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Posts Tagged ‘Brain’

On my way into work this morning I read a great piece in the latest New Yorker titled “Don’t!  The Secret of Self Control.”  Talk about “food for thought!”  Fascinating stuff, especially in the context of giftedness.  For parents and educators, lots to chew on (lame pun, I know.).

The article revisits the famous “marshmallow” experiment done at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School in the late 1960s to identify the mental processes involved in delaying gratification.  A child would be placed in a small room with a plate of treats.  A researcher told the child she could “either eat one marshmallow right away or, if she was willing to wait while he stepped out for a few minutes, she could have two marshmallows when he returned.  He said that if she rang a bell on the desk while he was away he would come running back, and she could eat one marshmallow but would forfeit the second.”  Some kids could wait out the 15 minutes.  Others could barely wait until the researcher was out the door.

The marshmallow task, it turns out, is a “powerfully predictive test.”

Mischel began to notice a link between the children’s academic performance as teen-agers and their ability to wait for the second marshmallow. He asked his daughters to assess their friends academically on a scale of zero to five. Comparing these ratings with the original data set, he saw a correlation. “That’s when I realized I had to do this seriously,” he says. Starting in 1981, Mischel sent out a questionnaire to all the reachable parents, teachers, and academic advisers of the six hundred and fifty-three subjects who had participated in the marshmallow task, who were by then in high school. He asked about every trait he could think of, from their capacity to plan and think ahead to their ability to “cope well with problems” and get along with their peers. He also requested their S.A.T. scores.

Once Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

[Prediction:  Parents around the country are at this very moment conducting their own “marshmallow tests.”   “Emily, we’re going to play a little game….”   C’mon, you know it’s true!]

Researchers are now taking this further and exploring the idea that there is a connection between the ability to delay gratification as a child and success in later life.

For decades, psychologists have focused on raw intelligence as the most important variable when it comes to predicting success in life. Mischel argues that intelligence is largely at the mercy of self-control: even the smartest kids still need to do their homework. “What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control,” Mischel says. “It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”

The next step is to study the actual brain structure and function using MRI scans. A team is also studying school children in several cities to see if self-control can be taught, with all sorts of potentially interesting implications for education.

Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is leading the program. She first grew interested in the subject after working as a high-school math teacher. “For the most part, it was an incredibly frustrating experience,” she says. “I gradually became convinced that trying to teach a teen-ager algebra when they don’t have self-control is a pretty futile exercise.” And so, at the age of thirty-two, Duckworth decided to become a psychologist. One of her main research projects looked at the relationship between self-control and grade-point average. She found that the ability to delay gratification—eighth graders were given a choice between a dollar right away or two dollars the following week—was a far better predictor of academic performance than I.Q. She said that her study shows that “intelligence is really important, but it’s still not as important as self-control.”

Yes, reading this story, one can’t help but immediately think of one’s own children–and do a mental assessment of how they would do if faced with the marshmallow test or similar temptations.  Both of my girls are pretty good at delaying gratification, but in the case of, say, motivation to do homework and to apply oneself intellectually, there is a difference. It’s not that M. isn’t motivated or able to delay gratification. It’s that C. is just compelled to do so to that nth degree more than is typical. That focus, that drive.

I come back again to the lame concept of “wiring.”  Gifted kids–and particularly exceptionally/profoundly gifted kids–are just wired differently.  IQ?  Yes.  But to connect it to Gladwell…it might not just be that they are innately more “talented” (the whole “poked by God” thing from that video I posted recently), but that from somewhere they have the internal drive, the compulsion, the whatever, to focus and to want to practice whatever it is they have a talent for–for 10,000 hours.  Which undercuts the “it’s just lots of practice” folks who want to use Gladwell to dispute the idea of giftedness and prodigy and promulgate the idea that it’s only about hard work, and therefore attainable by all.  Yes, it’s the repetition, experimentation and honing–but it’s the desire and compulsion to do the work (which to these individuals probably isn’t even “work”) coupled with innate talent, that distinguishes them.

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I saw this a few months ago, but I came across it again and thought I’d share.

more about “Beautiful Minds: Stephen Wiltshire“, posted with vodpod

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Can we say obsessed? C. is obsessed.

No, not with the Jonas brothers or whether her eyebrows are the right shape or boys.

WoolC. is obsessed with knitting. But that’s okay. There are worse things to be obsessed with when you’re thirteen.

It all started rather gradually. C. has always been a creative, artistic, crafty kind of kid. A few years ago I showed her how to sew, use a sewing machine, embroider and ultimately how to knit. (My mom taught me these skills too. I was very crafty/artistic at C.’s age…and still am when I have the opportunity.) C. dabbled with them, but for a long time did more beading than anything else.

Then in the past year she rediscovered the fiber arts and took off.

Perhaps it came from a desire to create unique things, perhaps from frustration with being unable to find cool clothes in her size, perhaps from a fascination with vintage clothes…who knows? Anyway, she started visiting the websites ThreadBanger.com and Etsy.com and plugged into the whole hipster/DIY thing. C. tried a few projects, and soon surpassed the basic skill levels required. Knowing of her fascination with the 1940s aesthetic, I pointed her to the Dress a Day blog of TEDster lexicographer Erin McKean. C. bought a vintage dress pattern from one of the advertisers there and threw herself into sewing a dress. (It came out great, btw.) She experimented with machine embroidery, and folding, fusing and sewing plastic shopping bags into purses. She made an intriguing freeform cuff from fabric scraps. She self-designed (no pattern) and sewed a pair of cheesy-retro pattern flannel pajamas…among other things.

In the past few months C. has once again turned her attention to knitting, far surpassing my basic knit-and-purl scarf skills. She’s knitted sweaters. She’s knitted cabled hand-warmers using double-pointed needles, as well as socks. She is spending inordinate amounts of time online looking at knitting websites and blogs, and recently joined an online knitting community. She muses whether she should start this project or that, whether she should buy this yarn or that, and if so, in which color. This afternoon she dyed her own yarn with KoolAid. Where once she took a book everywhere, now she is just as likely to take her knitting.

So what to make of all this? Intuitively I felt that there must be something therapeutically positive going on. For example, I knew that knitting and other handiwork is part of the Waldorf curriculum and an integral part of Waldorf philosophy.

Googling around the Internet I learned more. I came across this UK news article, “Teenagers in Stitches: A new craze for knitting among US teens is having amazing health benefits.” In it Maureen Lasher, a co-author of Teen Knitting Club says, “People are calling it cheap therapy.” Evidently she set out to write a book with simple patterns for teens, but kept hearing stories from them about the curative, de-stressing properties of knitting. I found knitmagic.com, which led me to a selected references that included links like “A Guide for Bringing Knitting and Spinning into Elementary through High School Classrooms” by Cat Bordhi. She (?) writes that:

Knitting develops fine-motor skills, hand-eye coordination, math skills, and what Multiple Intelligences educational researcher Dr. Howard Gardner calls “Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence.” Since both hands hold needles and each hand has its own job, both sides of the brain are engaged and performing an internal rhythmic patterning that underlies the development of language skills, particularly reading, and also math. A classroom community of knitters frequently makes great strides in what Dr. Gardner calls “Interpersonal Intelligence,” as they mentor one another, share conversation while working productively, encourage one another, and enjoy the calming yet challenging task of knitting. In addition, knitting develops key habits that lead to success in academics and in careers: persistence, concentration, and collaboration.

I even turned up references to findings by the Harvard Medical School Mind/Body Institute, that the repetitive actions needed for knitting and crochet can bring the mind and body to a state called a “relaxation response” that is quite similar to what people experience with techniques such as repetitive prayer, yoga, meditation, T’ai Chi, and other relaxation disciplines.

My online “research” was supplemented by a real life encounter. I’m a member of a babysitting cooperative and at a recent meeting the host–a psychologist–was knitting and surrounded by projects in various stages of completion. Conversation naturally turned to…knitting…and its benefits. According to her, everyone in her family–she, husband, two kids–has ADD and is on medication. Knitting, she has found, helps her focus. In fact, at work she dictates her reports into a computer with voice recognition software –while knitting. (Researchers have found nerve endings in the tips of the fingers that connect directly to the area of the brain that regulates attention, she told us.)

As it turns out, C. herself confirmed my hunch in one of her high school application essays. She wrote,

Over the years I have attempted many forms of mediation, and given up just as many. So, I took up crafting. Whether sitting at the machine and listening to the sewing needle click, or sitting on the couch listening to the knitting needles click I feel calmer. The project before me acts as a mantra and I focus on it single-mindedly. I have been known to stay up until one in the morning, sewing shut the final seams. Then there is the feeling of accomplishment that comes from realizing that you have made something that is both beautiful and useful. I feel an extra burst of joy each time I’m done with one of my creations.

“I used to think that knitting without anything to do was boring because all you do is move the needles over and over,” C. wrote in a different essay, “but now I appreciate the time out it gives me.”

I contacted the blogger at www.everywhereknitting.blogspot.com. She’s interested in the phenomenon of knitters who blog (which C. is doing as well) and I posited that many knitters are highly gifted. She wrote me

It seems natural to me that someone who is skilled verbally and considered gifted would take to something like knitting. It’s mathematical and verbal at the same time; it’s solitary and social, too. The curiosity for me is that this very kinetic activity lends itself so well to describing it. Knitters learn a series of symbols and abbreviations very quickly. I think that, unlike many other crafts, you can get your hands moving and “forget” about what you’re doing so your mind is free to think or engage in converstaton or even read.

So there you have it. Tactile. Visually pleasing. Soothing. Intellectually engaging. Communal. Knitting is all these things…and as such a great outlet for a highly gifted child or teen whose “motor” naturally runs fast.

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ADHD? Or just smart?

Talk about an attention-grabbing headline. Today’s most e-mailed New York Times story is titled “Bad Behavior Does Not Doom Pupils, Studies Say.” The story highlights two studies:

    “One concluded that kindergartners who are identified as troubled do as well academically as their peers in elementary school. The other found that children with attention deficit disorders suffer primarily from a delay in brain development, not from a deficit or flaw. Experts say the findings of the two studies, being published today in separate journals, could change the way scientists, teachers and parents understand and manage children who are disruptive or emotionally withdrawn in the early years of school. The studies might even prompt a reassessment of the possible causes of disruptive behavior in some children.”

(For those interested in going to the source, here’s the link to the NIH press release.)

The second study looks a brain development. According to the article:

    “In a normally developing brain, the cerebral cortex — the outer wrapping, where circuits involved in conscious thought are concentrated — thickens during early childhood. It then reverses course and thins out, losing neurons as the brain matures through adolescence. The study found that, on average, the brains of children with A.D.H.D. began this “pruning” process at age 10 ½, about three years later than their peers.

This comes on the heels of stories published in the spring linking the development of the cerebral cortex and intelligence. You can read what the Washington Post said here. Among the interesting points in that article:

    “The scans showed that children with the highest IQs began with a relatively thin cortex — the folded outer layer of the brain that is involved in complex thinking — which rapidly grew thicker before reaching a peak and then rapidly becoming thinner, said Philip Shaw, the lead investigator. Children of average intelligence had a thicker cortex around age 6, but by around 13 it was thinner than in children of superior intelligence.

Interesting…

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