This is one of my favourite visual metaphors for brain function. It may take a few moments for the animation to become apparent. If it stops working, refresh the page or use the link below to Genista’s original & scroll down to the smaller version on his Flickr page. ENJOY!
- Image source (CC BY-SA 20.0): signaling (animated) in Flickr Creative Commons – Attribution by Kai Schreiber (aka Genista), Apr. 2009, at genista/343298796.
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[Adele Diamond, the moving force behind the Brain Development and Learning Conference (see CONFERENCE Tab above), was kind enough to email me this response to my last blog — Willpower, free will, & New Year’s resolutions.]
“Prefrontal cortex (PFC) — to which I have devoted my life’s work — is over-rated. It is true that to learn something new, we need PFC. Thus, novices who recruit PFC most usually perform best (Duncan & Owen, 2000; Durston et al., 2006; Kane & Engle, 2002). However, after something is no longer new, those who recruit PFC least usually perform best (Garavan, Kelley, Rosen, Rao, & Stein, 2000; Jansma, Ramsey, Slagter, & Kahn, 2001).
PFC is the evolutionarily newest region of the brain. Other brain regions, which have had hundreds of thousands more years of evolutionary time to perfect their functioning, can subserve task performance much more efficiently than PFC.
So I need PFC to learn a new dance step, but later if I try to think about what my feet are doing while dancing, I will not dance well. Similarly, children need PFC to learn what sound goes with what letter, but when a fifth grader reads, we no longer want the child to be thinking about letter-sound mapping; we want that to become automatic.
A child may know intellectually (at the level of PFC) that he should not hit another, but in the heat of the moment if that knowledge has not become automatic (passed on from PFC to subcortical regions) the child will do exactly what he should not (and exactly what, if you asked him, he knows he should not do).
Montessori (2007) emphasized the critical importance of the child’s repetition over and over again for education. The only way something becomes automatic (becomes passed off from PFC) is through action — repeated action. The only way we become really good at something, whether it is piano playing or chess [or, I’m guessing, acting in a way that is inherently healthy and not seeing it as a form of self-deprivation], is through repeated practice. Nothing else will do. Aristotle commented on this back in the 4th century BC.
Our expectations often determine outcomes. I suggest that we start with the deeply held conviction that every child is capable of succeeding at what we teach.
When a child is not succeeding, ask yourself how you might do something differently so that this particular child is able to succeed. If we believe every child can succeed then we will push ourselves to think outside the box and try something new and different that might, just might, work for a particular child. Sometimes our testing method is the problem; we are not asking the question in a way that allows children to demonstrate the knowledge and abilities they have (Diamond, Churchiand, Cruess, & Kirkham, 1999; Diamond & Gilbert, 1989; Diamond, Kirkham, & Amso, 2002; Diamond & Lee, 2000; Diamond, Lee, &Hayden, 2003).”
Additional references on the powerful role of expectations and attitude (others’ and your own)
I’m not a great pronouncer of New Year’s resolutions, but it’s impossible for me not to see Jan. 1 as a date for turning over several new, healthier leaves. I usually decide to use this date like a starting gun signalling the beginning of a marathon
to try to lose weight, walk every day, stop procrastinating, and clean up a host of unfinished tasks. Invariably, I end up finding that just thinking about these things makes me too tired to follow through when the time comes. In past I put this down to poor self-control. I gave up after a couple of weeks, but vowed to try again in the spring.
This year I’ve discovered some good news about my failure to persevere: it’s not me!!! Well it is, but it’s not due to some character deficiency. It’s the way my brain is hardwired. There’s neuroscience research to explain my repeated failures in the willpower department. Apparently, the very act of trying to stick to my resolutions sets up the conditions for failure.
First, it seems that exerting willpower sucks up a lot of glucose.
“The mind-body response of exerting willpower literally fatigues us (Tice et al. 2007). … Trying to control one’s thoughts decreases muscle endurance (Bray et al. 2008).
… Simple acts of self-control both require and lower blood glucose levels.” If asked to perform 2 successive tasks requiring self control, participants performed significantly worse on the second one unless “given a sugary drink between tasks (replenishing their blood glucose levels).”
So it seems that if I even think about making myself get up and go for a walk, I’ll need a glucose-restoring sugary snack to help me better resist the next urge to eat something that is not in my healthy meal plan. Arghhhh!!!! All good advice to the contrary, if any of the tips and tricks to help me stick to my resolutions involve exerting self-control, scientifically I’m doomed.
Jonah Lehrer (The Science Behind Failed Resolutions, 2009) cites an interesting study which suggests that part of the problem is that trying to break too many bad habits at once places too great a burden on my pre-frontal cortex (brain region responsible for willpower). The result is “cognitive overload“:
“In one experiment, led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.
… The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. … This research suggests that willpower itself is inherently limited, and that our January promises fail in large part because the brain wasn’t built for [this kind of] success.”
Lehrer cites another study (Baumeister 2007) which also relates the limited attention span of the prefrontal cortex and the resulting lack of self-discipline to glucose deficiency. The best way to keep my willpower in peak condition is to feed it real sugar. Interestingly, the brain can tell the difference between the real stuff and diet substitutes which are of no use whatsoever.
The final bit of research I have to offer is in the form of this fascinating video from Marcus Du Sautoy, Prof. of Mathematics at the University of Oxford (see article).
So if (1) my brain is making the decision to blow my resolutions 7 seconds before I consciously make the choice, and (2) it’s also driving me to consume sugary snacks to replenish the glucose I expend when exerting any sort of self-control, I guess the whole process is doomed from the outset and I’d be better off trying to figure out how to stop thinking of New Year’s as a time of self-renewal.
Is there no hope? Read the next instalment to see what I discover.
I don’t want to be a “Debbie Downer” at this time of year, but a search of ‘neuroscience + Christmas’ which I expected would direct me to research into why we enjoy feelings of ‘comfort and joy’ or ‘peace and goodwill’ especially at this time of year, instead returned these 4 studies:
- Sadness, in this case induced by watching a heart-wrenching video, can make us desperate to buy! buy! buy!
“The authors (2008 Psychological Science study) reason the sad clip caused participants to devalue both their sense of self and current possessions, making them willing to pay more for new material possessions. Presumably, this could re-enhance their sense of self.”
- Deep loneliness can lead to chronic Grinch syndrome.
“People with an acute sense of social isolation appear to have a reduced response to things that make most people happy, and a heightened response to human conflict. … The Grinch is easier to understand given these findings. … Watching [the citizens of Whoville} surround themselves with happy things like ornaments and gifts and food ticks him off, so he determines to inject some strife into the festivities and watch the fallout.”
- Companies are exploiting neuroscience research into obsession and games to induce us to join, befriend, and play.
“Companies now openly discuss compulsion loops. The goal is to [get us to] gather thousands of friends on Facebook [or] followers on Twitter. In the past, society has been able to put physical barriers in place to make it more difficult to satisfy unhealthy obsessions. Today smartphones and portable electronic devices travel with us in our pockets.”
- Especially good news for those of us who live in the northern latitudes, our ‘little grey cells’ in for a sort of ‘perfect storm’ of neuro-chemical havoc at this time of year.
External conditions and behavioural choices at this time of year can lead to changes in brain/body chemistry including: SADD, chronic inflammation, “brain hyperexcitability,” ” low-alpha state resulting in attention-span issues and an inability to concentrate when you return to work,” stress-induced cortisol overload which impairs your memory and ability to multi-task.
Aren’t any brain scientists out there interested happiness, joy, fulfillment, or contentment? If you know of any research into why Christmas is such a wonderful time of year, please send it my way.
Meanwhile, my Christmas wish for you is to take some time to have fun and (even better) to enjoy a good Santa-like laugh that makes you shake all over like a bowl full of jelly. According to Neuroscience for Kids, laughter has been shown to cause positive changes in the autonomic nervous system, to provide a boost to the immune system, and to reduce levels of stress hormones and neurotransmitters including: cortisol, growth hormone, and catecholamines (dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine). I guess Reader’s Digest did have it right: laugher is the best medicine.
I want to add new resources which will be of interest to people coming to BDL 2013 to the interactive library , so today I started searching Twitter hashtags. This took me to an interesting mind map created with a new online tool called BlogSummarizer that turns search results into a visual mind map.
Googling a term like ‘cognition’ gives back an unmanageably long list of items with no apparent organizing principles.
Using BlogSummarizer yields a visual mind map that shows concepts and connections.
Clicking on ‘Brain’ in the graphic returned 5 sources …
and an article about brain scans of people trying to overcome their fear of snakes. One conclusion in the article is it’s easy to mistake physiological signs of courage — i.e. momentary fear suppression — for successful fear eradication. This research may also lead to a way to control fear and phobias with meditation or “transcranial magnetic stimulation” that dampens the activity in the region associated with high fear and courageous response.
One of the themes at BDL2013 will be: Trauma, Stress & Healing; Integrating Mind, Body, & Spirit. Take a look at the brochure for presentations you can attend to find out how traumatic experiences are encoded in neural architecture and techniques you that are being shown effective in promoting healing and the raising of resilient children.
As for those Twitter hashtags I mentioned at the outset? You’ll find a new page under the Interactive Library tab above called “Searching Twitter“. If you want to suggest a hashtag to watch or Twitterer to follow, please reply with a comment. We’ll tweet out your recommendations using the hashtag #BDL_2013. Thanks.
Intervening early to prevent problems is far more effective and costs far less than trying to fix problems once they have been allowed to develop.
Watch this video of Dr. Adele Diamond, the BDL Conference Organizer and one of the Canada’s leading experts on developmental cognitive neuroscience, explaining the importance of early childhood education and how it can make a positive life-long impact.
If you like our blog here are some other blogs you might enjoy:
Pete Quily, an adult ADHD coach in Vancouver, British Columbia, provides current information and advice for adults living with ADHD/ADD.
A blog for people that use assistance/service dogs. The blog’s primary aim is to help people relate their experience and provide information to others that utilize service dogs in their daily lives. Affiliated with West Coast Assistance Teams Society, which provides BC-certified assistance dogs for people with physical and psychiatric disabilities.
Written by CHADD (Children and Adults with ADHD) CEO, E. Clarke Ross, the CHADD Leadership Blog provides a regular commentary on topics pertaining to ADHD.
A former staff writer for the Vancouver Sun discusses issues related to parenting and being a dad in Vancouver.
Dr. Stan Kutcher (renowned teen mental health expert), and David Venn share scientifically-validated information about adolescent mental health. Affiliated with www.teenmentalhealth.org
Gina Pera, author of Is it You, Me, or Adult ADD, explores adult ADD and its impact on family and relationships.