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 http://goo.gl/XZ6AP

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)

‘Heady’ science

My step-dad has Dementia with Lewy bodies. You’ve probably never heard of it, but it’s the second most common type of what may be this century’s most rapidly growing threat to adults’ health — dementia. This year, about 23, 000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer; 1 in 29 of them will  die. More than 10 times that number of Canadians have dementia, and it will kill them all. It was reported in the Globe and Mail (2010) that in 17 years  the number of dementia sufferers worldwide is expected to double. In Canada the prediction is that number will more than double in just 8 years. If that’s not alarming enough, what used to be thought of as a disease of the very old is now hitting people in their 60s.


(my step-dad in Australia)

My step-dad’s brain can no longer make meaning out of sensory input or lose memories. Unless subdued by drugs, he’s beset by hallucinations and delusions, sometimes coupled with uncontrollable frustration and anger. The Lewy bodies — tiny, pernicious lumps of protein forming in the neurons of his brain — act like a clog plugging a drain.

Image Image

They inhibit the flow of neurotransmitters which normally create the electro-chamical signals associated with information processing and relaying of data.  LBD victims don’t tolerate drugs very well, so the prognosis for my step-dad is that the symptoms will worsen until the Lewy bodies finally invade the part of his brain that governs the autonomic nervous system and he reaches what he called, in the months while he could still process what was happening to him, ‘the final solution’.

If dementia were a disease like bird flu it would be considered a pandemic — perhaps one with a slow fuse because deaths come slowly after as much as a decade or more of suffering depending on the age of onset — but one that’s equally relentless and horribly costly in every awful way you can imagine. That’s why the work of neuroscientists such as the speakers who are coming to BDL 2013 this summer is so important. Now that they have evidence that neuroplasticity, neurogenesis, and synaptogenesis are lifelong processes, they are working on interventions that will strengthen existing and grow new neural architecture. Their hope is that the onset of dementia can be delayed and even prevented. With new technology these scientists no longer have to make guesses about the effectiveness of their programs, they can see real results in real time.

Here, then. to introduce you to these revolutionary findings is a 4 part, 2008 documentary by Canada’s David Suzuki  — The Brain that Changes Itself — based on the book by Dr. Norman Doidge.

In the weeks that come, I’ll introduce you to some of the speakers who you’ll hear at BDL13 and to others I’ve encountered on my own journey to learn more about cognitive sciences. I’ll also tell you more about my step-dad and our experiences together during the 6 months I spent with him in Australia earlier this year. My writing in this blog is dedicated to him.