly, there are anecdotal stories of individuals who have amassed great power and wealth but would turn in a mediocre performance on IQ tests..."

The idea seems compelling. A host of adults who struggled in school but thrived in real life come to mind (this is not an uncommon profile for dyslexics, for instance).

If we aren't regularly presenting our students with poorly structured problems or open-ended challenges from the real world, maybe we need to change.

Monday, October 17, 2011

High Fluid Intelligence, Gestures, and Simulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 10, 2011

ADHD, Creativity, and Reduced Inhibition

"ADHD may have negative consequences for academic achievement, employment performance, and social relationships. However one positive consequence of ADHD may be enhanced creativity..."

Using the Remote Associates Test as a measure of convergent thinking and Unusual Uses Task as a measure of divergent thinking, White and Shah found that college students with ADHD scored higher than their non-ADHD counterparts on the Unusual Uses Task (fluency, flexibility, and originality), but lower than the control group on the Remote Associates Test.

The authors conclude:

"...the current findings have exciting implications for non-laboratory contexts. Research suggests that different types of creative thinkers may excel at different types of problem-solving (e.g., Finke, 1996; Zhang, 2002). For example, Finke (1996) describes ‘‘chaotic thinkers’’ as individuals who have an unstructured, spontaneous cognitive style (‘‘chaotic cognition’’) that tends to result in original creative products (Finke, 1996). This divergent thinking style may facilitate insight thinking, or ‘‘thinking outside the box’’.... to what extent are the negative consequences of ADHD balanced by some possible benefits? Rather than focusing exclusively on the limitations associated with ADHD, perhaps future studies will address the potential benefits of the uninhibited ADHD mind."

Creativity in Adults with ADHD

Monday, October 03, 2011

Stimulating Creativity and the Brain

In the alternative uses task, test subjects are asked to think of alternative uses of everyday objects like "tin" and "umbrella". If we think of unusual uses rather than typical characteristics, the most striking changes are deactivation of the right parietal lobe and activation of the supramarginal gyrus.

Interestingly, the deactivated area in the right parietal lobe is a similar area deactivated in musical improvisation (Berkowitz and Ansari, 2010) and the left supramarginal gyrus has been implicated in motor planning imagery (praxis) and action-based metaphors such as "reach for the stars" (Tell Tale Brain, VS Ramachandran).

Two additional observations were made from the study - first, that allowing people to incubate about their answers increased the likelihood that they'd have more original answers, and being exposed to some of the creative answers of others stimulated their creativity even more (p > 0.001).

For more on the the benefits of group brainstorming read here. Negative effects on creativity can occur because of "group think" and "social loafing", but positive effects result too because the triggering of new associations, addition of new ideas about the nature of the problem (problem scoping), and social motivational factors to generate more possibilities.

So when we give a student an assignment, how much time do we spend brainstorming with others about different possible ways to answer a question or write a report? If the work seems less creative than we would like, maybe we should think more about 'priming the pump.'

  Enhancing Creativity with Cognitive Stimulation pdf

Monday, September 19, 2011

What Educators Can Learn from Madison Avenue -Bad Design Kills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 12, 2011

Verbal vs. Visual Problem Solving in the Brain

In this research of fMRI problem solving from researchers in Indiana, adoption of a verbal / algebraic vs. visual strategy had similar patterns of activation in brain networks, but the visual strategy was less demanding on working memory, and visual strategies were preferred more often from students who had working memory limitations.

Which strategy would you choose?

The month after April is the month before my favorite month. What is my favorite month?

It's also interesting that individuals with more limited working memory tended to have a reduced reading span (mild dyslexia?).

One question that comes to mind is whether most algebra or logic teachers would teach verbally or algebraically rather than visually. And if so, is that why students with more limited working memories or those with a bias toward spatial problem solving may be being left behind?

Studies such as these are very basic, but surprisingly there are still some educational pedagogues who suggest that teachers should not tailor instruction to different types of learners.