Patchwork brain

signaling (animated) med from devocgneuro1

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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We become what we do over & over & over … (resolutions pt. 2)

[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) image from “io9” (2010) at

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.

Image source: Flickr CC Attribution 11304375@N07/2769553173

Image source: Flickr CC Attribution 11304375@N07/2769553173

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.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons -- Goethe_(Stieler_1828)

Image source: Wikimedia Commons — Goethe_(Stieler_1828)

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)

Willpower, free will, and New Year’s resolutions

Henry Ford Quote from schlueter7
(in Flickr CC, April 20011)

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.

Pie Extravagnaza from robstephaustralia (in Flickr CC Attribution 2009)

First, it seems that exerting willpower sucks up a lot of glucose.

From Dr. Kelly McGonigal at Stanford (2012)

“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.

Apple Cider Donuts from manda_wong (in Flickr CC Attribution Oct. 2010)

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.